I’ve made reference before to one of the great myths of the Easter Rising of 1916. That is, the absence of popular support among the broad swathe of the Irish people for the failed national insurrection, indeed the hostility and opposition that folk memory insists was universal across the island. Unfortunately communal history is as susceptible to official narratives as any printed equivalent, and the agreed account of 1916 was one derived from the imperial corridors of power in London and their colonial extensions in Dublin. By political and military necessity at the height of World War I, as the empire bled itself dry upon the battlefields of Europe and beyond, the republican revolution became a treasonous rebellion, the freedom-seeking insurrectionists became death-seeking fanatics, the expressed desire of thousands the corrupted cultism of hundreds. It was an understanding, a diktat of perception that the collaborating classes of Ireland, nationalist and unionist, parties and newspapers, readily agreed to.
In reality the domestic reaction to the Easter Rising was far more mixed, far more nuanced, than most observers were willing or able to admit. It did not take staggered executions by British military firing squads to shift public opinion across the country. Imperial revenge merely accelerated an existing groundswell of opinion. In the contemporary words of a woman standing with a large crowd on the streets of Dublin cheering a column of captured “rebels”, and spoken to the Canadian journalist and arch-imperialist, Frederick Arthur McKenzie: “Sure, we cheer them. Why wouldn’t we? Aren’t they our own flesh and blood.”
Revolutions have been compared to the kicking down of a rotten door, but the revolutionaries of 1916 discovered that the one facing them was not just rotten but already half ajar. Even the British found it necessary, at times, to admit that the situation in Dublin that fateful April had been far more complex than newspaper reports or House of Commons’ speeches allowed. For instance in mid-May 1916, General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, the military governor of Ireland following the Easter Rising, issued a statement defending his troops as news of the North King Street Massacre of April 28th spread across the globe. Explaining away the murders of fifteen men and boys by rampaging soldiers of the South Staffordshire Regiment on the last day of the insurrection, Maxwell claimed that:
“We tried hard to get the women and children to leave North King Street. They would not go, their sympathies were with the rebels.”
Even the best intentioned propaganda, it seems, has its limits of applicability.