The 1916 Easter Rising As A Catholic Rebellion

Liam Ó Ruairc looks at the religiosity imbuing the 1916 Easter Rising. Liam Ó Ruairc is former co-editor of The Blanket.

Earlier this month, the Irish Times carried an article critical of the confluence of Pádraig Pearse's thinking with Catholic thought and criticised the 1916 Easter Rising for being "overtly Catholic". (Patsy McGarry," Pádraig Pearse’s overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic," The Irish Times, 5 January 2016).

This brings the issue to what extent this is the case and whether this is compatible with republicanism of the Wolfe Tone variety. 

Not only Pearse admitted that he was "old-fashioned enough to be both a Catholic and a nationalist" but to him Catholicism was central to Irish nationalism as such. He wrote at Christmas 1915 in Ghosts that Irish nationalism was “like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession”. In his essay The Separatist Idea Pearse assimilated Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis and John Mitchel, all Protestants, into the pantheon of Catholic nationalism: "God spoke to Ireland through Tone"; Emmet died "that his people might live, even as Christ died. Be assured that such a death always means a redemption"; Mitchel, he fervently believed, "did really hold converse with God; he did really deliver God’s word to man,delivered it fiery tongued." With a conception of national freedom "like a divine religion" as Pearse put it, the rebels of Easter week saw themselves as fighting in a holy cause that was sanctified by God. 

Thus God is mentioned twice in the Proclamation of Easter Week where it is written that the insurgents "place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms". It was not only God's blessing they were seeking but also that of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The insurgents sent papal count George Plunkett to Rome a fortnight before the Rising to seek the blessing of Benedict XV on their enterprise. This is how Count Plunkett described his meeting with the Pope:

The Pope was very much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed, and the reasons for that decision. Finally I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred his Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland's liberty ... Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent my report of the results of the mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916." (Brian O'Higgins, Easter 1916: The Story of the Rising, Dublin: 1940, 42-43 and Wolfe Tone Annual 1946, 75-76) 

Compare this with Wolfe Tone who wrote in his journal of 1 March 1798 that one of the “great ends” of the fight against England lay in “the emancipation of mankind from the yoke of religion and political superstition” and that he regretted that Bonaparte had missed a chance to “destroy forever the papal tyranny”.

There was little acknowledgment in 1916 of that element in the legacy of the 'Father of Irish Republicanism' and seeking the blessing of the Pope and pledging the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion would have for sure outraged Tone. During the fighting the rosary was recited every half hour in the GPO. For the insurgents who took part in the Rising, the fight was for 'faith' as well as 'fatherland'. For them the identification between Catholicism and Irish nationalism was absolute.

This is one of the reason most of the Protestant participants, such as Markiewicz or Casement, converted to Catholicism during or after the Rising. It is also significant that after the Rising, the monthly Dublin journal, the Catholic Bulletin carried a mass of material on the religious complexion of the Rising. Eamon de Valera stated in a speech given over a year later that Sinn Fein “would not divorce religion from politics, and if the party wanted success they must have religion”. (Irish Independent, 3 November 1917) It is not surprising that Sinn Fein chose papal count George Plunkett mentioned above as its first candidate for the Roscommon by-election in February 1917.

It is important to note that the catholic nationalism of Easter week was not some "clerical nationalism"as some of the clergy opposed the insurgents but a "confessional nationalism: Catholicism was the hallmark of Irish Nationality, a badge to be worn proudly in the face of the Protestant enemy." (John Newsinger (1978) "'I Bring Not Peace But a Sword'": The Religious Motif in the Irish War of Independence, Journal of Contemporary History, 13:3, 625-626)

This 'confessional' aspect has had a lasting influence. For example, the 1981 hunger strikers and their supporters, as Richard Kearney put it in his essay Myth and Motherland, “articulated a tribal voice of martyrdom, deeply embedded in the Gaelic, Catholic nationalist tradition”. But in 2016, it is difficult to defend the 1916 insurgents' identification between Catholicism and Irish nationalism as absolute and impossible to accept nationalism “like a divine religion" bearing "the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession”. Tone would have rejected being called the author of some "gospel" and Pearse got his interpretation of Thomas Davis wrong. For a secular republicanism of the Wolfe Tone variety, there are tensions between fighting for 'faith' and fighting for 'fatherland'. This shows that there is discontinuity rather than 'continuity' within Irish republicanism and that as an ideological current it is unevenly secular and still requires demythologising.


  1. Strong piece by Liam.

    I have been learning since the age of 16 that one of the 5 "isms" of republicanism was secularism, yet we are confronted time and again with this religiosity which runs counter to secularism. It is certainly one of the less savoury features of the Rising.

    "In the name of God..." we might have taken as mere fluff in the way that we might say miraculous even when we don't believe in miracles. But Liam points to a much more substantive religious ideology at play.

    An atheist obviously has solid reason for not viewing the Proclamation as infallible. It is the product of a collective opinion and is always open to challenge.

  2. Has it occurred to anyone that Brian O'Higgins might have been talking bollocks? The notion that Papal approval was sought, much less that it was given, is open to contest. Unless there is firm documentary evidence for it, I am disinclined to believe it, even with O'Higgins presenting himself as a first-hand witness.

  3. AM,

    Let's call a spade a spade; Sectarianism is rife within both Loyalist and Republican movements.

    I am reminded of the scene in 'The Wind that shakes the barley' of a young IRA man shooting an RIC constable as he came out of Mass.

    "May God have mercy on your soul" is what he proclaims just before pulling the trigger.

    Seems to me that the invocation of diety is used as a conscience shield when performing horrendous actions...and has has been for a very long time.

    Status quo, ad nauseam...

  4. This article is reactionary to it's core. Kevin Myers, et al eat your heart out. To base the aims of the Rising on merely a handful of its proponents actions, rather than their stated aims and objectives is beyond absurd.

    Like all reactionary observations, the author concentrates the symptoms, rather than the root cause. Which conveniently distorts narrative of the reality on the ground, ie the material conditions which brought about the rising in the first place.

    The author in this piece, like most modern hireling scribes, who like to paint the conflict in Ireland as Sectarian and tribal, they ignore Ireland's Colonel past or the laissez faire conditions imposed upon it.

    Patsy McGarry or Brian Ó hUiginns can hardly be regarded as the most impartial of observers now, Can they?

    Have you took into account all the old Fenians that had been excommunicated at this stage?

  5. this island is covered in mass graves of people who would rather starve than give up their faith. gaelic christians spread the love of God far and wide. this gaelic christian spirit survived the diabolical persecutions of centuries. it is unique. the gaelic christians were one of the first 'groups' to fall out with rome over the dating of easter many centuries ago. maybe we are the first protestants after all. the great saint of ireland patrick (from nextdoor) was derided by many because he was a man of the people and uneducated to the snobs of rome. thats why God sent him here.the gaelic christian spirit is still shining here in ireland. so fucking what if people said the rosary. so fucking what if it contradicts 'republicanism'. are u going to have a go at the hindus for reciting mantras or the muslems for praying 5 times a day. praying is a way of loving God. get over yourself. loving God is not sectarian. God loves atheists. do u think pearse would have a go at a group of protestants singing hymns. no way. irish catholics went through hell mr o ruirc. give them a break.

  6. Liam o'Ruairc says

    Thank you for your comments.

    @ Michael Mullan:

    "Has it occurred to anyone that Brian O'Higgins might have been talking bollocks? The notion that Papal approval was sought, much less that it was given, is open to contest. Unless there is firm documentary evidence for it, I am disinclined to believe it, even with O'Higgins presenting himself as a first-hand witness."

    As to whether the Pope blessed the Rising, doubts must have been expressed at the time as Brian O'Higgins sharply criticized those who doubted that the Pope had blessed the Rising: "The slave mind cannot conceive that the Head of Christendom should send to faithful Ireland his blessing on a struggle from paganism, oppression and robbery." (same reference as in my article)

    Please note that I have been told that the definite essay on this question is Dermot Keogh's 2007 "The Catholic Church, the Holy See and the 1916 Rising" which I haven't read yet and is 60 pages long.

    What is interesting is that in December 1929 Sinn Fein and the remnants of the Second Dail issued the following:

    an English rendering of the Remonstrance recently addressed to His Holiness, the Pope by the Executive Council, Republic of Ireland.
    Issued by Sinn Féin Standing Committee, 1929
    "Prostrate in spirit at the feet of your Holiness in Whom we revere the Vice-Regent of Jesus Christ, we humbly declare ourselves Faithful Children of the One Holy Catholic Church of which your Holiness has been appointed by Divine Providence as ...the Supreme Head and Guardian...We, who were elected to uphold the independence of Ireland, and who maintain the trust reposed in us by the real will of the People of All Ireland, recognise no authority in Ireland which gives allegiance to England or permits the Partition of our Ancient Christian Nation by a heretical people."

    ....and it goes on like that for 29 pages

  7. telling the romans was a big mistake. they never took the side of the gael. ever.

  8. wouldnt be surprised if they were behind macneills countermanding order.

  9. think it was just pique and wounded self-pride behind mc neill's countermanding order

  10. nice article euro, but why did u have to put in the man who is everywhere ferriter on it, im sick of the head of him. he is omnipresent.

    For Ireland they sought the fruits
    Of justice and peace: the former
    Germinating the latter.
    A reality formed by God, who is
    Biblically 'Love', and whom the
    Father of lies sought to replace.
    A father ensuring the birth of British
    Imperialism and its brutal acts
    Across the world.
    Peace is the flower of a nation's
    Freedom and the victims of the Easter
    Rising sacrificed in pursuit of it.
    Thus as the author of all is mystical
    Those who pursue his produce are also
    Mystical and 7 is known as the mystical number.

    Oh, let us recall the courage of the volunteers
    Of Nineteen and Sixteen who willingly gave
    Their lives for the freedom of Ireland.
    Justified in their actions through the existence of
    Foreign occupation and the denial of a nation's
    Right to self-determine its own future.
    Unfortunately, the Easter Revolution ended in failure
    Because of the numbers the republicans encountered
    And the betrayal of others who took over in leadership.
    Yes, the proclaimed 'Republic' has yet to function in-spite
    Of the 1918 election results and the continuing occupation
    By Britain against the will of the majority of our people.
    But the concept of democracy in time will be realised and
    A new Ireland will become a magnificent memorial to the
    Volunteers who gave their all in Nineteen and Sixteen.

  13. The participants in the 1916 Rising,whether Catholic or Protestant,or whatever,could not simply throw away their beliefs in accordance with the mentality of reporters such as that of the Irish Times.
    During the recent struggle for our country's freedom Protestant,Catholic,atheist,agnostic,died on hunger strike and the place of battle. Does that imply the so called 'troubles'was Catholic,Protestant,atheist or agnostic?
    Did Pearse have to abandon what he personally believed in order to lead the fight for democracy?
    Or is the the 1798 a Protestant uprising because of Tone,etc., or 1847 a merely Catholic event?
    All participants had their beliefs which all were entitled to but they fought for democracy and many of them died for it!
    Would the Times reporter pleas inform us about the first world war- was it Protestant,Catholic,or Dissenter?

  14. Liam

    I take your point but the fact remains; sectarianism while perhaps not a stated position of organisations at the outset, pervaded every level of grouping across the board.

    With regard to Ireland Richard Dawkins once said 'that without religion the two tribes (scot&irish=both Celts) would have intermarried along time ago and none of this nonsense would exist.'

    Maybe John Lennon was onto something...

  15. Steve,
    It was the imperialist minded English royalty who lies behind the sectarian aspects of Ireland's history not the reality of religion.

    Of course Mr. Dawkins would hold the opinion that religion like all aspects of existence came from nothing.Whatever the latter may be? Perhaps-Satan?

    The so called 'reformation'which in reality was a 'deformation'derived from ego based aspirations which imperialists manipulated to ensure 'divide and conquer'in their pursuit
    of wealth and control.

    Even as human history confirms Catholicism was used by ego minded persons in the pursuit of power and control.

  16. What Patrick Pearse and his fellow republicans accomplished in Easter Week, 1916, was momentus and truly revolutionary because they did not say that it was their desire to have a republic, or that they sought a republic, they in fact proclaimed a Republic!

    A Republic proclaimed and endorsed two years later (1918) by the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland.For in that general election Sinn Fein asked the Irish people to copperfasten the Republic proclaimed in 1916 by supporting their candidates with the pledge that with the return of a majority they would ensure that the Republic proclaimed in Easter Week (Poblacht na hEireann) would manifest itself to the nations of the world.

    Thus what the result of the 1918 election in Ireland mandated was the establishment of a National Parliament and arising from this assembly was the expressed national will of the Irish people i.e. the 'Declaration of Independence' from the centuries long military and administrative occupation by a foreign entity, namely Britain.

    The people had spoken! In fact the nearest number of candidates to Sinn Fein (with approximately 73 elected) were the Irish Unionists with approximately 26 candidates elected. But inspite of the overwhelming support by our nation for the implementation of the principles of the 1916 Proclamation the so-called 'mother of democracies' rejected the will of the people of Ireland and attacked the new 32 county Republic.

    The Republic was defended by representatives of the people who had mandated it into existence and during this period known as 'The War of Independence' the Irish people suffered immensely from the forces of perhaps the most vile and destructive colonial empire that the world has ever seen.In fact the 'Black and Tans' are forever etched on the national consciousness.

    Now when we look at the nineteenth century infamous Act of Union imposed on this country by Britain and consider the consent freely given by the Irish nation to the Republican Parliament (Dail Eireann) established in 1919 surely that Republic warrants our allegiance. Inspite of the fact that superior forces drove it underground and refused to let it function. The Act of Union, however undemocratic, had an existence in time as had the Proclamation of The Republic and the Declaration of Independence: the former the expression of political skulduggery and the latter the expression of national sovereignty.

  17. Thanks guys, for an enlightening discussion.

    I never knew how strong was the identification of Catholicism with Nationalism/Republicanism at that time. Of course we PULs always said it existed in the psyche of the Irish and would lead to 'Rome Rule' over us if we let it. But to see it so blatantly espoused by the men of '16 and their successors, that has surprised me.

    I thought the Catholic Ireland of De Valera had unexpectedly emerged against the wishes of the secular idealists of '16. That these idealists were overtaken by the weight of the conservative masses. But it seems they were no secular idealists at all, and their planned embrace of Protestants and Dissenters was to be patristic tolerance, not of equals.

    So I can better understand the comments of a Republican friend I knew in the '70s, when he said Ireland was a Catholic country and Protestants would be welcome in a United Ireland as long as they knew their place.

    I gather that is still the position of Catholic Republicans. Or am I mistaken?

  18. Ireland was a Catholic Christian country until the imperialists decide to control it by blown up churches,murdering those who professed the faith including the clergy and the religious.Also the technique of planting none Catholic none residents by stealing the latter properties and ensuring such brutal behaviour as the Famine.Tons of food exported abroad while the Catholic people died in their thousands and also forced to emigrate.The brutality of the imperialists arose from the so called Christian reformation which as history now confirms was a 'deformation'.Whereas the Bible confirms that Jesus established 'one'church we have hundreds of groups claiming to be the Church of Christ,today!Of course non Catholics like Wolfe Tone were democrats and opposed the English state activity by forming the United Irishmen and the seed of revolutionary republicanism grew in strength.

  19. Liam, thanks for the confirmation. I appreciate your honesty.

    You do realise that it was the Catholic English who conquered Ireland, with the blessing of the Catholic pope? He was keen to bring the Celtic Church into line with the Roman one.

    But, yes, the British oppression in Ireland greatly increased when the Reformation added a religious division to the mix. And the subsequent wars made things worse, as wars do.

    But can we list the Famine with oppression of Catholics? Surely all the poor were at risk, regardless of religion? Seems to me more a class/socio-economic ideology at work, not an anti-Catholic campaign.

    You say the brutality of the imperialists arose from the Reformation. You think Catholic rulers were less brutal? No, brutality is the natural state of rulers, and the religious beliefs of any of them is not the point.

    History confirms the Reformation as a deformation? Any honest historian would see it as an advance on the corrupt institution that was the Papacy. The Reformation was far from perfect, and still held to many of the power structures or beliefs of Rome, but it was the death knell for absolute monarchy.

    You of course hold it was a deformation of Catholicism - and it was that. It was a significant return to the Christianity of the New Testament, from which the Papacy had long departed. You object that it produced a myriad of Churches, while the Bible speaks of one Church. However, most of those Churches recognise each other as part of the One True Church. Your mistake is in assuming the RCC is the One True Church. It's not, and never was. The One True Church was always composed of local churches - the church in Jerusalem, in Ephesus, in Rome, for example. But after a century or so the church in Rome came up with its claim to rule over all the rest, and eventually the Papacy emerged. Against that corruption, down the ages, local churches and Christians objected. Many were martyred, others forced underground. And of course the big institution itself split into Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. And Roman Catholicism again split at the Reformation into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

    The RCC claim to be the authentic Church is not supported by the most important factor of all - the Bible. The doctrines and practices of the apostles and their Church are far removed from that of the RCC. The apostolic Church held to no separate priesthood; no special class of saints; no 'veneration' of images, etc. And it was not clothed in fine linen and gold, nor were its meeting houses.

    Yes, Wolfe Tone had an honourable vision of a democratic and free Republic. But not the Catholic Republic you seem to long for. Any genuine Republicans down the generations should be embarrassed at the Catholic Nationalism that seems to have been the real motivation of many of their comrades. It wasn't a Republic they most desired, but a Catholic nation state. Did not Griffith suggest adopting a Catholic monarchy for Ireland?

    It is good that these things are being discussed - for it's always better to realise what we really want than to deceive ourselves and others.

  20. Liam
    You are understandably angry at the way the British treated the Catholic Irish, however the RCC did much worse around the world. I was in Mexico recently and went on a trip to the Mayan ruins near Merida. It turns out that when the RCC arrived in Yucatan they forced thousands to 'convert', raided the Mayan temples and burnt their books, knocked down the temples and used the stones to build churches, banned the local language and ruled by fear. Thousands were burnt alive by the Inquisition in Mexico DF for the 'crime' of heresy and many more met this fate throughout Latin America all in the name of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. The history of the RCC empire is littered with atrocities, evil deeds, the surpression of peoples, women, languages, ways of life, scientific enquiry etc. Even today they forbid the condom as a tool to fight HIV and cover up the buggery of children on an industrial scale. The RCC is an empire more evil than the British one but you seem to have no problem supporting them.

  21. I want not only in Ireland but in the world a society under the influence of Jesus and as his church is the Catholic Catholic it is the best source of influence.