Putting the language of Pearse in context: Blood Sacrifice and 1916
In recent weeks, a number of controversial articles have appeared in the British press in relation to the rebels of Easter Week, and the supposed cult of ‘blood sacrifice’ that was at the heart of their actions. Yet the language of Patrick Pearse a century ago must be viewed in the context of its time writes historian Donal Fallon.
In The Telegraph, Charles Moore suggested that the modern equivalent of Pearse and his followers are to be found in the Islamic State, accusing Pearse of the “distasteful confusion of political fanaticism with faith” and pointing towards the Rising as an act of self-sacrifice.
The language of Patrick Pearse a century ago must be viewed in the context of its time, and in many ways reflects the language of the political and military leaders of the belligerent nations of the First World War; indeed, it even reflects the language of the parliamentary nationalist leader John Redmond.
Most frequently quoted as evidence of Pearse’s obsession with the spilling of blood is his welcoming of the First World War. Pearse proclaimed that “the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.”
Opposition to this outlook came from within the pages of James Connolly’s newspaper The Workers’ Republic, which boldly stated that “No! We do not believe that war is glorious, inspiring, or regenerating. We believe it to be hateful, damnable, and damning…Any person, whether English, German, or Irish, who sings the praises of war is, in our opinion, a blithering idiot.”
Yet if Connolly felt that Pearse’s welcoming of the war amounted to the ramblings of a blithering idiot, it was Pearse and not Connolly whose language was in the political mainstream, while Connolly himself would later express similar sentiments.
John Redmond's language
In an Irish political context, the language of John Redmond in encouraging Irish recruitment to the British Army during the course of the First World War is deserving of greater attention. Joseph Finnan, a biographer of Redmond, maintains that "the war had attained an almost mystical significance for Redmond, was as much as called on his fellow Irishmen to make a blood sacrifice in the war."
Much as Pearse regarded the very act of war as a demonstration of manhood, Redmond would proclaim that "no people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess; and although Irish blood has reddened the earth of every continent, never until now have we as a people set a national army in the field."
Redmond believed that the blood sacrifice of Irishmen in the trenches could be a unifying thing, as if Unionists and Nationalists could "come together in the trenches and risk their lives together and spill their blood together, I say there is no power on earth that when they come home can induce them to turn as enemies one upon another."
What is remarkable about the language of sacrifice that made its impact on war time discourse, as historian Paul Ham has noted, is that it ignored the recent horrors of men who had fought the conflicts of the early twentieth century – and there were plenty - as if they "barely impinged on the minds of the new generation. They glorified the ideal of youthful self-sacrifice, which the old establishment - politicians, editors and the church - ennobled..."
Sacrifice & the Left
While Connolly had dismissed Pearse’s welcoming of the First World War, such language could be found among the Socialist left too. The Paris Commune of 1871, a period in which the French capital was placed under revolutionary self-government, was a hugely important influence on James Connolly’s political thinking, indeed in his Edinburgh days he had come into contact with Leo Meillet, a veteran of the Commune who Connolly admired greatly.
Meillet himself would proclaim at a commemoration of the Commune in Edinburgh that “without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation”; by February 1916, Connolly was proclaiming in his own newspaper that “without the shedding of blood there is no redemption.” Joost Augusteijn, a biographer of Pearse, has pointed towards the German Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht as further evidence of such rhetoric on the Socialist left.
Having led an unsuccessful socialist revolt in 1919, Liebknecht stated of his fallen comrades that “ they have shed blood for a holy cause, which has thus been sanctified. And from every drop of their blood, this seed of dragons for the winners of today, will rise the fallen Avenger.”
For Ulster Unionists, blood sacrifice came in 1916 too, with the violent slaughter of the Battle of the Somme. As northern playwright Philip Orr has noted, in the iconography of Loyalist Ulster, “the Somme began to play a crucial role, featuring that tragic battle as a counterweight to the events of Easter 1916, a blood sacrifice that was meant to copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s bond to the Union.”
The Belfast Telegraph proclaimed the Somme to be “Ulster’s sacrifice for Empire”, while the Presbyterian Reverend Dr. Henry Montgomery told an audience on the Shankill Road days later that "the gallant youth of Ulster", who had signed the Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, had now "sealed it with their blood on the battlefields of France and Flanders."
Sacrifice in the Cultural Realm
In the cultural realm, as much as the political, the language of blood sacrifice was present during this period. The French poet Charles Péguy would write that “nothing is as murderous as weakness and cowardice”, words not unlike those of Pearse who proclaimed that “there are many things worse than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them.”
Thomas Mann, the German novelist who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, proclaimed that the conflict represented “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope. The victory of Germany will be a victory of soul over numbers." In Britain, an industry of war poetry emerged during the conflict, which presented death and the spilling of blood for the nation as a glorious thing. Jingoistic poetry would give way for more anti-war sentiment as the conflict progressed, not least from those poets in the trenches.
Pearse’s rhetoric – and it was political rhetoric - was not unique even among the secret Military Council which planned insurrection; Seán Mac Diarmada, speaking in 1914, stated that "the Irish patriotic spirit will die forever unless a blood sacrifice is made in the next few years.”
In his notes for the programme of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, Connolly himself was now utilising similar political rhetoric, outlining a belief that the members of his Citizen Army were "of the number who believe that at the call of duty they may have to lay down their lives for Ireland...at the worst the laying down of their lives shall constitute the starting point of another glorious tradition."
Yet the 1916 Rising, rather than an act of mass suicide or blood sacrifice as some maintain, was an insurrection which the rebels believed could ultimately succeed. They had studied the lessons of urban insurrection in both an Irish and international context, sought military assistance from the German state and even provisionally planned for self-governance in the future.
If the language of Pearse and his fellow nationalists is shocking to us today, what of Redmond praising young Irishmen “offering up their supreme sacrifice of life with a smile on their lips because it was given for Ireland"? Context is everything.
Donal Fallon is a historian and one of the writers behind Dublin history blog 'Come Here to Me'