On Easter Monday of 1916, 150 or so Irish rebels took armed action against their British rulers, seizing the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin. After a week of fighting, they lost to the thousands of British troops arrayed against them, but the Rising ultimately led to Irish independence from the mighty British Empire. Given the musical and literary traditions of the Irish, it is no surprise that the rebellion also gave rise to poems, songs, movies, and books. (In fact, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Rising, was himself a poet.) Probably the best-known of the poems is William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916":
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
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.
One of the best of the many songs that came out of the Easter Rising is "The Foggy Dew," written in 1919 by Charles O’Neill, a parish priest from County Down. This version by the great Dublin singer Frank Harte, who died a few years ago and who was once described by my friend Doug Lang as having "a voice like a tenor sax," is my favorite (listen here to "The Foggy Dew"), though Sinead O'Connor's rendition with the Chieftains also gives me the chills.
And here let me offer a BAP scoop. One of the heroes of 1916 was the socialist and labor leader James Connolly, whom the Brits executed sitting down, as his battle wounds had yet to heal. One of the most stirring songs about Connolly was composed by poet-songwriter-playwright Patrick Galvin, from County Cork. Paddy, now in his 80s, visited my brother Jesse's house outside D.C. in February of 1981 for a house party, a few days after Paddy and Celtic Thunder, the band started by me and Jesse, had performed in concert together. We recorded him talking, reading poems, and singing. So here is Paddy himself singing his composition "James Connolly" from that magical evening ('James Connolly'). Jesse, currently Cathaorleach (chairman) of our local chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (the worldwide Irish music society), accompanies Paddy on the bodhran (drum). Ten years earlier, we got to spend some time with Brian Heron, James Connolly's grandson and the founder of the National Association for Irish Justice, one of a number of groups that were formed back in those days to support the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland. [right: Brian Heron, 1971; © Jesse Winch]
The Easter Rising became the starting point for modern Irish history, its echoes clearly audible throughout the recent Troubles in the north of Ireland (as this song of my own, called "The Streets of Belfast,"demonstrates). In the years immediately following the Rising, the struggle for independence from Britain continued, eventually leading to the partition of Ireland as a condition for the establishment of the Irish Free State. Partition, in turn, spurred a terrible civil war among Irish nationalists that tore the country apart. This grim and bloody period has inspired a number of searing films, including two of recent vintage: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach's 2007 film starring Cillian Murphy, and Michael Collins, the 1996 Liam Neeson film written and directed by Neil Jordan. But for me the greatest of them all is the 1935 John Ford classic, The Informer, based on a Liam O'Flaherty novel and starring Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan, an ill-fated "gutter Judas," to use the New York Times's memorable phrase. (Here's a clip of McLaglen at work.)
Happy Easter & Up the Republic!
(ed note: This post first ran on April 4, 2010)