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13 April 2006 Edition

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1916 - 2006: Poets and writers prominent in Rising's leadership

The Poets' rebellion


Perhaps the best known of all the writers, artists and poets associated in people's minds with the Easter Rising is William Butler Yeats. Hardly a discussion on 1916 would be complete without someone quoting from his poem that all is "changed, changed utterly". While Yeats was commenting from the sidelines, it is nonetheless the case that amongst the executed leaders of the Rising there were enough writers and poets to deserve their own genre.

Thomas MacDonagh for example was well known in literary circles. He was a schoolteacher like both of his parents, a keen language enthusiast (he first met Pádraig Pearse on the Aran Islands) and editor of The Irish Review, a literary periodical. MacDonagh was heavily involved with the IRB since 1908. He was close to MacDiarmada and Clarke and was Chief Marshal 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 MacDonagh's more poignant poems is his Wishes for my Son, who was "born on Saint Cecilia's 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 Pearse's new school, St. Enda's. Pearse of course was the bilingual writer, the teacher, the first provisional President of the Republic 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 folklore, literature and poetry. He went on to edit An Claidheamh Soluis for many years until he realised 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. His 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."

It ends:

"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, travelled a very circuitous journey to Germany in April 1915 in order to meet Roger Casement. Plunkett also travelled to America to meet Clan na Gael leaders and to finalise plans for the Rising. James Connolly said of Plunkett 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.

James Connolly, although often seen as more of a technical writer as opposed to a literary figure 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.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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