“It is a curious fact about Ireland that a violent uprising against imperialism brought about by forces including avowed Marxists and others who saw themselves as abreast of radical thinking across the world gave rise in short order to an ultra-conservative Confessional State.
The power of the Church did not come about through ideological struggle over the content of the new State. Belief in social as well as political transformation was not entwined with anti-clericalism, as in the Catholic countries of southern Europe. The State born from the Rising was a cradle Catholic.
Oppression of Catholics since the Penal days meant that freedom to be Catholic had become an important component of the idea of national freedom. History had built in a role for religion. Wolfe Tone believed 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”. He regretted that Bonaparte had missed a chance to “destroy forever the papal tyranny”.
Faith and Fatherland
There was little acknowledgment in 1916 of that element in the legacy of the “Father of Irish Republicanism”. (Never rates a mention at Bodenstown today, either.) In the minds of many who took part in the Rising, the fight was for faith as well as fatherland.
The rosary was regularly recited in the GPO. If only for the sake of completeness, this, too, should be depicted next year in tableaux and other representations of the seminal event in the creation of an independent Irish State. It would likewise be relevant to highlight the dispatch of papal count George Plunkett to Rome a fortnight before the Rising to seek the blessing of Benedict XV on the enterprise, an act which would have driven Tone to despair.
It is said that “the bishops condemned the Rising”. This is at best an exaggeration, repeated today in efforts to project the Rising as a secular event. In fact, there were 31 Catholic bishops in Ireland in 1916, of whom only seven explicitly condemned the rebels. Most of the rest kept cannily quiet, before placing themselves soon at the head of the national movement which was to arise from the Dublin rubble.
Their presence was to make Republicanism safe for the mass of the people to embrace, while serving to suffocate the dangerous radicalism also generated by the Rising.
Ten per cent of the delegates to the first Sinn Féin convention after the Rising, in April 1917, were priests. A few months later, Fr Michael Flanagan was elected vice-president of the party. Two other priests were voted on to the executive.
The death of Thomas Ashe on hunger strike in September 1917 and the clergy’s takeover of the countrywide mourning was significant for consolidating the church’s ascendancy. Ashe’s funeral procession through Dublin was led by a detachment of armed volunteers. Behind them came 150 priests walking in solemn formation in their vestments, with Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe front and centre and Dublin archbishop Dr William Walsh following on in a motor car”.
“20 priests, including a curate who would go on to become Archbishop of Dublin, were involved in ministering to those caught up in the events of Easter week on both sides of the divide.
Among the historic documents from the Diocesan Archive is an account of how over 40 people sought refuge in Dublin’s Pro Cathedral when fighting broke out in the city centre. All around the Cathedral buildings were ablaze – the group were forced to stay inside the “Pro” for three days. Meanwhile, the priests of the Cathedral continued to come and go from the building to be with the wounded and dying. One Cathedral curate ran from the Pro to Wynne’s Hotel through streets raked with gunfire from all sides to attend to a wounded man who was badly injured.
Jervis Street Hospital quickly filled with the wounded and it was the busiest hospital in the city centre during the week of the Rising. A priest was in attendance at all times to cater for the many religious needs of the wounded and dying. The Very Rev. Fr. Richard Bowden, Administrator of the Pro Cathedral, ensured that clergy were always available. He stayed there constantly through Monday, Tuesday and left on Wednesday morning when curates, Fr. Edward Byrne (who would later become Archbishop of Dublin) and Fr. Joseph Mc Ardle took over.
Also among the newly released documents are letters from the British General Maxwell asking for the removal of “rebellious priests”, Alice Stopford Green seeking clemency for Roger Casement & Fr. Laurence Stafford speaking about being the last Irishman in Frongoch”.
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow-And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.
– Padraig H. Pearse
A manuscript found in an old filing box of documents in England has revealed that in the hours before he was executed in Dublin in 1916, the Citizens’ Army leader James Connolly returned to his Catholic faith.
The manuscript with the title ‘Daring All things – My Story’ was the unpublished autobiography of British Army chaplain George Kendall OBE and gives a first-hand account of the capture of the rebel leaders.
“I saw James Connolly twice whilst he was in hospital, the second time being on the eve of his execution.
“Speaking to me on the first visit, he said in answer to a question of mine about his attitude – ‘You must know the saying.’ ‘What saying?’ I asked. And he replied: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.’ This too was the saying I heard as I spoke to his men in the Dublin Castle hospital.
“Listening, I felt it was not my duty to condemn, or argue. Connolly was, for years, a professed agnostic, but at the hour of death, he returned to the Faith of his fathers. That night a Catholic priest was admitted to the hospital and he administered Holy Communion to Connolly and gave him absolution.
“Asked to pray, at the end, for the soldiers about to shoot him, he said: ‘I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty.’
Grace Evelyn Gifford Plunkett was an Irish artist and cartoonist who was active in the Republican movement, who married her fiancé Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol only a few hours before he was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Her growing interest in the Roman Catholic religion led to the deepening of Gifford and Plunkett’s relationship as she began to discuss Catholic mystical ideas with him – he was from an arch-Catholic family, his father a Papal count. Plunkett proposed to her in 1915; Grace accepted and took formal instruction in Catholic doctrine. She was received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. The couple planned to marry on Easter Sunday that year, in a double wedding with her sister who was engaged to Thomas MacDonagh, another leader of the Rising. Her parents were not in favour of her marrying Plunkett, due to the precarious state of his health – he was extremely ill at this time.
After the Rising, her brother-in-law Thomas MacDonagh was shot with Padraig Pearse and Thomas Clarke by firing squad on 3rd May. The same day, Grace heard that Joseph was to be shot at dawn. She bought a ring in a jeweller’s shop in Dublin city centre and, with the help of a priest, persuaded the military authorities to allow them to marry. She and Joe were married on the night of 3rd May in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol, a few hours before he was executed.
“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”.
(Count Plunkett quoted by Brian O’Higgins, Easter 1916: The Story of the Rising, Dublin: 1940)
“So how are we going to mark the centenary of 1916? There will be plenty of public debate and discussion all this year, and the more there is, the better. For it should be a genuinely national discussion on as wide a canvas as possible.
I hope it won’t be forgotten, or overlooked, that the truth about Easter 1916 was that it was a deeply spiritual event. Indeed, even though the official Catholic Church disapproved of rebellion, it was a profoundly Catholic event well chronicled in Fearghal McGarry’s magisterial study The Rising – Easter 1916.
As Dr McGarry demonstrates, most of the participants in the 1916 Rising had a spiritual attitude to what they were doing, and many, like Pearse himself, approached it as a deliberately sacrificial event.
Mass and Holy Communion sustained the insurgents, and in the GPO itself, the Rosary was said every hour.
Dr McGarry, an academic at Queen’s University Belfast, has brought a truthful and radical insight into the events of 1916, and we shouldn’t brush aside the values which sustained the men and women of 1916, if we want to see history accurately. Nor should we forget the role of the Capuchin priests and Vincentian nuns who tended the wounded, maimed and dying in the streets of Dublin.
(The artist Muriel Brandt did some wonderful paintings of these nuns, who at that time wore unmistakeable butterfly wimples, caring for street victims: the pictures can be seen at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.)”