The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from an Old English word which usually appears in the form Ēastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre. The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk, the Venerable Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”. And so it is today..
The “Easter Rising” of 1916 celebrated by republican nationalists had its real roots in the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth century. In 1884 was formed the Gaelic Athletic Association which promoted Hurling and Gaelic Football and forbad the playing of foreign games. In 1893 the Anglican, Douglas Hyde, founded the Gaelic League, which ironically had as its aim the “de-Anglicisation” of Ireland. From this sprang Gaelic nationalism “Ireland not free only, but Gaelic as well, not Gaelic only but free as well.” Strangely enough a pseudo-Celtic twilight culture was created by such “Anglo-Irish” as Willam Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, which anglicised the old Gaelic literature out of all recognition. The political manifestation of this “Gaelic revival” was the foundation of Sinn Fein – “We Ourselves” in 1905, founded and later led by Arthur Griffith. This movement was soon attracted to and taken over by the veteran and militant Fenian movement.
Griffith was born at 61 Upper Dominick Street, Dublin, Ireland on 31 March 1872, of Welsh lineage, and was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers. The charge of anti-semitism has often been levelled at Griffith. He published articles signed by ‘The Home Secretary’ in his newspaper, the United Irishman, during the Dreyfus Affair which displayed clear hatred for Jews. Even after Alfred Dreyfus had been pardoned Griffith remained virulently Anti-Dreyfusard. In 1899 he wrote in the United Irishman:
I have in former years often declared that the Three Evil Influences of the century were the Pirate, the Freemason, and the Jew.
Following the Dreyfus Affair, an article in the 16 September 1899 edition of the United Irishman stated:
A few days ago a Jew traitor, who had sold the most vital secrets of France to her military enemies, was condemned to the mild punishment of imprisonment, after his guilt had been for a second time in five years demonstrated to a court martial of his comrades … The simple fact is that the whole European world, with the exception of the Anglo-Jew coalition and its Irish sycophants, is utterly indifferent to the traitor’s fate.
At the same time there was a growth of Marxist philosophy and an active socialist movement was led by James Connolly of Edinburgh and James Larkin of Liverpool. Connolly, however, tried to use Gaelic nationalism to further his own ideals, thus compromising the labour movement in both Britain and Ireland. The blending of Roman Catholic and Celtic mysticism created in people as diverse as Patrick Pearce and James Connolly the myth of the blood sacrifice which was thus to have lasting consequences.
1913 saw the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force under Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig to resist such threats to their British heritage. With the help of the former British Army officer Captain Jack White of Broughshane, James Connolly set up the Irish Citizens’ Army while Eoin Mac Neill of the Gaelic League, who came from Glenarm, formed the Irish Volunteers. But the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 averted civil hostilities and Irishmen of all persuasions sailed to Europe to fight either for the King and an Empire which was already in decline or for the independent rights of small nations against an expanding German one. The Irish Republican (Fenian Brotherhood) leaders saw this as an opportunity for revolt and a republican uprising was effected without success during Easter 1916.
The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were naturally civilians, as the insurrection took place irresponsibly in a peaceful city centre celebrating the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. The Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army recorded 64 killed in action, but other casualties were not divided into rebels and civilians. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of our British soldiers killed were Irishmen. Their families came to Dublin Castle in May 1916 to reclaim the bodies and funerals were arranged, and bodies which were not claimed were given military funerals in Grangegorman Military Cemetery.
Most notorious of the insurgents was also Anglo-Irish, the bogus Countess Markievicz, born Constance Gore-Booth, near Buckingham Place in London, who killed in cold blood the unarmed constable Michael Lahiff, the son of a peasant family from County Clare. Then there was the Scottish sniper and assassin Margaret Skinnider of the Irish Citizens’ Army, who threw a high-explosive fragmentation bomb into the crowded Shelbourne hotel in Dublin. Both of these vicious people masqueraded under the cloak of humanitarianism and the rights of women and the poor. Both escaped execution because they were, indeed, women.
Sexually obsessed as he was with the republican nationalist English-born Maude Gonne, also of Anglo-Irish stock and birth, the insurrection and the subsequent execution of its leaders evinced a “terrible beauty” in the eyes of William Butler Yeats, at a time when thousands of Irishmen were dying unsung in Flanders. On 1st July 1916 the 36th Ulster Division sustained 5,500 casualties at the Battle of the Somme, a sacrifice greater by far, as were the losses of the mainly Catholic 16th Irish Division, fighting the “gallant allies” of the insurgents, who wished to make Ireland an Austrian colony. Nevertheless, in 1918 Sinn Fein won a majority of Irish seats at Westminster and the first self-styled Dail Eireann (Government of Ireland) met in Dublin the following year.
The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, tried a compromise settlement in 1920, which provided for separate parliaments in Northern and Southern Ireland. Northern Ireland consisted of the whole of Old Ulster (Ulidia) ie Antrim and Down, as well as four other counties of the contemporary English provincial configuration of Ulster,which consisted of nine counties.
The other lost twenty-six counties became the Irish Free State in 1922, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, but the dominion status of the new State was not acceptable to republicans. Arthur Griffith served as President of Dáil Éireann from January to August 1922, and was head of the Irish delegation at the negotiations in London that produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty, attending with Michael Collins, leader of a death “Squad” gang of assassins. Civil War then erupted between pro- and anti-treaty factions, the former led by Michael Collins, the latter by Eamonn de Valera. During the last six months of this war nearly twice as many republican prisoners were executed by the authorities of the Free State as were executed by the British in the whole period from 1916 to 1921.
In 1926 de Valera formed his Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny) Party. The Free State Party lost power to Fianna Fail in 1933 and changed its name to Fine Gael (Tribe of Gaels) the following year. How many of either party were Gaels in either language, culture or ethnic origin is open to question. Most were actually of British decent . De Valera’s basic Roman Catholic Nationalism was highlighted by a radio broadcast on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1935, when he said “since the coming of Saint Patrick, Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic Nation, she remains a Catholic nation.”
This statement demonstrates, according to Conor Cruise O’Brien, the peculiar nature of Irish Nationalism, as it is actually felt, not as it is rhetorically expressed. The nation is felt to be the Gaelic Nation, Catholic in religion. Protestants are welcome to join this nation. If they do they may or may not retain their religious profession but they become as it were Catholic by nationality. In 1937 de Valera was thus able to produce a new constitution which was in essence a documentation of contemporary Roman Catholic social theory.
During the second Great War in 1939-1945, the Irish Free State remained neutral. The Gaelic nationalists had much in common with Fascist Spain but baulked at assisting the German Nazis. During April and May 1941, as the price of its loyalty to the allied cause, Belfast suffered four air raids by German Bombers. There was heavy loss of life – almost 1000 died – 2500 were injured, many of them seriously. In the air raid of Easter Tuesday 1941 no other city in the United Kingdom save London, suffered such a high death toll in one night. No other city except possibly Liverpool ever did. Following the war Southern Ireland left the British Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland was formally instituted on Easter Monday 1949.
Thus it is that both Easter and 1916 have different connotations for different sections of our community. It is particularly unfortunate that the Easter Lily, which in reality symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, should be used as a partisan and essentially blasphemous symbol in our society, for the insurgents were followers of Barabbas, not of Jesus. As the people of Northern Ireland take their first tentative steps on the road to a new pluralism, we would be better served by adopting symbols which make us more fully aware of the extent of our inter-related characteristics and Common Identity, not just with each other, but with the other peoples of these Isles of the Pretani, rather than persisting with those which divide us.