Poets of the Easter Rising
Perhaps the best known of all the writers, artists and poets connected to the Easter Rising is William Butler Yeats. Hardly a discussion on 1916 would be complete without someone quoting with sincere wisdom that “all was changed, changed utterly”. Of course, Yeats was commenting from the sideline as revolutions are hardly the place for writers and poets. And yet among the executed leaders of the Easter Rising there were enough writers and poets to deserve their own genre.
Come on the 1916 Walking Tour sometime where the poets of the 1916 Rising will be discussed in more detail but for now the following article should provide some insight into these characters.
Thomas MacDonagh was well known in literary circles. He was a school teacher like both of his parents, a keen language enthusiast (he first met Padraic Pearse on the Aran Islands) and editor of The Irish Review, a literary periodical. These were unlikely traits for a revolutionary and yet MacDonagh was heavily involved with the IRB since 1908. He was close to MacDiarmada and Clarke and was Chief Marshal (main organizer) for the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. MacDonagh married Muriel Gifford whose sister Grace would later be married to Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol. One of his more poignant poems is his Wishes for my Son who was born on Saint Cecilias Day 1912.
Now, my son, is life for you,
And I wish you joy of it,
Joy of power in all you do,
Deeper passion, better wit
Than I had who had enough,
Quicker life and length thereof,
More of every gift but love.
MacDonagh was the first teacher to be given a position in Padraic Pearse’s new school, St. Endas.
Pearse of course was the bi-lingual writer, the teacher, the first Provisional President of the Irish Republic as declared in 1916 and also the visionary poet. His oration at Rossa’s funeral is still quoted and indeed relevant today;
They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half.
Pearse was only 17 when he founded the New Ireland Literary Society which was dedicated to the study and spreading of Irish folk-lore, literature and poetry. He went on to edit An Claideamh Soluis for many years until he realized one of his life ambitions and established his school. Pearse wrote that the true work of the teacher was “to help the child to realize himself at his best and worthiest” as opposed to the British educational system which he classically termed The Murder Machine, churning out the boys for the trenches and the girls for the factories. There are few more emotive poems than those written by Pearse during his final hours of life. Pearse was devoted to his mother, to whom he wrote in a letter that he would call to her in his heart at the last moment and he was equally devoted to his younger brother Willie. This poem, To My Brother, was written in Arbour Hill Detention Barracks on May Day, 1916:
O faithful! Moulded in one womb,
We two have stood together all the years,
All the glad years and all the sorrowful years…
…You only have been my familiar friend,
Nor needed I another.
Pearse and MacDonagh were in good company with Joseph Plunkett who was involved with the latter on The Irish Review. It was Plunkett who, despite the fragility of his health, traveled in a very circuitous journey to Germany in April 1915 in order to meet Roger Casement. Plunkett also traveled to America to meet Clan na Gael leaders and to finalise plans for the Rising. James Connolly said of Joe that he had the greatest military mind and few people would doubt that the Kimmage man was responsible for the actual military plans for the Rising. One poem of Plunkett’s worth recalling is This Heritage to the Race of Kings:
This heritage to the race of kings
Their children and their children’s seed
Have wrought their prophecies in deed
Of terrible and splendid things.
The hands that fought, the hearts that broke
In old immortal tragedies,
These have not failed beneath the skies,
Their children’s heads refuse the yoke.
And still their hands shall guard the sod
That holds their father’s funeral urn,
Still shall their hearts volcanic burn
With anger of the sons of God.
No alien sword shall earn as wage
The entail of their blood and tears,
No shameful price for peaceful years
Shall ever part this heritage.
Edinburgh’s own James Connolly, although often seen as more of a political writer and Marxist theorist did dabble in poetry and even wrote a play entitled Under Which Flag. The play, concerning the Fenian Rising of 1867, could not be considered a masterpiece but is not without merit. Besides the genius of Connolly’s historical and political writings, he wrote some fine ballads many of which are still recited today. They are stirring songs of Labour and Revolution without sentimentality or banality one of the better ones being A Rebel Song:
Out of the depths of misery
We march with hearts aflame;
With wrath against the rulers false
Who wreck our manhood’s name.
The serf who licks the tyrant’s rod
May bend forgiving knee;
The slave who breaks his slavery’s chain
A wrathful man must be.
Roger Casement rarely receives a mention when it comes to the writers and poets of 1916 and yet his reports from the Putumayo and from the Congo show a writer of great talent. His descriptions of the horrendous brutality inflicted on innocent and perfectly peaceful native inhabitants was enough to force a change of policy with regard to the treatment of workers and slaves on the rubber plantations. Casement wrote in 1911 that “The robbery of Ireland since the Union has been so colossal, carried out on such a scale, that if the true account current between the two countries were ever submitted to any impartial tribunal England would be clapped in jail.” Besides his obvious wit he managed to write some serious and emotive rhyme including his poem Parnell:
Of unmatched skill to lead by pathways rife
With danger and dark doubt, where slander’s knife
Gleamed ever bare to wound, yet over all
He pressed triumphant on- lo, thus to fall.