Tag Archives: Ireland

Writers and the Easter Rising


Arbour Hill, Dublin, where Patrick Pearse and other leaders of the Easter Rising are buried.

One hundred years ago today in Dublin, an Irish writer named Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the General Post Office and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, while revolutionary groups like the IRB and the women’s nationalist organization Cumann na mBan occupied Dublin and other locations in Ireland. Many of the revolutionaries were intellectuals, socialists, writers, stemming from different backgrounds; Patrick Pearse was a playwright and poet. Their goals included workers’ rights and women’s rights, alongside concerns that Britain would implement a military draft in Ireland to supplement its effort in the First World War. In the following week, known as the Easter Rising, the British responded as they often have when a colony declares independence: with excessive military force, which devastated Dublin and the rising’s core membership.

In the wake of the Rising, the British rounded up, arrested, and executed many of the rebellion’s leaders. Within a few weeks, the British executed much of Ireland’s intellectual community. Remaining leaders, such as Eamon de Valera, would go on to lead a more conservative Ireland, almost erasing the role of women and workers in the Irish Revolution from Ireland’s historical memory.

Patrick Pearse was executed on May 3. He joined what he believed was a just cause, and saw his responsibility not in writing, but in direct action, alongside other Irish writers, including the poet Joseph Plunkett.


Thoor Ballylee

The poet William Butler Yeats felt differently. He sympathized with the IRB, but distanced himself from it before the Easter Rising. Some time after the Rising, he purchased a castle called Thoor Ballylee in rural western Ireland, where he placed himself both literally and figuratively above what would become the Irish War for Independence, Partition, and Civil War.

James Joyce had already relocated to the Continent, leaving Ireland behind physically but not artistically. Sean O’Casey, an Irish playwright, did not participate in the Easter Rising but would continue to write plays through the revolutionary period. While not all who participated in the Rising were executed, Britain’s heavy-handed response resulted in the deaths of numerous Irish writers, leaders, and thinkers. Meanwhile, writers who refused to participate allowed themselves more years to write, and therefore critique and contribute.

What is the role of writers in social change? In social upheaval? The Easter Rising may be an extreme example, but so was the American Revolution. What is a writer’s responsibility to a cause? It requires humility to surrender oneself to an active political movement, and a vast ego to situate oneself above the fray. But direct involvement is risky, and with the loss of intelligentsia comes the kind of one-sided leadership de Valera seemed to emphasize in the 1940s and 1950s when he found himself in charge of Ireland. Many American thinkers today threaten to leave the country if this or that candidate is elected president, but doing so abandons those Americans who cannot afford to leave to potentially brutal leadership that is suddenly without domestic criticism.

I try to be an activist, but I’m the first to admit I’m not very good at it, and that’s mostly because I can easily stop. If I wanted to, I could afford to escape into a pleasant countryside and write from afar; or I could join an activist group on the streets. I wish I knew which I would choose. All I know is that I admire Patrick Pearse’s bravery and humility in putting writing on hold for what he saw as a more admirable calling.


A Brief Note About Galway

Corrib River

On the furthest western edge of Europe, on the western coast of Ireland, is a city called Galway. The River Corrib flows through the city into the Atlantic, and Galway is crisscrossed with bridges and waterways. Although it seems to be far-removed from most of European activity, an isolated region of an isolated country, Galway is exceptionally cosmopolitan, with roots as a trading network and a social junction during the seventeenth century. Galway merchants sailed to Italy with Irish wool, and returned with goods from the Mediterranean, including fine wines and art. Maritime commerce was, and still is, a central part of life here.


Today, it reminds me of my hometown, Flagstaff. The National University of Ireland, Galway, brings in new students and faculty, and with them ideas, to the city. There is a flourishing art scene here, which includes the Galway Film Fleadh, the Arts Festival, and a farmer’s market every Saturday. But more like Flagstaff, it is a point between destinations. Flagstaff is on Route 66 and in addition sees about a hundred trains pass through each day, it is a stopping point for many people; similarly, Galway is a coastal trading city where travelers, ideas, cuisine, and cultures converge. Both cities are driven by university life and academic patronage, whose dispensation is evident in artistic displays, festivals, and even graffiti. In fact, I have seen more graffiti in Galway than my own town. Graffiti

Medium-sized, quirky communities can be found anywhere, I think. They act like cities and small towns at the same time. They are twilight cities on the edge of the new and the old. For a writer, these are the best places, because they tend to be the strangest, in my experience. Places like Boulder, Missoula, Flagstaff, and even Galway on the edge of the Atlantic, are in my opinion the most authentic, appealing communities in the world.


To Whom It May Concern

Yesterday, while wandering the streets of Galway around the river, I found myself in front of a Catholic church built in the 1800s. I stepped inside, eager to explore a tradition with which I was unfamiliar. I had been in Catholic churches before, but only on guided tours with a camera in my hands and a ball cap on my head. This was different. This was an opportunity to find a new experience.


I was alone inside the old church, and the silence was overwhelming in a city that otherwise was suffocated by the noise of traffic, crowds, and the river. I walked past a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, turned toward an organ, and made my way up the church to the front pew. There, I sat down in silence and looked around the bright room, engulfed in its old and magnificent imagery. The silence was almost alarming, as I had hardly a moment of solitude since my arrival in Ireland. I worried that somebody might come in and tell me I was in the wrong place, or ask me how I got past the Swiss Guard. After a while, though, I closed my eyes and listened to nothing, and managed to stop thinking for a few soft moments.

After a while, I opened my eyes, took out my notebook, and wrote a simple, one-page poem. I wrote it slowly, deliberately, one word at a time. I rarely take such care when writing. It was a brief poem entitled “To Whom It May Concern.” I tore it from my notebook, rose quietly from my seat, and placed it on the altar. After that, I left quickly, afraid that I would be caught.

I do not remember the contents of the poem. After I left it on the altar, it no longer belonged to me. It was a gift to the first person to find it. All I remember about it is that I felt satisfied when I finished it, that it was about light, that it ended with the line “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and I signed it “jk.” Perhaps they will think I was joking, or maybe it’ll be thrown away, or maybe it will be read aloud at Sunday Mass by a curious priest. For me, it was out of the ordinary, but I felt peaceful when I placed the paper on the sunlit altar. I’ll never know what happened to that little poem; all I know is that it set sail for uncharted territory just as I did two weeks ago.


Kiss Me, I’m Torn by Sectarian Violence


Many people go to Ireland to drink, look at the lush green landscape, have another drink, and fantasize about ancient Celtic culture as they understand it from Renaissance festivals. Often, the turbulent nature of Irish history, as is the case with much of history, goes ignored. Ireland has suffered tremendous oppression and violence, as well as poverty and disease. This can be seen in the capital city’s cemeteries. Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin, holds 1.5 million bodies, and the population of Dublin is 1.2 million; there are more dead Irish in one cemetery alone than there are living in the entire city. For a brief time during the Famine in the nineteenth century, fifty percent of the population of Dublin died before reaching the age of eighteen, dying in the slums which were considered among the worst in Europe.

With these and other atrocities in mind, outraged and lamenting Irish citizens formed organizations to counter and ultimately oust British rule over the island, and as a result, hundreds died in a bloody insurrection in April and May of 1916. A civil war followed the negotiated partition of the country into two halves, and sectarian violence from both Catholic Republicans and Protestant loyalists continued well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Some Irish and Northern Irish citizens were targeted only for their religious conviction, and bombings became commonplace in Ireland, as is the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria today.
Issues surrounding commemoration involve a shared place but not a shared memory. Many Catholic citizens have an emotional stake in keeping the memory of British oppression alive, while many loyalists want Ireland to acknowledge that the IRA committed atrocities against innocent Protestants. A historian told me today that when the meaning is stripped away from history, all that remains is a list of the dead, the one universality that all remembrances share. Thousands of people died in Ireland fighting for what they believed was a just cause; the reasons for the conflict are still disputed today, and there is no concurrence regarding who should be blamed, resulting in a society where one figure can be a villain and a hero at the same time, in the same region, even in the same pub. Keeping intact a divided country is still a challenge, and historiography plays a major role.

The Irish façade of beer and merry musicians is a part of Irish history, as my cabby made clear to me when he discussed the many gigs he has played in Irish pubs. But he was also frank in explaining the problems of remembrance, the survival of the Irish language, and the Irish emigration during the Famine years. This is not a place that can possibly live up to the façade for which so many tourists come. This is a place where, as we approach the hundredth anniversary of a century of violence and conflict, the complexity of a shared atrocity across sectarian lines is unavoidable, no matter how many ridiculous T-shirts one buys.



A Nation of Writers

Irish Books

In a few days, I will depart across the Atlantic and spend a month in Ireland studying its history and literature. In many ways I’ll be a fish out of water. I willingly admit that I know very little about Ireland. The authors I have read have mostly been from the Americas, and the history I’ve studied has mainly been twentieth century conflict and the Cold War. Apart from a small ancestral connection, Ireland has not played a major role in my studies or my life. So naturally I decided to spend five weeks there, because among the few things I know about Ireland, I know it’s a nation of writers.

Four of Ireland’s writers (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney) have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Countless other Irish writers have left the world with outstanding literary works. A handful of the Irish writers includes James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Oscar Wilde, John B. Keane, Brian Friel, Sean O’Casey, Johnathan Swift, Edna O’Brien, Molly Keane, and numerous others. In contrast to the rich literary tradition, there are few major Irish painters, sculptors, and composers. There is a longstanding oral tradition, and in the past century a theatrical tradition has developed. The essential form of artistic expression in Ireland is the written word.

Ninety years ago, Ireland was engulfed in sectarian violence along religious and geopolitical lines, similar to what is seen today in parts of the Arab world and parts of Africa. A violent uprising and civil war began in 1916 accompanying the First World War, and the country split in two. Meanwhile, the Irish wrote poetry, novels, and plays amid the chaos. Their history is no different from the history I have studied. The Irish have suffered colonialism, violence, and poverty, and have expressed themselves through art and literature the way Russians, Afghans, Indians, Syrians, and Chileans have. I hope to immerse myself in the literature in its original context, to know the ins and outs of literature as thoroughly and intimately as I can.