The Poets’ Revolution

Left to right, the poets of the Rising: Countess Markievicz, W.B. Yeats, Dora Sigerson, The O'Rahilly.
Left to right, the poets of the Rising: Countess Markievicz, W.B. Yeats, Dora Sigerson, The O'Rahilly.

By Christine Kinealy, Contributor
February / March 2016

Three of the men who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic had published poetry before the Rising. But many more revolutionaries who participated were writers, scholars, and artists, including several notable women. 

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I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow;
Who have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory of an ancient glory […]
And I say to my people’s masters: Beware.
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people, or that law is stronger than life,
And than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you,
Ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed.
Tyrants… hypocrites… liars!

– “The Rebel” by P. H. Pearse

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At the time of the Easter Rising in Dublin, Padraic Colum, a noted poet and Irish nationalist, was in New York. His response to reading the highly-censored news of its failure was to refer to the Rising as “a poet’s revolution.” This description was reinforced by a lead article in The New York Times of May 7, under the headline, “Poets Marched in the Van of the Irish Revolution.” At this stage, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas Clarke, and Thomas MacDonagh had already been executed.

Three of the men who signed the Proclamation in 1916, Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett, were published poets, while many of their supporters were also writers – of plays, songs and ballads, albeit of mixed quality. Only weeks before his own execution, Pearse had joked that one of the outcomes of a rebellion could be to “rid Ireland of three bad poets!” Significantly, many who survived the Rising wrote poetic tributes to those who had lost their lives.

The combining of poetry with politics, of cultural nationalism with radical activism, was not new in Ireland. It had been evident during the 1848 uprising led by Young Ireland. During the late 19th century cultural revival, poetry had also played a crucial role in the ideological struggle to win the hearts and souls of Irish people in the search for an Irish identity and the struggle for independence.

In addition to the 16 men who were executed in 1916, an estimated 64 insurgents had been killed during the Rising. Michael O’Rahilly was one of them. Known as The O’Rahilly, Michael was a republican and founding member of the Irish Volunteers. In 1911, he had organized a protest against the visit of King George V to Dublin. Amongst other things, he had arranged for a banner to be erected in Grafton Street, in the centre of the city, making it clear that the royal visitor was not welcome. The banner was removed by the police. The O’Rahilly also penned the following for the occasion:

Thou are not conquered yet, dear land,
Thy spirit still is free.
Though long the Saxon’s ruthless hand,
Has triumphed over thee.
Though oft obscured by clouds of woe,
The sun has never set,
Twill blaze again in golden glow,
Thou art not conquered yet […]

Through ages long of war and strife,
Of rapine and of woe,
We fought the bitter fight of life,
Against the Saxon foe,
Our fairst hopes to break thy chains,
Have died in vain regret,
But still the glorious truth remains,
Though art not conquered yet.

Thou art not conquered yet, dear land,
Thy sons must not forget,
The day will be when all can see,
Thou art not conquered yet

Countess Markievicz, who participated in the protest, described the poem as “haunting and beautiful, and just put into words what we all felt.”

Although opposed to the Rising, believing that it could only end in defeat, The O’Rahilly joined his friends and colleagues in Liberty Hall, famously saying, “Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock – I might as well hear it strike!” The O’Rahilly fought in the G.P.O. until Friday, when he volunteered to lead a party to what is now Parnell Street. He was shot in Moore Street. Before he died, he wrote to his wife:

“Written after I was shot. Darling Nancy I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O’Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling.”

Women participated in the Easter Rising in many roles, with at least 77 being arrested following the surrender. The most famous female participant was Countess Constance Markievicz, who was initially sentenced to death, although this was reprieved. While in prison, she occupied her time by writing poetry and drawing. She was dismissive of her own poetic ability, describing her writings as “jingles,” and telling her sister, Eva, who was herself a talented poet:

“I am now going to lapse into verse. I want you to criticize. Tell me something about metre and what to aim at. I am quite humble and I know I am not a poet, but I do love trying.”

When Constance heard of the execution of beloved friend and political mentor, James Connolly, she responded in verse:

You died for your country, my Hero-love
In the first grey dawn of spring;
On your lips was a prayer to God above
That your death will have helped to bring
Freedom and peace to the land you love,
Love above everything.

At the end of 1917, Constance was still writing poetry, her writings suggesting that the events of 1916 still haunted her, and that she remained politically unrepentant. The following untitled poem by Markievicz celebrates the Rising, while looking forward to the next attempt to win Irish independence:

They murdered our men in the grisly dawn,
In unhallowed graves they lie,
And we proudly honour our martyred dead
As we raise the triumphant cry:
God save Ireland, so small and great,
With her armies of martyred dead,
Fighting and praying the great hosts march,
We following in their tread

[…]
And the prayer goes up from our martyred dead,
And we echo it here today;
For the army , where dead and living unite,
No English force can stay.

God save Ireland, although we, too,
Must fight and suffer and fall,
The Republican Army is ready today
To march at the battle call.

Both Constance and her sister, Eva, were themselves later memorialized as young women in a poem by W.B. Yeats, written in 1927: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Dora Sigerson Shorter was a poet and sculptor who had been at the center of the Irish literary revival of the late nineteenth century. Both her parents had been writers, and guests at their Dublin home had included W.B. Yeats. Following her marriage in 1896, she resided in London. Dora died prematurely in 1918 (she was 51). Her collection The Tricolour: Poems of the Irish Revolution, was published posthumously in 1919. In it, the editor’s note recorded:

“The publication of this book is a sacred obligation to one who broke her heart over Ireland. Dora Sigerson, in her last few weeks of life, knowing full well that she was dying, designed every detail of this little volume … Any sale that may arise from the sale of the book will be devoted, as are the copyrights of the author, to a monument which she herself sculptured with a view to its erection over the graves of the ‘Sixteen Dead Men’ when circumstances places their ashes in Glasnevin.”

Like many other nationalist writers, Dora believed that a rebirth would come from the deaths of the 16 men executed. In “Sixteen Dead Men” she writes:

Hark! in the still night. Who goes there?
“Fifteen dead men” Why do they wait?
“Hasten, comrade, death is so fair”
Now comes their Captain through the dim gate

[…]

Sixteen dead men! Shall they return?
“Yea, they shall come again, breath of our breath.
They on our nation’s hearth made old fires burn.
Guard her unconquered soul, strong in their death.

Dora and her husband, together with Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Bernard Shaw, campaigned for Sir Roger Casement’s death sentence to be overturned. They were unsuccessful and Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on August 3, 1916 at the age of 51. Dora’s poem “The Choice” was written in his memory:

This Consul Casement—he who heard the cry
Of stricken people—and who in his fight
To lift the torture load from broken men,
And shield sad women from eternal night,
Went through lone, hot, and fevered foreign lands

[…]

What did he hear upon red shaken earth,
Where little nations struggle and expire?
Some banshee cry upon the hot wind thrills!
And Roger Casement—he who freed the slave,
Made sad babes smile and tortured women hope,
Flung all aside, King’s honours and great years,
To take for finis here a hempen rope,
And banshee cries upon far Irish hills.

The most famous poem to come out of the Rising was penned by W.B. Yeats, who had neither approved nor participated in the Rising, and was in England when it took place. Yeats personally knew many of the participants, giving the poem its sense of intimacy (and he famously bore a personal grudge towards one of them, John McBride, who had married and divorced Maud Gonne with whom Yeats was in love, calling him a “drunken, vainglorious lout” in the poem). Like many Irish people, even from a distance, Yeats felt deeply moved by the speed and ruthlessness of the court martials and executions. Yeats’s poem, “Easter, 1916,” has inevitably received much attention and has even been described as one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century. The poem is also a reminder of Yeats’s political ambivalence, summed up in the refrain that, “A terrible beauty is born.”

While touring the United States in 1882, Oscar Wilde, when encouraged to speak about Ireland and her relationship with Britain responded: “The Saxon took our lands from us and left them desolate. We took their language and added new beauties to it.” Not all of the poetry written in or about Easter 1916 is beautiful, nonetheless, it is a powerful and largely forgotten legacy of the men and women who were witnesses to it. ♦

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Christine Kinealy completed her Ph.D. at Trinity College, Dublin, on the history of the Irish Poor Law. Since then, she has written extensively on the Great Hunger; most recently, she is the joint author of a graphic novel about this tragedy  The Bad Times; An Drochshaol (Quinnipiac University Press, 2015). In 2013, Christine was appointed founding Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.  In 2014, she was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Christine lives in Hamden, CT,  with her son, Ciarán, and their puppy, Cú.

One Response to “The Poets’ Revolution”

  1. Noel Shine says:

    One of the most comprehensive articles I have read anywhere on the poetic element regarding the events of 1916. Thanks and well done

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