"Easter, 1916"

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"Easter, 1916"

Militants in the Irish Sinn Fein Party Form the Irish Republican Army (IRA)


By: William Butler Yeats

Date: September 25, 1916

Source: "Easter, 1916," a poem by William Butler Yeats

About the Poet: William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) was one of the twentieth century's most acclaimed English-language poets. Born in Dublin, Ireland, themes of Irish rebellion and independence from England often featured prominently in his poetry.


On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, as Padraig Pearse (Commander in Chief of Republican forces) read a "Proclamation of the Republic" declaring Ireland a nation separate from England, from the steps of Dublin's General Post Office, the silence of the surrounding crowd reflected the uncertainty of many Irish people. Such nationalist speeches of independence from Great Britain were not unfamiliar to Irish citizens. It would take action on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and its political party Sinn Fein to convince the Irish people that freedom from the 750-year domination by the British was actually within their grasp.

The Proclamation's call for action was planned as the British were committing their troops to fight in Germany during World War I (1915–1918). Angered that the British were enlisting Irish men to fight in the war fueled a decision to rise up against the British. The IRB Military Council that was formed the previous year acted on the philosophy that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity." The council included seven members: Padraig Pearse (1879–1916), James Conolly (1868–1916), Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887–1916), Thomas MacDonagh (1878–1916), Eamonn Ceannt (1881–1916), Thomas J. Clarke (1857–1916), and Sean MacDermott (1884–1916), all of whom were revolutionaries who signed the Proclamation.

Because of the secrecy and size of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, reinforcement was needed in order to execute the Uprising. The help of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens Army was beckoned. Any man willing to fight for independence was accepted. Weapons for the planned uprising were to be supplied by Germany. The ship carrying the weapons, however, was intercepted, thus, the volunteers arrived for the Uprising with an array of rifles, shotguns, and handguns.

One hundred and fifty armed men marched towards Dublin's General Post Office, awaiting James Connolly's command to charge. Other men were already positioned at different points throughout Dublin. As the uniformed and street-clothed men stormed the Post Office, townspeople and officers on duty were caught off guard. Inside, the British flag was torn down and replaced with two new flags: a green flag reading "Irish Republic," and another bearing the colors green, white, and orange, later to become the Republic of Ireland's national flag.

Under General W.H.M. Lowe, the British counter-attacked the next day, overwhelming the modest-numbered Irish. By the end of the day, only 100 Irish participants in the Uprising remained, offering little resistance against more than 5,000 British troops. Although the prospect of an immediate victory was impossible, the leaders of the uprising hoped the action of defiance would stimulate Irish Support for the cause of independence. The Irish militants surrendered, and were tried as traitors by the British.


Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


William Butler Yeats' description "A terrible beauty is born" illustrates the violence of Ireland's fight for independence as well as the "beauty" of the prospect of independence from Great Britain. "Easter 1916" captures the monumental change in the Irish collaboration towards home rule for what is now the Republic of Ireland.

Fifteen of the Uprising participants were sentenced to death by firing squad, and the harsh sentences roused the Irish people. Connolly was taken from his deathbed to be strapped in a chair and shot, fueling anti-British sentiment throughout the streets of Dublin and echoing throughout Ireland. The Sinn Fein ("we ourselves") Party that had no seats in Britain's parliament in 1910 would hold 70% of the seats allotted to Ireland in the British Parliament after the elections of 1918.

In 1919, Sinn Fein created an Irish Parliament based on the philosophy that Irish independence relied on the Irish vote. Rather than awaiting a change in British decision, the republicans decided they would be their own agents in the prospect of independent rule. A bloody war, including the infamous "Bloody Sunday" and the burning of Cork in 1920, waged until October 1921. At this time, the Anglo-Irish Treaty gave independence to Ireland's lower twenty-six counties, though six northeastern counties would remain British, while being allowed a government of their own based in Stormont.

France's Storming of the Bastille in 1789, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and the Easter Uprising were all uprisings that triggered nationalism. However, the mood that Yeats captures of the Irish people on Easter Monday, 1916 is one of uncertainty and disheartenment, rather than vigorous, communal spirit. Though the leaders of both the French and American rebellions were backed by much support from fellow nationalists' enthusiasm, it was only after the Easter Uprising that the Irish leaders gained the status of heroes.

Yeats' interpretation of the Uprising is one example among many differing opinions regarding the acceptance of violent rebellions by the Irish. Militant members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood transitioned into the Irish Republican Army (IRA) about 1919, and began using guerrilla tactics in repelling the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, two of Britain's elite military units sent to repress the Irish bid for independence.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated in 1921, the IRA again split into factions for and against the provisions of the treaty that divided Ireland. During the civil war that ensued, these two divisions fought each other until mid–1923, when the anti-treaty IRA members were convinced to abandon their arms.

In the decades that followed, a succession of anti-British militia groups assumed the name of the Irish Republican Army. The IRA gained members, its factions periodically united and divided, and the organization carried out intermittent bombings, raids for arms, and attacks on British citizens, troops, and installations. During the 1970s, IRA violence escalated when it carried out multiple organized attacks against British troops in Northern Ireland, and launched a bombing campaign in London. It was during this period that many nations considered the IRA's status as freedom fighters as negated, and replaced by the status of terrorist organization. Some groups of the IRA were often financed through theft and the sale of drugs.

Several temporary cessations in the violence have occurred during official cease-fires announced by the IRA, and despite a general British governmental policy that discourages negotiations with terrorists, discreet methods of communication between the IRA and the government of Britain were kept open during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1994, the IRA announced a formal cessation of operations.

As of 2005, four IRA splinter organizations, the Real IRA, The Provisional IRA, The Official IRA, and the Continuity IRA appear on the United Kingdom's list of foreign terrorist organizations. All four groups claim the title of IRA and legitimate historical precedent. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) denies legitimacy of all four of these splinter groups.


Web sites

About.com. "History of Terrorism in Ireland." <http://terrorism.about.com/od/historyofterrorism/a/ireland.htm> (accessed July 16, 2005).

Ireland's Own.net. "Irish History: Easter 1916." <http://irelandsown.net/easterrising.html> (accessed July 16, 2005).

Political Information Net. "Sinn Féin." <http://www.politicalinformation.net/encyclopedia/Sinn_Fein.htm> (accessed July 16, 2005).

Roots Web. "Easter Rising 1916." <http://www.rootsweb.com/~fianna/history/east1916.html> (accessed July 16, 2005).

Wellington College Belfast GCSE History. "Irish Political Developments From 1916–1972." <http://websites.ntl.com/~wellclge/depts/history/module1/ni20_72.htm> (accessed July 16, 2005).

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"Easter, 1916"

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"Easter, 1916"