The legacy of the failed Easter Rising of 1916 reverberated throughout Ireland for generations, but it was felt in Scotland too, according to a new essay collection
Scotland and the Easter Rising edited by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley | Luath Press, 238pp, £12.99
The Easter Rising of 1916 was an act of criminal, indeed treasonable, folly, a rebellion two years into the Great War. Undertaken in some sort of collusion with Germany, but with no chance of success, it had no popular support in Dublin (where more than 400 civilians were killed in the fighting) and met with the disapproval of the representatives of Irish communities in Scotland and England. It would have done great damage to the cause of Irish Nationalism if the UK government had responded intelligently. Instead the rebel leaders were court-martialled and executed by firing-squad. Sir Roger Casement, who had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany and arranged for the shipment of 20,000 German rifles, was arrested, tried as a traitor and hanged in London. The government’s brutal stupidity made the Rising’s leaders into martyrs. The whole thing was a catastrophe. It destroyed John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which had secured the passage of an Irish Home Rule Act in 1914 (though the war delayed its implementation). The consequence was years of repression and war, 1919-22, and then civil war in Ireland after the signing of the Treaty which partitioned the country between those nationalists who accepted the Treaty and those who rejected it.
This collection of essays is concerned with Scotland and the Rising. Little attention is paid to the immediate Scottish reaction which was almost entirely hostile to the rebels, not surprisingly because of the extent and depth of Scottish engagement in the war against Germany. Presbyterian Scots saw the Rising as a stab in the back. Irish Scots, especially Catholic ones, reasonably feared that it would intensify the discrimination they already suffered. One might add that the Rising and the armed struggle after 1918 set back the cause of Scottish Home Rule for generations.
These essays are of very varying quality. There is a masterly afterword by Owen Dudley Edwards who argues, among other things, that Germany hoped to provoke brutal British repression which would enflame American opinion and deter the USA from entering the war on the Allied side. There is an excellent very personal one by Kevin McKenna, exploring his own sense of dual loyalties as a third generation Irish Catholic Scot, and a characteristically intelligent piece by the late Ian Bell, the great-nephew of the Edinburgh-born Socialist James Connolly, executed for his role in the Rising. But even Bell can’t explain why a man of Connolly’s intelligence and integrity who had almost nothing in common with dreamers like Patrick Pearse, who talked romantically – and horribly – of the need for a “blood sacrifice”, should have involved himself in such an ill-prepared and doomed enterprise.
The book, put together by people who were active in the “Yes” campaign in our own referendum – though standing to the left of the SNP – is naturally sympathetic to the Rising on account of its anti-British, anti-imperialist temper. Some of the essays, notably Allan Armstrong’s, are more concerned with that referendum than with any examination of the Easter Rising. He writes that “a political space is opening up in which we can, look again at the 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic”. “The Union,” he concludes, “should not only be shaken but broken, showing that Another Ireland, Another Scotland and Another World Are Possible”. The capital letters are strident. Evidently the 55 per cent who voted “No” to independence in September 2014 are to be discounted – likewise, one assumes, the Unionists of Northern Ireland.
The Easter Rising does actually have some relevance to Scotland today. Despairing unnecessarily of peaceful constitutional change, Irish nationalism resorted to the gun. It indulged in the cult of blood and violence in 1916 and the years following, and more recently throughout the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Scottish Nationalism, as expressed by the SNP, looked at Ireland and Irish history, and turned away in horror. It chose the ballot-box, not the bullet, and followed a civic constitutional course. Alex Salmond has talked with justified pride of his party’s commitment to a nationalism without violence, a nationalism which aims to win by persuasion. There is a nationalist government in Edinburgh and nobody has been killed. We do things better in Scotland than they did in Ireland.