‘THE BUTCHER’S APRON’: THE EASTER RISING AND THE GREAT WAR’S GREATEST LIE
By Sean Howard
The Easter Rising of 1916 constitutes a major landmark not just in the fight for Irish independence but the broader struggle against a racist, rapacious Empire, the largest colonial experiment in world history. The rebellion, as chaotic and quixotic as it was courageous, was brutally repressed, and most of its leaders executed, but not before laying claim to “the ownership of Ireland” and the “unfettered control of Irish destinies.”
“With some blocks in Dublin as reduced to rubble as war-ravaged towns in France and Belgium,” historian Adam Hochschild writes, “the Easter Rising was a sharp blow to all who hoped that the shared ordeal of war would strengthen the bonds holding together the British Empire.” In August 1914, John Redmond, leader of the Irish Republican Party in the House of Commons, urged Catholics and Protestants to fight side by side against Germany, hoping shared sacrifice would finally deliver Home Rule. One motivation, indeed, for British entry into the war was arresting what seemed an inexorable drift to sectarian conflict in Ireland, and possibly elsewhere in the perversely-titled ‘United Kingdom.’
The war, it was hoped, would also stem the flow of strikes and industrial action, and the rise of transnational labour solidarity, in all the combatant nations, as well as opening new colonial markets and resources for the victors. Sure enough, millions of workers spent the next four years slaughtering each other, generating obscene warmongering profits, while the European powers planned in secret for a post-War carve-up of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
By Easter 1916, the scale of Redmond’s naïve and tragic miscalculation was clear. From the outset, in fact, the official justification for conflict, the need to defend ‘brave little Belgium’, rang hollow to many colonized peoples (not least in the brutally administered ‘Belgian Congo’). To a clear majority of Irish Republicans, the Union Jack was known simply as John Bull’s ‘butcher’s apron’. And the ‘butcher’ had a lot to account for, most infamously the million deaths during the misnamed ‘Famine’ of 1845-52, an eminently avoidable disaster seized upon, as Christine Kenealy writes in ‘The Great Calamity,’ as an “opportunity” to “bring about economic and social changes in Ireland that were considered to be desirable by a ruling class who, for the most part, did not even reside there.” As the ‘reforming’ landlord George Hill wrote in 1853, the “Irish people have profited much by the Famine,” a “visitation of Divine Providence” finally uprooting “old prejudices and old ways.” Similar language would be used in the equally preventable ‘famines’ killing millions in India in the 1870s and 1890s, while the use of starvation and disease as weapons of mass destruction was a hallmark of European settlement across the Americas and elsewhere.
In the late eighteenth century, revolutionary France assisted a failed Irish revolt; in 1916, Germany, for more cynical reasons, attempted to supply arms to the rebels. When the plot was thwarted, the uprising was doomed, though Britain promptly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a rash of vicious, martyr-making reprisals. In the eyes of the Viceroy of Ireland, Sir John French, scarred by a disastrous 16-month stint as commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, the rebels were disloyal scum, pro-German traitors easily disposed of. Instead, their deaths inspired civil disobedience and guerrilla resistance, followed by civil war and a partition which, as David Reynolds wrote in ‘The Long Shadow,’ “would sour the rest of the twentieth century” in both Ireland and Britain.
French had recently been replaced in France and Flanders by an even more inept and myopic General, Sir Douglas Haig, who two months after the Rising would order a suicidal attack against uncut German wire at the Somme, leaving 20,000 dead on the first day of battle alone. Twenty Irish battalions, mostly from Ulster, took part in the assault; all were devastated, some annihilated. The battle, incredibly, would continue for five futile months. In July 1917, between the Somme and the even bloodier, muddier hell of Passchendaele, the British officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon publically declared that “the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” “I am a soldier,” Sassoon wrote, “acting on behalf of soldiers,” and “I believe that this War…has now become a War of aggression and conquest.”
Another British war poet, Wilfred Owen, killed in action a week before Armistice Day, denounced as an “old lie” the core claim of jingoists everywhere, ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’: ‘it is sweet and honourable to die for your country.’ And he’s right: the ‘hero halo’ has been a noose for millions. But in the case of the Great War, that deceit was framed and fueled by one even grander, an imperial doublespeak yet to be fully decoded. Ask the Irish, the Indians, all the millions of John Bull’s victims: ‘the Fallen’ didn’t die for freedom. They fell into the butcher’s trap.