Easter Rising Centenary: The Ambiguous Heroes Who Found Meaning in Irish Identity

Ireland is awash, this week, in commemorations of the Easter 1916 Rising. The doomed rebellion was based in Dublin and, despite an initial wave of public revulsion, helped to catalyse the Irish independence movement. Its proclamation of an Irish republic is, for many, the symbolic founding moment of the modern Republic of Ireland.

The 1916 Rising is a key moment in Irish nationalist history, but its significance isn’t limited to Ireland. At a moment when the spectre of domestic or home-grown terrorism haunts our public discourse, it’s worth remembering the Irish nationalists who came from England. They were grocers and schoolteachers, labourers and boarding-housekeepers, ordinary men and women who led English lives but found deeper meaning in Irish identity and the Irish cause. They raised funds, smuggled weapons, and took up arms themselves. I don’t want to suggest that they were the moral equivalents of modern terrorists who set off explosives in crowded public places. But their lives are a reminder of the complexity of living in a marginalized ethno-religious subculture and of holding multiple allegiances that cut across boundaries.

Consider the case of William Daly. According to the witness statement he later gave to the Irish Bureau of Military History, Daly was born in “a rough and ready quarter of London.” His mother hadn’t seen her native Kerry since she was four years old; his father who was born in London to Irish parents. Daly knew “nothing of Ireland except in a hazy kind of way” until he joined the Gaelic League. The London Gaelic League was at that time a thriving organization. It was an outpost for exiles and enthusiasts who sought, in the words of memoirist Tom Barclay, to revive the language “in the very heart of the most indifferent, if not the most inimical, city in the world.”

But Daly soon moved on to stronger stuff. In December 1913, he joined a new local branch of the Irish Volunteers in support of Home Rule for Ireland. When John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, committed the Volunteers to supporting the British war effort in World War I, Daly and his friends opted to join the minority of more advanced nationalists who split off. They seized control of the money and equipment in their local meeting place and began drilling for action.  

"IN A SENSE, I ADOPTED IRELAND AS MY OWN COUNTRY UNTIL IT ADOPTED ME AT EASTER 1916"

In 1916, conscription was introduced in Britain, though not in Ireland. Daly should have reported for duty; instead, he took the boat train to Dublin and reported to a camp in Kimmage. There, he trained with other recruits from England and Scotland for what was supposed to be an island-wide uprising on Easter Sunday.

That rebellion was called off, but Daly was undaunted. Like many others, he fought the next day in the narrower Dublin uprising led by Patrick Pearse. Volunteers from Scotland and England defended the Sackville Street bridge and also served at the General Post Office garrison and other locations; seven or eight were killed and three or four injured. For Daly, this was “the turning point in my life.” As he poignantly put it, “in a sense, I adopted Ireland as my own country until it adopted me at Easter 1916.”

Back home in London, members of the Gaelic League wept at the news of the first executions of the leaders of the rising. Daly was arrested and held briefly at an internment camp in Wales before being sent to Wandsworth Prison in London.  He enlivened the journey by “pointing out places of interest on the route” to his companions. And he was delighted to be met at stops by “the London Irish” who brought the prisoners “good cheer and often delicacies and sweetmeats and cigarettes.” Despite the gifts and encouragement, “I felt very home-sick when my bus brought me to within 200 yards of my home on that journey. My mother did not know I was so near.”

Daly ultimately chose to make his adult life in Ireland, but many of the “London Irish” - and the Irish in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and elsewhere - remained in Britain. There, they would continue to support Irish nationalism at a distance; the English branches of the Irish Republican Army (which grew out of the Volunteers) would even stage an elaborate sabotage campaign on English soil in 1920-21, during the Irish War of Independence.

Writing about the 1916 Rising, British intelligence officer H.B.C. Pollard deplored the fact that “these degraded traitors who had risen in alliance with Germany to stab Britain, and, through Britain, the Allies, in the back, were hailed as heroes - by the Irish.” Stabs in the back, fifth columnists, disloyalty and betrayal: these are all stock tropes. They capture the heightened sense of division that any conflict engenders. But they miss the emotional and personal complexity of a story like Daly’s, which encompasses yearning and the impossible homesickness of belonging to two places at once. The British-born Irish who fought in 1916 are ambiguous heroes, but their stories are crucial if we are to avoid missing the full dimensions of a rising that ultimately sundered the United Kingdom and foreshadowed a century of decolonization.

Mo Moulton is a lecturer in History & Literature at Harvard University.

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