"Writing Emmet’s Epitaph: Rebels Versus Politicians in the Boston Globe’s Representation of the Easter Rising"

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“Writing Emmet’s Epitaph: Rebels Versus Politicians in the Boston Globe’s Representation of the Easter Rising”

James E. Jordan

“I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world. It is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them. Let them rest in obscurity and peace, my memory be left in oblivion and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

–Robert Emmet, 1803
On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a force of Irishmen under arms estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 men and women attempted to capture Dublin. Their ultimate intention was to violently bring about “Home Rule” in Ireland by seizing the opportunity presenting itself owing to Britain’s protracted involvement in the Great War. The “rebels” took over key buildings, centered on the General Post Office in O’Connell Street—the place where Padraig Pearse issued his proclamation on behalf of the Irish Republic. The leaders of the rebellion, Pearse, James Connolly, and the others, knew that their chances of success were so slight as to be almost non-existent; yet, for almost a week, they fought and died, attempting to hold back the combined might of the British and Irish forces sent against them. On the direct orders of the cabinet in London, the punishment dealt to the rebels was swift, secret, and shocking: the leaders were tried by a military court and executed. Only after death were their sentences announced to the public. It was this callous response by the British that served to create a sympathetic environment in which radical Irish Nationalists, such as Michael Collins, would later prosecute a successful terrorist war and realize a(n) (almost) free Ireland. Three thousand miles away in America, the British reaction found the Boston Globe, historically a conservative, constitutionalist daily newspaper, caught between the two seemingly opposed, yet inextricably intertwined, traditions of Irishmen as rebels and as politicians. The Globe’s coverage essentially evolved through three discernable stages. First, the newspaper expressed initial support for Britain and Redmondite—constitutional—politics and thus denounced the rebels as traitors. Second, following the secret executions, the Globe started to withdraw from its previous position; however, it did not openly support the revolutionaries either. Finally, the Globe markedly changed the ways in which it described Pearse and co., but also in its treatment of Britain and her policies. Ultimately, it was these ill-conceived British policies that served to galvanize Boston public opinion in favor of the men who had made the ultimate “blood sacrifice,” an opinion that had previously been portrayed on the Globe’s pages as decidedly anti-rebel. It was the British government’s cold-hearted suppression of the Rising, therefore, that brought to life the “rebels” of popular imagination for the Boston-Irish, and in doing so paved the way for the Boston Globe to write Emmet’s epitaph.1

The Globe’s first report of trouble in Ireland was on Wednesday 26th of April, but it was downplayed, as per the British government’s official line, as a relatively small and insignificant “German” affair. The language the Globe employed went cheek-in-jowl with the British government’s position, referring to the affair as a “revolt,” and the participants, “rioters,” “disturbers,” and as a “mob.”2 Notably, the Globe identified the men actively opposing the riots as “loyalists” and “nationalists,” terms clearly demonstrating the newspaper’s opening position on the “Easter Rebellion.” The later edition has a more accurate report of the day’s occurrences in Dublin, with two of the front-page headlines stating “Martial Law” and “11 Insurgents Killed.”3 In addition to referring to Sir Roger Casement as leader of the “Separatist Faction,” the evening Globe voices the public’s condemnation, calling him a “renegade” and a man whose actions have made him “intensely hated.”4 Overall, the rebellion was still portrayed by the Globe as a relatively small affair, a view that would change, however, by the following evening.

The next evening’s edition ran the headline, “ALL OF IRELAND IN UPROAR,” a far cry from the previous day’s rendering of the rebellion. In response to this escalation of events, the Globe quoted the two most important Irish politicians (at the time), Sir Edward Carson and John Redmond, both of whom were avowed parliamentary enemies, but both of whom expressed their “abhorrence of the uprising and their desire to support the government” in the Commons.5 The newspaper detailed the “official” British line in full, publishing Lord Lansdowne’s comments on the rebellion, some of which included him stating that the “rebels made a half-hearted attack on Dublin Castle” and that now the “situation was undoubtedly well in hand.”6 Furthermore, the Globe continued to discredit Casement, running the headline, “SUPPORT THEORY SIR ROGER CASEMENT IS INSANE”–the implications of which are self-evident.7 The Globe followed up this derogatory headline by printing a story that implied Sir Roger was acting according alone, unsupervised and out of control.8

Amassing various points of view of the rebellion, the Globe found broad support throughout the world for the denunciation of the rebels. There was even a special dispatch from the Vatican illustrating the legitimacy of such denunciations in which His Holiness the Pope was set to “discipline Irish clergy found to be rebels.”9 Again, the Globe reported that Redmond and Carson support the British in quashing the rebellion, having “expressed their detestation of the rising.”10 In addition to denunciation from within the United Kingdom and the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church, the Globe also found disapproval of Pearse and co., from the far-flung corners of the British Empire. The newspaper printed that Redmond had received a cablegram from, among others places, Adelaide, Australia “repudiating the action of the rebellious elements in Dublin and expressing scorn at what they have done ‘while brave Irish soldiers are dying at the front that their country might prosper.’”11

Particularly unsympathetic to the rebels, Saturday morning’s Globe led with the headline, “DUBLIN REBELS BEATEN WITH HEAVY LOSSES,” the report direct from one of its own eye-witness correspondents.12 Continuing with anti-rebel rhetoric, just a couple of inches down the headline reads, “TRAITORS TO IRELAND REDMOND DECLARES.”13 Referring to the Home-Rule Bill that had been temporarily postponed from being put into action owing to the outbreak of hostilities on the Continent, Redmond begged the question, “Is there a sane man in Ireland who does not see this meant the drowning of Ireland’s newly-won liberties in Irish blood?”14 Redmond further claimed the rebels’ view to be that of the minority, consisting of traitors who had tried to make Ireland a cat’s paw of Germany. Portraying the rebels as backstabbers, Redmond also referred to the revolt as an “insane and unpatriotic movement” while criticizing the leaders for remaining “in the safe remoteness of American cities.”15 This edition has a lot of “factual” and eyewitness reports about the rising; for example, the Globe identified most of its leaders (including Countess Markiewicz) and lamented the damage done to Dublin’s infrastructure and business. The paper reported the rebels looting the hospital and taking patients and hotel guests prisoner, as well as including an account of someone who castigated the rebels for becoming very “indiscriminate” with their firing, causing “many more civilians to be wounded.”16 The same correspondent who reported that there was around 1500 rebels, confirmed that he had seen the “rebel flag” and estimated the current number of casualties to be around 100.17 Furthering the newspapers’ stance that the rebellion be condemned, the Globe informed its readers the “rioters shot down women and children” in one or two instances, and that the majority of the rebels were disaffected old men and impressionable youths.18

The next morning leading headline, “DUBLIN REBELLION IS NEAR COLLAPSE,” gave Bostonians the impression that things would soon return to normal, especially when it reported in the body text that the situation in the rest of Ireland was “generally satisfactory.”19 Supplementing this sense of finality, Baron Wimbourne, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, cleverly declared that the rebellion was part of a German scheme designed to undermine the war effort. When coupled with his “praise for the loyalty displayed by the great majority of the Irish people,” he presented a persuasive argument that the British were quashing the rebellion on behalf of the Irishmen overseas who were fighting the Germans.20 Although the Wimbourne article primarily provides logistical information, it did include an account of the Sinn Feiners shooting at the fire brigade– sentiments which would hardly endear the rebels to a foreign audience. Furthermore, another report implied that the civilian population of Dublin was suffering most because the situation the rebels had created kept them starving and unable to leave their homes. For those that did venture outside of their houses for food or the like, the article entitled “Children Shot By Sinn Feiners” articulated exactly what could happen to those who came within rebel sights, an charge “fully justified” by the Associated Press correspondent who “saw the whole thing that morning.”21

The newspaper reported that the “elements making for disorder” comprised of no more than 3,000 of the population and that the rebel group consisted “almost entirely of youthful enthusiasts, not even 100 men of mature years involved,” thereby implying the rebellion was by no means representative of the general population of Irishmen.22 In an effort to buttress this position, the Globe yet again ran a story in which Redmond denounced the rebellion as anti-Irish. In fact, this edition demonstrates the considerable support the newspaper afforded John Redmond in the pre-execution period of the Rebellion, stating that “as leader of the Irish Nationalists, [he] has placed himself absolutely at the disposal of the authorities and is in constant touch with them.”23 In addition to backing him themselves, the Globe printed evidence of other Redmondite support in America, one of the most significant being when the “National Officials of United Irish League Declare[d] [Redmond] Voiced Sentiments of Vast Majority of Irishmen” regarding the recent events in Ireland.24 Although Redmond’s support was portrayed as firm in the United States, according to what the Globe published, it was stronger across the water in Ireland. The newspaper continued, “in many places besides Dublin, the Nationalist voters already have on their own initiative [as opposed to Redmond’s mere appeal for this] mobilized in support of the troops.”25 The Globe, therefore, presented an image of Redmond and the British government in which the former represented the Irish people while the latter fought on behalf of their best interests. There was little or no dissension in Ireland among the inhabitants vis-à-vis the British according to reports, with one correspondent even stating, “on every hand one hears eager queries for news and strong condemnation of the revolutionaries.”26 A word of warning is printed about martyrdom along with an admonition that executing Sir Roger Casement would be bad for the “Irish Cause” because his hanging “would confuse the minds of many people who do not know the story of Irish politics and Home Rule.”27

Monday’s edition pronounced the end of the revolt, declaring that the “rebel flag was up in flames” and that the “[British] soldiers [had] Stop[ped] Looting.”28 Details concerning the surrender were also printed, with the Globe estimating that there were “about 450 of them” who had capitulated.29 The rebellion was over, and so now the Globe attempted to assess the extent of the damage caused by the belligerents. Therefore, one of its front-page headlines was “Redmond Reassures America Uprising Has Not Harmed Home Rule Cause,” as if to try and calm Bostonians down in their wrath against the rebels who might have undone many generations’ constitutional work towards a free Ireland.30 German aid was again cited as the impetus for the affair rather than any particular nationalistic volition on the part of the Irish. Wimbourne was quoted as saying “that in fact their [Sinn Fein] motto, ‘ourselves alone,’ accurately reflected their relations to the rest of their fellow countrymen.”31 Compounding Wimbourne’s sentiments were the strong words of John Redmond who, in a message written intended especially for American eyes, claimed, “the whole disgraceful plot is viewed with execration by the Irish people” and that “it was almost entirely a Dublin movement; partly the creation of the Sinn Feiner cranks and German agents there….”32 Furthermore, he believed he had the support of Irishmen all over the world. To demonstrate the rebellion’s fruitless conclusion, the Globe printed Redmond as saying “I beg our people in America not to be unduly disturbed by this futile and miserable attempt to destroy Ireland. It has failed definitely, finally failed.”33 Perhaps because the situation had calmed down significantly, the newspaper now printed a copy of the Proclamation of Independence read out by Patrick Pearse on the steps of the GPO. In addition, the Globe also published an (rare) article of its own, surmising on the rebellion that “the opinion prevails on every hand that the attempt at the formation of a Republic has been abortive. The rebels have been unable to show any success after their first surprise.”34

On Tuesday the 2nd of May, the Globe was still fully in support of John Redmond and the conservative elements in Irish politics, reassuring its readers that the situation in Ireland was returning to a state of normality. The front-page headline, “ENGLAND SHIPS DUBLIN REBELS: All in City Surrender and 489 Sent to Britain,” presented Bostonians with the knowledge that the rebellion had definitely ended.35 Brief biographies of some of the leaders and a fairly balanced day-by-day account of the recent events in Ireland were also included. To demonstrate its attempt at objectivity, the Globe incorporated a report stating that “most of the population, expressed indignation at the outbreak, which they considered the work of fanatics, and as never having had a permanent chance of success.”36 By arguing that the inhabitants were the chief sufferers of the rebellion, the newspaper made a case in which those same people could be mad at the rebels. These sentiments were realized in a subsequent paragraph that read,

The Dublin soldiers and the Irish regiments, who bore the brunt of the first day’s outbreak, expressed great indignation over the uprising. Some expressed regret that the English regiments had been brought over to suppress the disturbances, as they thought the English soldiers were inclined to treat the rebels too leniently.37

Local support for John Redmond was also printed in an article describing the events at a recent meeting of the Boston Central Branch of the U.I.L. which, after a two hour deliberation, sent the following cablegram: “No doubting Irish sentiment in Boston. Ardently supports you and the party.”38 With things returning to normal in Ireland and no real change in opinion in Boston reported by the Globe, the rebellion looked situated to be forgotten. Nevertheless, the winds of change were blowing and word of the rebellion would not be long out of the news.

After a brief morning lull in the Globe’s interest in Dublin affairs, the evening edition reported the first news of “FOUR IRISH REBELS SHOT” and “SECRETARY BIRRELL RESIGNS,” thus breathing new life into this previously moribund subject.39 Now that the newspaper had been forced to make value judgments as to the righteousness of these executions, it started to waver somewhat in its anti-rebellion stance. A change of emphasis is belied in the morning edition’s headline of “FOUR DUBLIN LEADERS SHOT.”40 Instead of being rebels, Pearse et al. were now being considered leaders, implying that they were representative of a people and not, of what noted historian R. F. Foster called, “a minority of a minority.”41 Fairly sympathetic biographies are provided of Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, and MacDonagh, while a report that the executions “created a profound feeling” in the Commons when announced was also included.42

“EXECUTIONS DENOUNCED” led another article on the same day from New York, in which Robert Ford decried the shooting of Pearse would “make the war between England and Ireland more bitter.”43 He also lamented that Pearse should have been treated as a prisoner of war: “To shoot him down was a piece of base brutality and will no doubt cause reprisals by the people of Ireland.”44 Expanding upon this theme, Jeremiah A. O’Leary, director of the United Irish Societies, defiantly declared, “The world will remember Ireland because the blood of these men and the sacrifices of their gallant associates will cry out.”45 Perhaps responding to the changing (or hardening) attitudes, the Globe also reported how John F. Kelly, chairman of the Massachusetts Committee, F.O.I.F., replied a resolute “no” to a letter asking for funds for the relief of the Allies, adding his comments, “[of England] night and day I pray for her downfall.”46 Nevertheless, by the evening edition, the newspaper continued in its transitional phase with appropriate ambiguity when it appeared to have returned to its previous position regarding the Irish belligerents, again referring to those who had been shot as rebels and stating that, “justice has been swift in the case of the leaders of the Sinn Fein rebellion.”47 The Globe also corrected itself from the morning edition when it had reported that Connolly had been shot – he was still alive, in prison, wounded.48 Perhaps typical Globe reporting, one article read,

The general public was not aware of the execution of the ringleaders until late last evening, and it was not possible to observe the effect of their punishment upon the citizens of Dublin, who, however, for the vastly greater part were not in sympathy with the rebellion.49

Openly advocating the British administration’s policies, the Globe once again referred to the Irish belligerents, who were shot on Friday the 5th of May, as “rebels” and quoted the Bishop of Dublin’s support for the Crown’s policies there. Shortly after things had been reported to be calming down, Plunkett, Daly, O’Hanrahan, and Willie Pearse were the “FOUR IRISH REBELS SHOT.”50 Furthermore, it became known that Irish Secretary, Augustine Birrell resigned the previous day; the combination of situations presented a somewhat archaic picture of events in Ireland, and, in many ways, the confused position of the Globe. In an attempt to downplay the latest executions, the Globe notified Bostonians that fifteen others were condemned to death but later had their sentences commuted to 10 years penal servitude. Additionally, however, the Bishop of Dublin, supporting the policy of executions, announced,

Many armed rebels are still at large in Dublin, and the danger of another uprising can only be averted by the strictest of measures. This is not the time for amnesties or pardons. It is a time for swift, stern punishment.51

The apparent calming down of recent events in Ireland meant that the Globe’s coverage on the 6th of May was limited to a short piece on the execution of Major John McBride; what is noteworthy, however, is that from this date forward, the paper is consistent when referring to the men and women it formerly castigated as “rebels.” McBride’s execution was reported as his being the “EIGHTH SINN FEIN LEADER SHOT.”52 The pendulum had swung, and the Irish belligerents were “leaders” once more. After taking Sunday off Irish affairs, the Globe’s commentary reappeared on Monday to return the Easter rebellion to its front pages making clear its paradigmatic shift in perspective.

On Monday the 8th of May, Bostonians picked up their morning edition of the Globe and were greeted with the very partisan front-page headline “PRAISE IRISH, SCORE ENGLAND,” a banner exemplifying the paper’s recent change of heart concerning the late unpleasantness in Ireland.53 Again, the Irish belligerents are called “leaders” on the front page; the newspaper also recorded that the death sentences of a number of the leaders had been commuted to jail terms. John Redmond’s name was reported “drowned out with hisses” at a local Roxbury meeting of the F.O.I.F., an attitude that was becoming increasingly popular as a result of the growing number of well-attended F.O.I.F. meetings held across the country.54 Quoting J. Rohan, the Globe reported from the meeting that “the resolutions style this insurrection the greatest boon that could be achieved for the Irish race, and point to the executions as deeds which the whole Irish race will resent for all time and for which retribution must be exacted.”55 In addition, the Globe printed extensive details of a “Meeting of 4000 at Springfield: Auditorium Crowded at Mass Meeting to Protest Against Executions of Leaders of Irish Uprising.”56

“FOUR MORE IRISH LEADERS SHOT” appeared on the front page of the Tuesday morning Globe, accompanied by John Redmond’s request to the British government that an end be put to the executions.57 Essentially, all that was new in Tuesday’s editions was that James Mark Sullivan had been reportedly released and John MacNeil, the “President of the Sinn Fein Volunteers,” had been arrested for his involvement in the recent events in Ireland.58 In a very small piece on the front page of Wednesday evening’s Globe also appeared a report that Baron Wimbourne, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, had resigned, but little else on the latest occurrences of interest in Dublin was mentioned.

When on the morning of Thursday the 11th of May the Boston Globe reported the shooting of F. Sheehy Skeffington as a “blunder,” the paper continued its anti-British pro-“rebel” commentary, even to the point of referring to two more men executed as having been “slain.”59 The account of the three men being, in essence, murdered, one of whom was a pacifist, and two of whom were journalists, added to the increasing Bostonian sentiment that the British were acting capriciously in Ireland, thereby contributing to the mounting feelings of sympathy for the rebels. Redmond’s party recognized this sympathy and so issued statements, some of which the Globe published, calling “for martial law to be revoked, otherwise the public would start to turn against England and towards the rebels.”60 In Boston, it looked as though the public already had.61 The Globe also printed George Bernard Shaw’s defiant comments that declared the executed men to be sacrificial victims who would take “their places beside Emmet and the Manchester Martyrs in Ireland and beside the heroes of Poland, Serbia, and Belgium in Europe” which “nothing in heaven and earth [could] prevent.” 62 By continuing to report the Rising in such a way, the Globe appeared to be proving true Shaw’s prophesy, and, in essence, writing Emmet’s epitaph.

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