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20 Jan

Debating the ethics of 1916

A painting depicting the GPO on fire in 1916.

Dublin 1916 Painting
(c) KMAN999/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2016 has started with a debate over the ethics of the 1916 Rising, primarily in the Irish Times. The first shot was fired by Patsy McGarry [1] who argued that the Rising was “an immoral and anti-democratic act organised by a minority within a minority, who, looking into their own souls, saw there what they deemed was right for the Irish people.” McGarry pointed to the messianic leanings of Pearse and the unilateral nature of the violence.

Diarmaid Ferriter wrote a reply [2] regarding Pearse’s self-image as a Christ-figure and pointing out its parallels in the 1966 (printed 1972) critique of Fr Francis Shaw [3]. But what of the suggestion that the Rising was immoral?

A piece from 2014 in the Unthinkable column had already featured an argument from James G Murphy that the Rising failed the “Just War” test, where to be justified wars must (have: “1) just cause, (2) competent authority, (3) comparative justice, (4) right intention, (5) reasonable prospect of success, (6) last resort, and (7) proportionality.” Murphy concluded: “Private individuals have no business or right to go to war. Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising take note” [4]. Murphy extended the case in 2016, arguing that aspects of the commemoration are deeply problematic, setting the Rising up as the key moment in the establishment of the Irish State, without questioning its violence and divisiveness. He reiterates the key issue regarding the legitimacy of the Rising [5]:

Far more serious is the attempt of the Rising’s leaders, without authority from the living Irish people (as opposed to the imaginary authority of the dead generations), to establish a new state and themselves as its government with power to start a war and execute citizens. That cannot be laughed off.

In response, Conn Mac Gabhann argued that the Rising does pass the Just War test. On the key point of competent authority, he says [6]:

while the leaders may have had a democratic deficit, the colonial government had ignored the will of the Irish people for some form of self-government for at least one electorally verifiable generation.

Clearly the historical realities of the time are in dispute, as in the question of Pearse’s attitudes to bloodshed. As Dr Fearghal McGarry pointed out some years ago[7]:

it is striking how little agreement exists on some of the key questions concerning 1916. Did the rebels feel their rebellion had any real chance of success? Was the Rising intended as a coup d’état or merely a bloody protest? Did the rebels believe their martyrdom would revive militant nationalism?

However the debate so far (aside from the letters page) is uncritical of the philosophical framework. Is Just War Theory, primarily developed to explore wars between states, really the correct way to judge the validity of the 1916 Rising? There are modern theorists such as Marcuse [8]. There are older traditions such as the right to resistance in the social contract tradition, a tradition that includes Thomas Paine, who influenced Wolfe Tone who “has given us our political definitions and values” [9] according to Pearse.

Pearse’s opinion of Tone raises another question – it is not enough to evaluate the Rising, we also need to understand it. In four pamphlets published in 1916 before the Rising [10], Pearse outlines his own reading of Irish history. This emphasised the unity of Irish political thought throughout time, the importance of Tone, the link between Irish freedom and the rights of men and women, and the sense of “the Nation” as a thing over and above Irish people, with a soul and mind of its own. To critique Pearse without knowing his position risks missing the point, whether to his credit or his detriment.

And while we are at it, we can reflect on these ideas ourselves. Do we see The Irish Nation as Pearse saw it? Do we agree with his reading of Irish history? Does self-determination merit the spilling of blood? What do we think the role of government is? If there was ever a time to ask such questions surely it is this year.

Further Reading

In the Irish Times (limited free access online):

  • Joe Humphreys (2014) “Was the 1916 Rising morally justified?”, 22nd August 2014.
  • Patsy McGarry (2016) “Pádraig Pearse’s overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic”, 5th January 2016.
  • Seamus Murphy (2016) “Rite & Reason: Government betrays the Republic in desire to placate the ghosts of 1916”, 12th January 2016.
  • Diarmaid Ferriter (2016) “Diarmaid Ferriter: Nothing new in the fuss about Pearse thinking he was Jesus”, 9th January 2016.
  • Conn Mac Gabhann (2016) “Opinion: Did the 1916 Rising meet the requirements for a ‘just war’?”, 16th January, 2016.
  • Letters, 19th January 2016.
  • Brendan O Cathaoir (2016) “Opinion: Constitutional means would not have delivered self-determination in 1916”, 19th January 2016.

Pádraic Pearse (1924) “Ghosts” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp. 219–255. Originally published 1916. (Online at UCC:Celt)

Pádraic Pearse (1924) “The Separatist Idea” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp 251–293. Originally published 1916. (Online at UCC:Celt)

Pádraic Pearse (1924) “The Spiritual Nation” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltdt., pp. 295–329. Originally published 1916. (Online at UCC:Celt)

Pádraic Pearse (1924) “The Sovereign People” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp. 331–372. Originally published 1916. (Online at UCC:Celt)

Thomas Paine (1791) Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution, (online at Liberty Fund)

Elaine Sisson (2013) “What if the Dream Came True: Pearse, Ideology and the Republic” in McGill Summer School: Archive (online).

References

[1]Patsy McGarry (2016) “Pádraig Pearse’s overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic” in Irish Times, 5th Jan 2016.

[2]Diarmaid Ferriter (2016) “Diarmaid Ferriter: Nothing new in the fuss about Pearse thinking he was Jesus”, Irish Times, 9th Jan 2016.

[3]Francis Shaw (1972) “The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 61, No. 242, pp. 113-153

[4]Joe Humphries (2014) “Was the 1916 Rising morally justified?” in Irish Times, 22nd Aug 2014.

[5]Seamus Ryan (2016) “Rite & Reason: Government betrays the Republic in desire to placate the ghosts of 1916” in Irish Times, 12th Jan 2016.

[6]Conn Mac Gabhann (2016) “Opinion: Did the 1916 Rising meet the requirements for a ‘just war’?” in Irish Times, 16th January 2016.

[7] Fearghal McGarry “The Easter Rising” in Queens University Belfast: Irish History Live. (online)

[8] cited in Ian D’Alton’s letter, Irish Times, 19th January 2016.

[9]P. H. Pearse (1916) The Separatist Idea, p. 265

[10] Ghosts, The Separatist Idea, The Spiritual Nation and The Sovereign People, all Pádraic H. Pearse, 1916. All are available at UCC-Celt.

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