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.
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.