The week leading up to Easter Sunday is a preeminent one for Christians all over the world. In Ireland, it has long been associated with the prayers, rituals and particular services that herald the most important Sunday in the Christian calendar.
When Easter is late, as it is this year, the week also acts as an unofficial harbinger of the confirmed spring, Easter Sunday being the season’s unofficial flowering.
There was more than praying and looking forward to the improving weather in Ireland 95 years ago this week.
This year’s Easter almost exactly coincides with the falling of the holiday in 1916. There is, indeed, just a day in the difference. While most Irish people were going about their normal preparations during what was the second Holy Week of the Great War, some were contemplating a war. The Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army were putting together final preparations for a fight that most of them knew they could not win, at least in the short run.
The plan was to strike for Irish freedom at an hour when the British empire was locked in a do-or-die struggle with the rival empires of continental Europe.
The idea was to seize strategic locations around the county, most especially in Dublin, and to hold out in the hope of a more general uprising of the population, aid from Germany, Irish America, indeed any source that took the view that Ireland had a right to her freedom no less so than any nation.
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For those of a more religious persuasion, and there were more than a few in the leadership ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in particular, there had to have been a sense that the planned insurrection was tantamount to a resurrection of the entire Irish people, the living, and the “dead generations” as the Proclamation would state.
Holy Week of 1916 had an inauspicious start from an Irish nationalist perspective. And it started badly in New York where U.S. agents raided the office of a German agent and uncovered details of German and Irish-American efforts to foster and aid a rising.
The week proceeded badly for the Irish leadership after the New York seizure. The Aud, a ship carrying guns from Germany, was scuttled in Cork Harbor on Good Friday after being intercepted by a British patrol vessel.
Subsequently, the situation grew more confused. With the arrest of Roger Casement and Austin Stack in addition to the loss of the arms, the military council of the IRB was advised against an immediate armed rising.
Planned maneuvers by volunteers on Easter Sunday itself were cancelled by Eoin Mac Néill after he learned of the loss of the Aud, and the arrests.
This decision has a particular effect outside Dublin and would result in the capital being the focal point for virtually all that would follow in Easter Week.
For those who would face the wrath of the world’s greatest military power, Easter Sunday would be a day of more than the usual reflection. For sure, many were aware that they would not survive, though they doubtless hoped and prayed. It’s unlikely that too many in the Irish ranks were thinking in terms of some “blood sacrifice,” the label that has been pinned hard to Padraic Pearse’s name in recent times.
The essence of the human condition is hope. It comes before despair. The men and women of 1916 hoped, and hoped hard.
As we all know, the events that followed Holy Week would be anything but holy in nature though, with the passing of time, the Easter Rising would be elevated to the status of something sacred in the great Irish narrative.
Nevertheless, there has been varying and often colliding interpretations of the Rising over the intervening 95 years though most recently there have been signs of more of a balance being achieved in how the events of Easter 1916 are interpreted and remembered.
It can take the passing of 95 years to achieve such, or perhaps 100 hundred years. But regardless, we remember anew each and every year, most especially this Easter, which so closely mirrors in its dates the second Easter of the war they dared call great.