The Easter Rising at 100: What Role Did the Church Play?

A recent article published in Crux laments what the author considers a lack of adequate attention given to the Catholic Church in centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland. In spite of the presence of the Head Chaplain for the Irish Defense Forces during the centenary celebrations, a planned centenary Requiem Mass hosted by the Minister for Defense in Ireland, a publically sponsored discussion of the role of the Church in the Rising, and media coverage regarding the Church’s role in the Rising in RTÉ and The Irish Times, the coverage could appear relatively sparse for those who still envision Ireland as a distinctly and singularly Catholic nation.

No doubt, the Church’s somewhat diminished role in celebrations in part derives from Ireland’s complex relationship with the Church. After revelations of widespread clerical abuse and increasing discomfort with the power structure which gave the Church great influence over 20th century Irish politics and polices, average Irish citizens may be less inclined to include the Church in state celebrations as openly as perhaps they would have in past decades. The swinging pendulum of the status of the Church in Ireland has greatly influenced how the nation choses to remember, or indeed, not remember, the significance of the Church’s contributions to the Rising. However, if one examines first-hand accounts of the Rising alongside contemporary historical sources, one finds that the role of the Church in the Rising was neither paramount nor negligible; rather it’s significance lies somewhere in the middle.

It cannot be denied that the Church held an influential role with many involved in the Rising. While the religiosity of leaders such as Pádraig Pearse is well-known, perhaps less well-known are the contributions of everyday religious leaders. For example, the Sisters of Charity ran a hospital to serve the wounded and feed the hungry throughout Easter Week. According to Áine Ceannt, widow of Rising leader Éamonn Ceannt, “enough praise could not be given” to Father Augustine and Father Albert for aiding those facing execution at the week’s end. After the Rising, these priests remained trusted advocates for the Rising participants and wrote in to pension boards to verify individuals’ participation in the Rising.

Memories of many participants also include praying the rosary repeatedly; indeed Rising participant Leslie Barry Price mentions praying the Rosary no less than eight times in her account. Memoirs also suggest a certain amount of heightened religiosity due to extreme conditions. According to Maeve McDowell, her husband, participant Cecil McDowell, converted to Catholicism in the midst of a dangerous fight in order to receive a blessing from a Catholic priest. Another instance of last-minute sacraments during the Rising is the marriage of Protestant-born Grace Giffords to Catholic Joseph Mary Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol, hours before Plunkett’s execution.

However, the religiosity of the Rising has, at times, been overstated. Before the Rising, leaders Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride were known to have held unorthodox and occasionally anti-clerical religious views. James Connolly, though he considered himself a Catholic and asked his wife to convert on his deathbed, held very strong communist beliefs that occasionally clashed with the Church’s outlook. And let us not forget the many Protestants who participated in the Rising, including Dr. Kathleen Lynn, Countess Markievicz, Roger Casement, Arthur Shields, and many rank-and-file members like the Norgrove sisters. Though some converted after the Rising, at the time they considered themselves Protestants. Additionally, others, though perhaps Catholic like Rose Hackett, make no mention in their accounts of the influence the Church had on their Rising experience. Likewise, in her 239-page memoir of the Rising, Doing My Bit for Ireland, participant Margaret Skinnider’s only mention of religion was of Protestants and Catholics who “knelt in prayer…side by side.”

Furthermore, the support that the Catholic Church lent the rebels varied. The previously mentioned Leslie Barry Price recalled that originally, a certain priest referred to the rebels as “murderers” and did not want to enter their garrison. Another priest told Rising participant Pauline Keating that they had “blown up the whole of Dublin.” Additionally, many bishops chose to remain silent on the Rising, and seven outright condemned it.

None of this is to say that the Church ought to be either enshrined or left out of Rising commemorations in 2016. Too often in making historical arguments, narratives attempt to make the facts of the past align with contemporary values. In Ireland’s recent past, Ireland fashioned itself as “Holy Catholic Ireland”, a state culturally and religiously separate from the United Kingdom. The emphasis on religious difference was taken to such an extreme that Ireland’s Constitution specified a special role for the Catholic Church. Today, Ireland has become increasingly secular and diverse in its attempt to embrace a European identity and leave behind the provincial. Immigrants from Africa and other parts of Europe now claim to be Irish, and with a hesitant peace in the North, people are less inclined to link their national identity with their religion. However, when either set of national values are used to influence national memory, important historical components of the past are left out, resulting in an incomplete history.

The advantage of studying the Rising is that its duration and the number of combatants who participated are relatively limited. Therefore histories written about the Rising can and indeed must provide nuance in order to empower those who seek truth. The identity of Ireland can be found in these unique and beautiful complexities, not in simplistic dichotomies that divide Ireland by creed or lack thereof.

Madelyn Lugli is a senior at the University of Notre Dame, where she will be graduating with a degree in History and Irish Studies.