Chapter 6. – THE AFTERMATH OF ” EASTER WEEK “
THE AFTERMATH OF ” EASTER WEEK “
” REBELLION like any other potent remedy indulged in too often can become a habit, a body and soul-destroying habit. It is not inaccurate to say that the senseless campaign of destruction now being waged by the madmen who have chosen to follow De Valera and the other ‘uncompromising Republicans’ is a direct consequence of the rising of Easter Week. It is an old story in Irish history the story of misguided men mistaking the means for the end.”
Collins thus approached the subject of the outstanding consequences of the 1916 rebellion
” The immediate consequences,” he continued, ” may be divided into two parts the consequences at home and the consequences abroad.
” The result at home was that although not only did the British have in custody the men who had actually taken part hi the righting, but also the political activists from nearly every part of the country nevertheless, the national spirit reawakened with marvellous promptitude. Popular feeling went entirely in favour of the insurgents, and it was thus possible for reorganisation to begin at an early date. Large and ever increasing numbers gave their adherence to the cause that was espoused in Easter Week, and more and more Irish eyes turned from the futility of representation in the British Parliament at Westminster, and of agitation there, to the utility of organisation at home and reliance on their own effort at home.
” Abroad the insurrection made it clear before people’s minds that the Irish question had still to be settled, and had the effect of showing up Britain’s claim to be the incorruptible champion of small nations. In my own estimation the rising and the subsequent revival in Ireland, and the importance of the rising in its international character, were all inseparable from the thought and hope of a German victory. Ireland’s position at that time was to look to the Peace Conference for a settlement of the age-long dispute between Britain and herself.”
” Is it your opinion,” I asked, ” that a German victory would have been better for Ireland than the Allied victory ? ”
” We thought so then,” Collins replied. ” Our aim was to win our freedom. We believed that the worse England’s plight was the better was our chance to compel her to grant our demand. I doubt if any of us looked so far ahead as to consider whether our freedom once won we could function most successfully with a triumphant Germany in the European saddle, and an England economically smashed. I think our only concern then was to win our freedom first, and let what followed take care of itself.
” We were not pro-German during the war any more than we were pro-Bulgarian, pro-Turk, or anti-French. We were anti-British, pursuing our age-long policy against the common enemy. We were a weak nation kept in subjection by a stronger one, and we formed and adopted our policy in light of this fact. We remembered that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity, and we took advantage of her engagement elsewhere to make a bid for freedom. The odds between us were for the moment a little less unequal. Our hostility to England was the common factor between Germany and ourselves. We made common cause with France when France was fighting England. We made common cause with Spain when Spain was fighting England. We made common cause with the Dutch when the Dutch were fighting England.
” BASES IN IRELAND FOR GERMAN SUBMARINES ? ”
Collins repeated my interjected question with an uplifting of his eyebrows, and a smile creeping into his eyes. For a space it seemed as if he were seeking a discreet answer, Then, the smile widening, he said, ” OF COURSE NOT ! WHO COULD IMAGINE SUCH A THING ? ” SUBSEQUENTLY I LEARNED FROM AN INDISPUTABLY AUTHORITATIVE SOURCE THAT ON ONE OCCASION DURING THE TREATY NEGOTIATIONS IN LONDON WINSTON CHURCHILL AND ADMIRAL BEATTY PRODUCED AN ADMIRALTY MAP OF THE BRITISH ISLES AND SHOWED IT TO COLLINS. A REDHEADED PIN INDICATED THE POSITION OF EVERY SHIP SUNK IN THOSE WATERS BY GERMAN SUBMARINES. BY FAR THE GREATEST NUMBER DOTTED THE IRISH COAST
” The general mental attitude of a greater part of the Irish people,” Collins continued, ” was aptly described by a member of Dail Eireann, who declared with fervent sincerity that the day he had ceased to fight for the Irish Republic was the day he had ceased to be interested in it ! I think this mental distortion goes a long way towards explaining the otherwise inexplicable madness of these irregulars now laying waste their own country. Under the leadership of men who are either fanatics or scoundrels, the Irregulars cherish the delusion that in destroying Ireland they are sanctifying her. But to return to the immediate aftermath of the rising.
” On the whole, it would, I think, be difficult to name any incident between April and December, 1916, as a ‘ high spot.’ The one eventful thing that happened in this period was scarcely a high spot, but rather a low spot. It was the agreement of the Northern Convention of Nationalists to Partition. Aside from this one isolated incident, the Irish people responded well. A certain amount of reorganisation was effected throughout the country, and the revival of the national spirit was very marked. Just before Christmas of that year occurred probably the most important event of the whole period. It was the release of all the interned prisoners. Their release enabled us to make a really long stride in reorganisation.
” De Valera has been fond of citing the apathy of the American colonists as analogous to the lack of fervid support accorded us in those first months following the rising.
I have heard Erskine Childers liken De Valera to George Washington and I have long suspected that De Valera does not dislike the parallel. It is a fact, of course, that only in garbled versions of history are a whole people shown to be as keenly determined in any cause as their leaders. Undoubtedly those of us who had had the wonderful inspiration that came from intimate association with such mighty Fenians as Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott were more grimly determined to win the fight they had died to win than peaceably inclined folk who lacked that inspiriting association. Yet the results of the first eight months following the rising were all that could have been expected.
” The first important event of 1917 was the Parliamentary election for the North Roscommon Division. Here was an opportunity to measure the extent to which the national spirit had been revived. We seized the opportunity and contested this election against the old Irish Parliamentary party. But let no present-day stalwart above all, let De Valera not attempt to forget one curious and instructive feature of that election campaign ! It was fought only five years ago but our candidate on that occasion did not even make abstention from Westminster part of his pre-election platform. The prominent workers studiously avoided mention of this subject. As for the Irish Republic so far as that campaign was concerned, it had ceased to exist!
” It is well to face the facts in matters of this kind and to tell the truth, however unpalatable the truth may now be to those who call themselves uncompromising Republicans. Therefore, let it be recorded that the greatest amount of support for our candidate in that election came from the Irish National League which did not approve of abstention from Westminster ! For the rest, our supporters were chiefly persons who had become entirely dissatisfied with the policy of the Irish Parliamentary party.
” SO MUCH HAD THE REPUBLIC OF EASTER WEEK BEEN FORGOTTEN, AND SO LITTLE HAD THE TEACHINGS YET PENETRATED INTO THE MINDS OF THE PEOPLE, THAT ALTHOUGH OUR CANDIDATE WAS COUNT PLUNKETT WHOSE SON HAD BEEN MARTYRED AFTER THE RISING HE WAS RETURNED ONLY ON THE GROUND OF HIS OPPOSITION TO THE IRISH PARTY CANDIDATES ! IT WAS ONLY AFTER HIS ELECTION THAT HE DECLARED HIS INTENTION NOT TO GO TO WESTMINSTER, AND THE ANNOUNCEMENT WAS NOT RECEIVED VERY ENTHUSIASTICALLY BY SOME OF THE MOST ENERGETIC OF HIS SUPPORTERS. THEY HAD ELECTED A MAN, THEY SAID, ‘ WHO DID NOT INTEND TO REPRESENT THEM ANYWHERE.’
” The next event of importance in 1917 was the arrest of Sinn Feiners in Dublin and throughout the country. More than forty men of influence in their communities, important local figures aside from their Sinn Fein affiliations, were deported to England. They were not actually imprisoned and both their activities and their prestige increased rather than diminished as a result of their temporary banishment. It was but one of many similar instances of English Governmental stupidity of England’s unwitting aid in arousing the Irish people to that national unity which finally forced the ancient enemy to give us freedom. The deported forty, relieved of the necessity of pursuing their usual, personal occupations, were able to devote all of their time to furthering the aims of Sinn Fein. Their presence in England lent to their work an especial significance ! But that is a story to be told elsewhere.
” Meantime, we at home were not idle. Following our victory in North Roscommon, reorganisation proceeded more rapidly than before. Two committees were now actively working the old Sinn Fein committee and the new committee formed of members of the original committee and others who had been prominent workers in the North Roscommon campaign. As part of the reorganisation scheme a proposal was made that we should send a circular to all the public bodies in Ireland asking them to appoint delegates to a conference to be held in Dublin. Many of these public bodies did not even respond, and many of them carried the resolution to send delegates only by a bare majority. The greatest proportion of support came from the South. The conference was held, and it was decided to organise the country on the basis of abstention from the Westminster Parliament and a general policy of virile opposition against British rule in Ireland.
” While arrangements were proceeding for this conference, a vacancy arose for the Parliamentary Division of South Longford. Feeling in South Longford was not advanced politically, and the wisdom of putting forward a candidate from our side was questioned by many. However, we decided to adopt the bold course, and we put forward the name of Joe McGuinness, who was then serving a penal servitude sentence in Lewes. The election was warmly contested. Our principal appeal to the electorate was evidenced by two of our slogans ‘ The man in jail for Ireland ‘ and ‘ Put him in to get him out.’ All of us worked hard for the felon candidate, and he was returned a winner by a majority of 27 votes.
” Once again let me emphasise a fact that cannot be gainsaid. At that election the Irish Republic was not an issue. Our uncompromising Republicans were yet to announce themselves. Joe McGuinness triumphed only because the people remembered Easter Week, and the men who died for it.
” And then followed almost immediately complete corroboration of our election slogan. The British Government released all of the penal servitude prisoners from Lewes ! These releases gave the final fillip to the reorganisation scheme, and were, of course, acclaimed a great triumph for our cause.
” Among these prisoners were three men who had served in the rising as commandants. One of them was De Valera. Then, as always afterwards, De Valera exercised an ascendancy over Harry Boland that amounted almost to hypnotic control. Boland’s devotion to De Valera was the kind that is born of hero-worship. I am convinced Boland believed that Ireland’s salvation was inseparably bound up in the person of De Valera. I have every reason to believe that Boland was absolutely sincere in this. But out of this situation arose a remarkable sequence of closely related consequences.
” Some time prior to their release De Valera and Boland and several others were being transferred from Dartmoor to Lewes. On the journey Boland managed to write a note, unobserved by the guards, and dropped it out of the window of the railway coach. He had addressed the envelope to a friend in Dublin. Curiously enough, it was picked up by an Irish girl walking along the tracks. She posted it, and in due course Boland’s eulogy of De Valera- for that was what he had written reached its destination. According to the note (and it must be borne in mind that at that time nobody in Ireland had any idea of the truth about their fellow-countrymen imprisoned in England), De Valera had been unanimously proclaimed their leader, and eventually would prove himself worthy of being leader of the whole Irish nation. The news spread like wildfire. In a week De Valera leaped from relative obscurity into first place in the hearts of the Irish people. It was exactly what had been lacking until then a romantic figure, persecuted by the hereditary enemy a martyred, living hero !
” Just before the releases, and while the new De Valera hero-legend was spreading throughout the country, a vacancy occurred in Clare, the constituency in which De Valera belonged. Here was another golden opportunity With De Valera as our candidate we scored an impressive victory, winning for him a majority of almost 3,000 out of an electorate of 8,000. This victory sounded the death knell of the Irish Parliamentary party. But that was not its chief distinctive feature. It marked the beginning of public agitation in favour of the Irish Republic.
” De Valera in an English prison had obviously nothing to do with the injection of this new note in the election campaign. The talk in favour of the Irish Republic was spontaneous. At last our teachings, the lesson of Easter Week, the ultimate ideals of the men who had died for Ireland were beginning to be understood. But it is as well to bear in mind that in Clare where the political spirit was strong their own people for ‘ letting down the Republic ‘ know that their accusation is false. The declaration of a Republic by the leaders of the rising was far in advance of national thought. It was only after two years of propaganda that we were able to get solidity on the idea. Our real want was so simple, so old, so urgent liberation from English occupation it is not surprising that doctrinaire Republicanism made little appeal to the Irish people.
” The truth is best served by plain speaking. The Irish people at this moment are not wedded to the theory of a Republican form of government. There is only one reason why the Irish people have ever wanted a Republic it is because the British form of government is monarchical ! To express as emphatically as possible our desire to be different from England we declared a Republic ! We repudiated the British form of government not because it was monarchical, but because it was British ! If England were a Republic we undoubtedly would find a descendant of an Irish king and establish a monarchy ! So much for the inherent virtue of a Republic as Irish eyes see it ! ”
Collins made it plain that the interview had lasted as long as he could afford to have it. As always, he disguised his dismissal of me with characteristic tact.
” And now I’ll be getting on with the affairs of the Irish Free State,” he announced. As he spoke there was that suspicion of a chuckle in his voice that always preceded his making a joke. ” I suppose,” he added, “I’d have no time for you at all if this were a Republic ! ”
” Tomorrow night,” he continued seriously, “I’m going to have you meet the one man who was closer in the confidence of the leaders of the rising than any other man alive today Sean McGarry. There are many things he can tell you of the days before the rising, and, of them all, I am myself most anxious to hear the real story of the gunrunning at Howth, and just what part Erskine Childers played in it.”