I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
—William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916"
2016 marks the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, when a small band of republicans’ brief insurrection over Easter Week 1916 resulted in their declaration of independence from Great Britain to form the Irish Republic (Poblacht na hÉireann). Quickly and violently squashed by the British, the Easter Rising became a defining moment for the complex landscape of Irish culture, politics, and history in the twentieth century.
Shortly after noon on April 24, 1916, Patrick Pearse (Pádraig Pearse or Pádraig Mac Piarais) emerged from the newly formed headquarters of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic at Dublin’s General Post Office. He read—to a very small crowd—the hastily printed Proclamation of the Republic (Forógra na Poblachta), which not only asserted Ireland’s right to independence, but also justified the cause for armed rebellion, bloodshed, and sacrifice within the tradition of the Irish physical force movement.
In response, the British government declared martial law. After days of shelling and fierce fighting, the rebels surrendered unconditionally to prevent more deaths. Fifteen men, including the seven signatories of the Proclamation, were tried by secret military courts and executed for participating in the Uprising in May. A sixteenth man, Roger Casement, was imprisoned in Pentonville Gaol in London, where he was tried on charges of High Treason an hanged on 3 August 1916, the only leader of the Rising to be executed outside of Ireland.
Reaction during and immediately after the Rising was mixed. It had been disruptive and, to many, needlessly violent: by the end of the week, 64 insurgents, 132 soldiers and police, and about 230 civilians had perished. Over 1,000 people were wounded. The General Post Office, Dublin City Hall, and other landmarks around Dublin were in shambles. But public opinion at home and abroad soon turned with the disclosure of the severity of the executions, the secret trials, and deportations. The leaders of the Rising became cult heroes in the months after their executions.
Between May and September 1916, William Butler Yeats wrote what would become “Easter, 1916,” a poem that was not the ringing endorsement of Republicanism many had hoped it would be (though it was interpreted as such). Despite his prominent role in the Literary Revival and establishment of the Abbey Theatre in the earlier part of the century, Yeats became increasingly disillusioned with radicalism. Irish historian and Yeats biographer R.F. Foster notes that “Easter, 1916” instead “emphasized not only the bewildered and delusional state of the rebels, but it move[d] on to a plea for the flashing, changing joy of life rather than the harsh stone of fanatical opinion fixed in the effluvial stream.”
Literary texts—with a copy of the rare first edition of Yeats’s Easter, 1916 as the iconic centerpiece—are exhibited alongside political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, and graphics, reflecting the significant role print culture had in inspiring patriotism, relaying news, spreading rumors, and constructing a national mythology from a complex variety of events and players that, for some, is traced over centuries of British colonial rule.
The exhibition examines events and attitudes before and after the events of Easter Week 1916, including the Gaelic Revival, the rise of Irish Nationalism, the War of Independence (1917-1921), the Civil War (1922-1923), and Irish literature produced in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland during The Troubles in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Curated by Maureen (Máirín) Cech. The curator would like to thank Special Collections graduate assistant Sarah Iuli (2015-2016) and Library Assistants Timothy English, Dustin Frohlich, and Anita Wellner for all their installation support.