Constance Markievicz

A Right to Rebel?

I wrote some time back that discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Easter Rising seemed to be entirely focused on Just War Theory, a theory probably not best suited to judge a rebellion. The discussion still seems focused there, even though the best known proponent of Just War Theory, Thomas Aquinas, draws a distinction between war and sedition (conflict between parts of the state), and states that there is no sedition in disturbing a government which is not directed towards the common good1.

Philosophy of Rebellion – a brief history

This idea has roots in Isidore of Seville’s suggestion that an unjust ruler was no ruler at all, and John of Salisbury’s endorsement of killing tyrants under specific circumstances2. In the natural law tradition the validity of tyranicide was still argued into modern times. Some argued that only judges or the pope could intervene, but others such as Luis de Molina SJ (1535-1600) said that a tyrant who was an usurper or invader ‘can be justly killed by any member of the commonwealth’ as long as the action would not cause greater evil3.

Take the case of James I of England, also monarch of Ireland, a king in peaceful possession and, who, unlike Elizabeth I (in 1570) had not been not excommunicated. In his 1600 De regno Hiberniae, sanctorum insula, commentarius, Irishman Peter Lombard (1554-1624) argued that ruling the Irish people required local consent, thus suggesting James I was not validly king. Though Lombard repudiated this theory in later life, it was not the last time it would appear in Irish political thought4.

The idea of a right to resist tyrants was also part of Protestant thinking. Though rejected by the Established Church who favoured passive resistance, it was a feature of dissenting thought, though as in Catholicism theorists frequently argued against actual rebellion on prudential grounds. The concept was developed by republican thinkers such as Sidney (“a nation cannot be tied to any other obedience than is consistent with the common good, according to their own judgment”5), and later by John Locke, summarised below6:

A legitimate civil government seeks to preserve the life, health, liberty and property of its subjects, insofar as this is compatible with the public good….An illegitimate civil government seeks to systematically violate the natural rights of its subjects… Because an illegitimate civil government does this, it puts itself in a state of nature and a state of war with its subjects…In such circumstances, rebellion is legitimate as is the killing of such a dangerous beast of prey.

For Locke, a legitimate government is based on the consent of those governed, a point picked up in Molyneux’s Case of Ireland which argued that Ireland or the Anglo-Irish colonists had never consented to be ruled by Westminster (citing Locke). The link between legitimacy and the right to rebel is why Molyneux’s book was condemned by the Irish parliament and why the “Drapier” was sought for writing a “seditious pamphlet”. Swift’s fourth and fifth Drapier letter cited Molyneux and Sidney in defining the freedom the Irish lacked:
“Freedom consists in a People being Governed by Laws made with their own Consent”7. Westminster’s ability to impose laws on the Irish people meant they were not free.

Though neither Molyneux nor Swift suggested revolt (and indeed would have been against complete separation from the British crown), it wasn’t difficult to see how their arguments could be turned that way. That is how Wolfe Tone, steeped in political reading, in fact read them8:

I made speedily what was to me a great discovery, though I might have found it in Swift and Molyneux, that the influence of England was the radical vice of our Government, and consequently that Ireland would never be either free, prosperous, or happy, until she was independent, and that independence was unattainable whilst the connection with England existed.

Philosophy of Rebellion and 1916

This is a key quote to Pearse, quoted in his pamphlets Ghosts (1915) and The Separatist Idea (1916)9.

It might be pointed out that the position of Irish people was very different in 1916 than it was in 1798 or 1725. However the key issue, as Swift argued, was not the material position of the people but in the fact they were unfree, even if the idea of freedom he outlined in the Drapier letters was not the same as Tone’s, Connolly’s or Pearse’s.

For Wolfe Tone, the sovereignty of the people as a whole were usurped by a minority. His revolt was in line with the radical principles of the French Revolution where “willingness to support the common good against particular interests, to accept the liberties and laws of the Republic, were all that should be required”10 to make someone part of the nation. The Declaration of the United Irishmen equally included all Irish people, with the intention being to obtain “an equal Representation of all the People in Parliament” 11.

Despite the differences in their vision of a future Ireland Connolly shares in the universalism of Wolfe Tone and the aim for all in Ireland to be free: “The Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country” 12. The argument that the Irish working class are the only basis for a free Ireland has echoes in the rhetoric of the French Revolution 13.

For Pearse, the question of freedom was a little different. He was a nationalist first and foremost, who believed in the nation as a living thing, above and beyond the people in it: “I think that one may speak of a national soul and of a national mind, and distinguish one from the other, and that this is not merely figurative speaking”14. It should be noted that in this, Pearse was of his time, not a perverse outlier. For Pearse, a member of a nation that did not have sovereignty was intrinsically unfree. Freeing the people required freeing the nation15:

1. The Irish Nation is One.
2. The Irish Nation, like all Nations, has an indefeasible right to Freedom.
3. Freedom denotes Separation and Sovereignty.
4. The right to National Freedom rests upon the right to Personal Freedom, and true National Freedom guarantees true Personal Freedom.

Analysing 1916

What does this mean for analysis of 1916? Firstly, Just War Theory is not appropriate for analysing a rebellion. From before Aquinas to long after, rebellion was either a crime or justified action against tyranny or for freedom.

Second, there is no convenient single theory of rebellion available to use, so the theory adopted or developed should be justified. Locke is probably the best known and widely appealed to theorist – but he also has the fewest criteria for a justified rebellion (as he recognised, see sections 224-227 in the second of his Two Treatises of Government).

Third, for entirely practical reasons, consent of the people in advance of a rebellion difficult or impossible to obtain. Locke looks for their consent after the event, for example. If we say all rebellions must have consent of a majority in advance, rebellion is ruled out in practically all cases, no matter how tyrannical or cruel.

Fourth, questions of belief and fact used within theoretical frameworks also need establishing and are contentious. Was the British government tyrannical in Ireland at the time of the Rising? Were the poor oppressed? Were human rights systemically violated? Were Irish people unfree (and what does that mean)? Can a person be free if the nation they belong to isn’t?

And finally, the notions of whether the Rising was prudent, or whether the people involved in the Rising thought it was morally justified are clearly separate from the question of whether it was moral (leaving aside questions of moral relativism etc).

There is nothing wrong with considering the rights and wrongs of the Easter Rising, but debate that leans on consent or Just War Theory is favouring simplicity and avoiding grappling with the complexities involved.

It was pointed out to me on Twitter that 1916 could be evaluated from a consequentialist viewpoint. The main difficulty would be determining the likely outcome without a 1916 Rising, which is almost a more contentious question, and one that also needs facts established to determine (or at least, guess at more effectively.)

Also see 1916 Commemoration: Frustrated with Just War Theory. Along with outlining reasons why Just War Theory might be preferred for analysis, Conrad Brumstrom also highlights the sense of the 1916 leaders that British governance was illegitimate. Given the emphasis made in the Proclamation on previous insurrections showing the British government had not been in peaceful possession, that brings us back to the claim stated as early as Isidore of Seville that usurpers and invaders may be justly rebelled against.

I also note that the Vatican has announced a conference to reevaluate Just War Theory as a justification for war.

Constance MarkieviczFeatured Image: Studio photograph of Constance Markievicz. Wikimedia, Public Domain


  1. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, II-II, Q42
  2. Peter Adamson (2015) “Episode 218. Two Swords: Early Medieval Political Philosophy” (podcast) in History of Philosophy without any Gaps, (17:20-22:11)
  3. Harro Höpfl (2004) Jesuit Political Thought: The Society of Jesus and the State, c.1540–1630, Cambridge University Press, pp. 316-7
  4. Thomas O’Connor (2004) “Lombard, Peter” in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 202-5
  5. Algernon Sidney (1698/1996) Discourses Concerning Government, ed. Thomas G. West (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1996). 24/03/2016. (link)
  6. Uzgalis, William, “John Locke”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),URL=>
  7. Jonathan Swift (1725) “Drapier’s Letters V, To Viscount Molesworth” in Drapier Letters (collected edition), Dublin:Faulkner, p. 144 (online)
  8. William Theobald W. Tone (1826) Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, Washington: Gales & Seaton, p. 32
  9. Pádraic Pearse (1915/1924) “Ghosts” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp. 219–255 (UCC Celt). Pádraic Pearse (1916a/1924) “The Separatist Idea” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin:Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp. 251–293 (UCC Celt)
  10. Patrick J. Geary (2001) “The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe” Princeton University Press
  11. Original Declaration of the United Irishmen (online). Also quoted in Pearse (1916/1924)
  12. James Connolly (1897) Erin’s Hope (online)
  13. Geary (2001), pp. 21-2.
  14. Pádraic Pearse (1916b/1924) “The Spiritual Nation” in Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp 295–329 (UCC Celt). Quote on p. 301
  15. Pearse (1916a/1924), p. 292
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