“If you strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion of freedom.”
- Padraig Pearse – Irish poet/rebel/revolutionary
A few months ago, I had my DNA tested and discovered to my dismay that I may not be as Irish as my mother always led me to believe.
Tests may reveal some scientific details, but they can’t peer inside a man’s heart. I maintain that my heart, mind, soul, and sentiments are Irish and always will be!
St. Patrick’s Day is just a couple of weeks away. I’m writing this commemorative essay well in advance of March 17th. My Irish roots just can’t seem to help themselves. Right now I’m listening to composer Patrick Cassidy’s classical work titled “1916: The Irish Rebellion.” It’s a grand piece of music. It expresses the heartfelt Irish love of freedom, the brief moments of victory, and the inevitable pain of defeat that a small band of Irish patriots experienced in the six days of the rebellion that has become known in Irish lore as the “Easter Rising.”
By the end of the 19th century, Irish independence movements had gained considerable popular appeal. They grew until April 24th, 1916, when a band of rebels declared an independent Irish republic. The opening salvo of the rebellion came in the form of a proclamation, penned by Padraig Pearse. The words of the Proclamation are stirring, reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence:
“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right …Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State. And we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.”
Pearse and six other rebel leaders – Thomas Clarke, Sean Mac Diermada, Thomas Macdonagh, Eamonn Ceannt, James Connolly, and Joseph Plunkett, signed the proclamation.
After initial successes at the Dublin Post Office and the Four Corners, the British sent thousands of soldiers to quell the rebellion. The overwhelming numbers and a massive artillery barrage proved too much for the rebels. Within six days the rebellion was crushed.
In the aftermath, the British declared martial law, with Sir John Maxwell proclaimed military governor. Retaliation was swift. All seven of the leaders were executed within weeks. Padraig Pearse was executed on May 3rd, holding a crucifix as the firing squad did its deadly work. Joseph Plunkett was executed on May 12th. On the night before his execution, he married his childhood sweetheart, Grace Gifford, in the prison chapel. She never remarried, proof that she must have loved him dearly. James Connolly was executed on the same day as Plunkett. He had been mortally wounded in the rebellion and was on his deathbed. The British, not content to let him die a noble death, strapped him to a stretcher, carried him to the prison courtyard, placed him in a chair and shot him to death.
In all, sixteen Irish rebels were executed. One of them, Michael Mallin, wrote the following words to his wife on the night before his execution on May 8th - “My darling wife, pulse of my heart, this is the end of all things earthly… and so must Irishmen pay for trying to make Ireland a free nation, God’s will be done.” He also encouraged his daughter, Una, to become a nun and his son, Joseph, to become a priest. Both children followed their father’s dying wishes.
Several years ago I visited the Dublin Gaol (jail) where some of the 1916 rebels spent their last days. As I passed from cell to cell, I could almost hear their old ghosts whispering to me, “Never forget…Never forget.”
On the 17th we’ll be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish. Here in America it’s come to mean green beer, leprechauns, shillelaghs, shamrocks, parades, and over-indulgence. Like most Americans, I too will have a pint of the bitters and wear the green. But, I’ll also be remembering there’s much more to being Irish. Padraig Pearse expressed it best in the Gaelic words “Mise’ Eire” (I Am Ireland), his classic poem that expresses the mixture of pain, shame, glory, and the love of freedom that comes with being Irish.
So, to that end, I’ll pause to remember what it means to be Irish. I’ll celebrate, but I’ll also listen for those voices calling me to “never forget.”
I never will! After all, I am Irish and “I am Ireland.”