1916. Easter. The Rising. We all know the story. But do we? What drove those remarkable men and women to take on such an enormous task when all the circumstances would have discouraged most revolutionaries? So why did they do it – and on that particular Monday?
This choice of Easter for the 1916 Rising had its origins in the preceding years. Padraig Pearse, who read out the Proclamation and was one of those who signed it, had shown great personal interest in the Gospels’ account of the death of Christ. His sister Mary later wrote that Pearse’s greatest devotion was “to Christ and the crucifix.”
You can’t miss it when you examine his own writing. Pearse was an educator, a poet and a playwright. At the end of his best-known play, The Singer, the hero, MacDara, goes out to fight the Gall – against innumerable odds – with these words: ‘One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world. I will take no pike, I will go into the battle with bare hands. I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on a tree.’”
Another signatory of the Proclamation, Thomas McDonagh, prepared a speech in his own hand-writing for his court-martial. He saw himself as part of “a small section of the great, unnumbered company of martyrs, whose Captain is the Christ who died on Calvary.”
Even James Connolly, not previously known as a religious man, wrote in February 1916, “Without the slightest trace of irreverence, but in all due humility and awe, we recognise that of us, as of mankind before Calvary, it may truly be said ‘without the shedding of blood there is no redemption’”, quoting a significant New Testament passage about the death of Christ.
But then, as you read further, you begin to see that these revolutionaries had more on their mind than just the Passion of Christ. They speak of other symbols of ancient Ireland like Cuchulain and Caitilín ni hUllacháin.
In 1908 Pearse had founded St. Enda’s School in the Dublin suburbs. One of the first things to be seen was a large mural of the young Cuchulain taking his weapons; in the same hall, there was also Beatrice Elvery’s painting of Christ as a boy, with arms outstretched in the cruciform position.
As early as April 1902 W.B. Yeats’ play Cathleen Ni Houlihan had fired the imagination of Irish nationalists, even on its opening night. It enacted the myth of Ireland being re-juvenated by the sacrifice of young men. Thirty-six years later the impact of this play still troubled Yeats who wrote, shortly before his death:
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Pearse wasn’t the only poet involved in the Rising. Another, Joseph Mary Plunkett wrote:
Praise God if this my blood fulfils the doom
When you, dark rose, shall redden into bloom
He is asking God to allow him to sacrifice his own life for Ireland, personified as Caitilín ni hUllacháin. Ireland is then symbolized, in the last line, as the little dark rose which will turn red and blossom with the patriot’s blood.
So it looks like this sacrifice element of the Rising was an acting out of the pagan idea of “sacrifice for the land” which harks back to pre-Christian Ireland and was brought into the early 20th century Irish nationalism mainly through the literary revival, much of which was far from Christian and invoked the pagan gods.
Nevertheless, Pearse also used the illustration of Christ’s sacrifice probably because it was the tradition with which he was most familiar since childhood. As S.W Gilley says in Pearse’s Sacrifice, “There is an easy transition in Pearse’s work from the blood of Cuchulain to the blood of Christ, and from there to the blood of the Irish political martyrs, and so to a more explicit enunciation of the underlying doctrine that the shedding of blood makes men holy.”
Sometimes it’s not even clear who is dying. Pearse wrote, “The people itself will perhaps be its own Messiah, the people labouring, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonising and dying, to rise again immortal and impassable. For peoples are divine …If we do not believe in the divinity of our people we have had no business, or very little, all these years in the Gaelic League.” “The people who wept in Gethsemane, who trod the sorrowful way, who died naked on a cross, who went down into hell, will rise again glorious and immortal, will sit on the fight hand of God, and will come in the end to give judgement, a judge just and terrible.”
Indeed Pearse’s basic idea was a pagan one of blood sacrifice, whoever’s blood that might be. In his last address to his pupils at St Enda’s School in Rathfarnham he returned to one of his favourite themes: “It had taken the blood of the Son of God to redeem the world. It would take the blood of the sons of Ireland to redeem Ireland.”
Fifty years after the Rising, Augustine Martin summed up the era: “By then, Stephens in common with Russell, Yeats and most sensitive Irishmen, realised that what they had witnessed in the Dublin streets had been as much a ritual as a battle. And in their subsequent poetry we see that the sacrificial aspect of the Rising is recognized. Pearse’s doctrine of a blood sacrifice is a recurrent symbol.”
You can understand Fintan O’Toole’s succinct summary: “The founding act of the modern Irish State – the 1916 Rising – is a religious as much as a political act, and conceived by its leader, Patrick Pearse, as such.”
And it wasn’t just in the South that blood was being invoked. In September 1912 many Ulster Protestants had likewise veered into pagan thinking with a “blood covenant” when they signed the “Solemn League and Covenant” opposing Home Rule in their own blood.
In their account of that occasion Monaghan and Blake rightly comment, “The use of blood covenants was unchristian…the covenants drew their power from the analogy with the Blood Covenant of God with his people which was fulfilled in the death of Jesus.”
“‘Elsewhere Easter is celebrated as the Feast of the Resurrection’, remarked Terence de Vere White: ‘In Dublin it is celebrated as the Feast of the Insurrection.’” This year as we commemorate 100th anniversary of the birth of our modern Irish nation, let’s first of all take the time to celebrate the Real Rising – the rising of Jesus from the dead. It was different. Here’s how different it was:
- Supremely, Christ rose again from the dead! If he had just died and that was the end of it we would never have known whether his sacrifice for us had worked. By gloriously coming back to life his claims to offer forgiveness were vindicated.
- Because he has done the dying for us he is now free to give forgiveness to all-comers who turn themselves in for his amnesty.
- Also Christ wasn’t saying, “I’ll die – so you can rise”. He died and rose again so we could have a guarantee of our own personal rising again when the time comes.
- Christ was a perfect Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked and we’d be in real trouble by now.
- Christ was offering a much more powerful freedom – internal freedom inside in your heart and head, including freedom from hatred.
- It didn’t finish with the Resurrection. He the gave his Spirit (not a mythical, mystic force) who is well capable of delivering on his promise to make us new people.
As Mrs Tancred says at the end of Seán O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock: “Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! Take away this murdherin’ hate, an’ give us Thine own eternal love!”
We can make that kind of prayer our own today – because of the Real Easter Rising. What a great way to celebrate the birth of the nation!
 M. Pearse, The Home Life of Padraig Pearse (Dublin and Belfast 1934), 141
 A. Martin, Studies, Spring 1966, 41
 T. McDonagh, South Dublin Libraries http://source.southdublinlibraries.ie/bitstream/10599/9773/16/ThomasMacDonaghSpeech_transcribed.pdf
 C.D. Graves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (London: 1961) , 318-319
 Hebrews 9:22
 E. O’Brien, in Ireland at War and Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press 2011), 19
 (Martin 1966), 47
 (Martin 1966), 42
 S.W. Gilley Pearse’s sacrifice: Christ and Cuchulain Crucified and Risen in the Easter Rising, 1916 in Sacrifice and Redemption (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 218
 P.H. Pearse, Collected Works of Padraig H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin, Phoenix, 1917-1922 vol.2, 91-92
 (Pearse 1922), 345
 P.H. Pearse The Story of a Success, Being a Record of St Enda’s College September 1908 to Easter 1916, ed. Desmond Ryan ( Dublin and London: Maunsel, 1917), 98
 (Martin 1966), 38-39
 F. O’Toole, Black Hole, Green Card: The Disappearance of Ireland (1994)
 Paddy Monaghan & David Blake, Ireland the Blood Sacrifice in The Presbyterian Herald (July 1986), 40
 C. Cruise O’Brien States of Ireland (London: Hutchinson, 1973), 308
 S. O’Casey Juno and the Paycock in Three Dublin Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 146