In less than six months, the one hundredth anniversary of the 24-29 April 1916 Easter Rising will be commemorated throughout Ireland.
What is striking about the so-called 'Decade of Commemorations' is how insular its outlook is. The 1912 Ulster Covenant, the 1916 Rising or the setting up of Northern Ireland are seen as a purely Irish phenomenon, divorced from global trends. As Edward W. Said once noted, while the Irish struggle was a 'model of twentieth-century wars of liberation',
it is an amazing thing that the problem of Irish liberation not only has continued longer than other comparable struggles, but is so often not regarded as being an imperial or nationalist issue ; instead it is comprehended as aberration within the British dominions. Yet the facts conclusively reveal otherwise. - (Edward W. Said (1993), Culture and Imperialism, London : Chatto & Windus, 284)
This article will argue that the significance of the 1916 Easter Rising lies less in its particular Irish context than in its world-historical impact. It will argue that its universal significance is to have hastened the end of the imperial and colonial age and made a significant contribution to the emancipation of colonial and racially subaltern groups globally.
From an anti-imperialist perspective, the 1916 Easter Rising was not simply part of a series of Irish rebellions against British rule – "six times during the past three hundred years" as the Proclamation puts it- but part of a wave of challenges to imperialism globally. In 1916 Ireland represented the weakest point of the British Empire, the colony from which most pressure could be exerted.
From an internationalist anti-imperialist perspective, Easter 1916 was not so naive a proposition as it was subsequently represented. By 1916 many of the eastern European nations colonized by Russia were also at the point of insurrection, and many colonies of the European empires were already in open revolt – for example, the German Cameroons in 1914, Nyasaland in 1915, Dahomey, French Indochina and Niger in 1916, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) in 1917, as well as Chad, Egypt, India, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, Uganda and, most successfully, Libya. The year before the Easter Rising, Indian Sikh soldiers mutinied in Singapore and successfully took control of the city. They hoped that, with German help, they would then be able to drive the British out of the Malay peninsula and eventually from the whole of the Far East. - (Robert J.C. Young (2001), Postcolonialism : An Historical Introduction, Oxford : Blackwell Publishing, 303-304)The strategy behind the Singapore mutiny bears some similarity to that of the insurgents in Dublin.
But the importance of the Easter Rising from an anti-imperialist perspective is that compared to these other rebellions it took place in Europe and not in some distant colony. In his defense of the Irish insurrection, Lenin underlined its explosive political effects:
The struggle of the oppressed nations in Europe, a struggle capable of going to the length of insurrection and street fighting, of breaking down the iron discipline in the army and martial law will sharpen the revolutionary crisis in Europe infinitely more than a much more developed rebellion in a remote colony. A blow delivered against British imperialist bourgeois rule by a rebellion in Ireland is of a hundred times greater political significance than a blow of equal weight in Asia or in Africa. - (V.I. Lenin (1970), Lenin On Ireland, Dublin : New Books, 33-34)
The Rising was not simply a pivotal event in Irish history. It also signalled the beginning of a revolutionary wave in Europe that reached its highest point in Russia in 1917 – Lenin wrote that "the tragedy of the Irish" was that "they rose too soon". ; before the revolution had matured in other countries.
The 1916 Easter Rising had a very significant impact and influence on anti-imperialist movements worldwide, at the time particularly on those in India and Egypt. (see for example : Kate O’Malley (2006), Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish separatist political links and perceived threats to the British Empire, in : Tadhg Foley & Maureen O’Connor (eds), Ireland and India : Colonies, Culture and Empire, Dublin : Irish Academic Press, 225-232) The Chittagong uprising in India for example was inspired and modelled on the 1916 Rising and therefore called the ‘Easter Rebellion in Bengal’. (Michael Silvestri (2000), ‘The Sinn Fein of India’ : Irish Nationalism and the Policing of Revolutionary Terrorism in Bengal, Journal of British Studies, 39 (4), 454-486) Ho Chi Minh was influenced by the Irish struggle. (Maurice Walsh (2015), Bitter Freedom : Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-23, London: Faber & Faber, 132-133).
The 1916 Easter Rising also influenced movements working for the emancipation of subordinate racial groups. If Frederick Douglass and W.E. Du Bois were already very much interested in the Irish struggle, the 1916 rising provided the major ideological mainspring for Marcus Garvey’s radical political transformation. The Easter Rising had more impact on the Universal Negro Improvement Association than the struggles against imperialism in India, China and Egypt. (see : Negro Sinn Féiners and Black Fenians : 'Heroic Ireland' and the Black Nationalist Imagination, in : Bruce Nelson (2012), Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, NJ : Princeton University Press, 181-211)
The Easter Rising also had a significant impact on imperial rule. Leading establishment figures saw Ireland as a vital link in the chain that bound the British Empire together, so to lose Ireland would mean to lose the Empire. "If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire" declared Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson on 30 March 1921. (quoted by Deirdre McMahon (1999), Ireland and the Empire-Commonwealth 1900-1948, in Judith Brown & William Roger Lewis (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 146)
After the 1916 Rising, Unionist leader Edward Carson warned the British government of the consequences of defeat in Ireland for the Empire:
If you tell your Empire in India, in Egypt, and all over the world that you do not got the men, the money, the pluck, the inclination and the backing to restore order in a country within twenty miles of your own shore, you may as well begin to abandon the attempt to make British rule prevail throughout the Empire at all.
In response to the Irish demand for independence, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George observed:
Suppose we gave it to them? It will lower the prestige and the dignity of this country and reduce British authority to a low point in Ireland itself. It will give the impression that we have lost grip, that the Empire has no further force and will have an effect on India and throughout Europe. (quoted by Mark Ryan (1994), War & Peace in Ireland: Britain and the IRA in the New World Order, London: Pluto Press, 22-23)
The British state's reaction to the Easter Rising is thus not to be understood purely in an Irish context; but in the overall context of its empire. On 29 May 1916, one month after the Easter Rising, British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote to Unionist leader Edward Carson, "We must make it clear…that Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge in the rest of Ireland." (Liz Curtis (1994), The Cause of Ireland : From the United Irishmen to Partition, Belfast: Beyond The Pale, 284)
The British Empire’s determination to meet the challenge from Ireland as examplified by the Easter Rising led to the partition of the country. King George V had reminded Ulster MPs at the first opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament that "everything that touches Ireland find an echo in the remotest part of the Empire". (quoted by Donal Lowry (1996), Ulster Resistance and the Loyalist Rebellion in the Empire: in Keith Jeffery (ed), 'An Irish Empire’ ? Aspects of Ireland and the British Empire, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 197) An example of this is the IRA's Kilmichael ambush which is said to have "jerked the people of India to a new appraisal of their position. Egypt stood amazed. It ultimately pervaded darkest Africa." (Peter Hart (1998), The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 22)
The partition of Ireland has thus to be seen in this imperial and colonial context and became a model for British imperialism. Thus according to Sir Ronald Storrs, the British governor of Jerusalem under the British mandate and brain behind Lawrence of Arabia, the purpose behind the Balfour Declaration and the partition of Palestine was for the British Empire to set up "a loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potential hostile Arabism". (Cfr. Moshé Machover (2012), Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 185 and 270 ; see also : Tom Segev (1999), One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, New York: Henry Holt, 91)
The project of creating another 'Ulster' was not limited to the Middle-East. When King George V met the Rhodesian self-government delegates in 1921 in London he told them they were "the Ulster of South Africa". (Donal Lowry (1996), op.cit.,196) The same way Irish republicans inspired other colonized people, Ulster unionists and loyalists were a major source of inspiration to colonial settlers in Kenya, Rhodesia and South African Natal defending their privileges against the 'natives'. After all, Lord Milner argued that the rationale behind the creation of Northern Ireland was to "rescue the white settler colony of Ulster from submersion in a sea of inferior Celts." (Fergal McCluskey (2014), The Irish Revolution: Tyrone 1912-23, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 134) This 'world-historical' significance of unionism and loyalism has not been emphasized for the 'decade of commemoration'.
Given the recent 'flag protests' in the six counties, it is interesting to note that Ulster loyalists were the main source of inspiration for the protests of the Flag Vigilance Committee when in 1920 attempts were made to replace the Union Jack by a new South African flag. (Donal Lowry (1996), op.cit., 196 and 199-200) Colonial supremacism is the only 'world historical' significance of loyalism and unionism.
What ultimately gave the 1916 Easter Rising a global significance was that it represented a blow against the very idea of empire and imperialism:
The Dublin Rebellion was the beginning of the desintegration of Imperialism, the initiation of a pattern which was to repeat itself in India, Cyprus, Palestine and Egypt, Malaya, Kenya and Algeria. (Ulick O'Connor (1975) A Terrible Beauty Is Born: The Irish Troubles 1912-1922, London: Hamish Hamilton, 90-91)
In 1965, Nicholas Mansergh, a leading Irish and Commonwealth historian summed up its effects when stating:
The contribution of Ireland was successively to weaken the will and undermine belief in empire. Beyond a certain point, it was not worth it. Stanley Baldwin summed it up when he said there must not be another Ireland in India. (Nicholas Mansergh, Notes for a debate on Ireland’s inflence on British politics in the Historical Society, Trinity College, 5 November 1965, reproduced in Martin Mansergh (2003) The Legacy of History, Cork: Mercier, 288-289)
Subjugated peoples everywhere found inspiration in the Easter Rising.
Its imaginative power hastened the end of the imperial and colonial age and, critically, its wider context as both cultural and political revolution created a template that changed the world. » (Tom McGurk (2006), "The Easter Rising: The Shots That Changed the World Forever", Sunday Business Post, 12 March).
For historian Eric Hobsbawm, decolonisation was one of the chief advances of the 'short twentieth century', and a key achievement of the struggle which began with the 1916 Easter Rising is to have accelerated this process. The world historical significance if the 1916 Easter Rising gives it much more weight than just some particular nationalist rebellion in Ireland. A page in the history of universal emancipation was written. In 1965, when Roger Casement's bones were exhumed from Pentonville prison to be returned to Ireland, this was expressed by Kwame Nkrumah, the President of Ghana (the first independent country in Africa) when he acknowledged the debt owned to Casement (in this writer's opinion the most interesting and globally significant leader of the Rising) by all "those who have fought for African freedom". (Angus Mitchell (2003), Casement, London: Haus Publishing, 37) C.L.R. James praised the 1916 Easter Rising.
In his foreword to Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth Jean-Paul Sartre noted:
Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men and women, and two thousand five hundred million natives. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Préface à Frantz Fanon (1961), Les Damnés de la Terre, Paris: François Maspero, 9)
The Easter Rising's lasting contribution is to hasten the process through which 'natives' became fully 'men and women'. It should remind us to concentrate on what is most universal and of world-historical significance within Irish republicanism.