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.
—W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916
This week marks a century since Easter Monday, 1916, when Irish nationalists seized the control of the General Post Office in Dublin and other key sites and proclaimed the Provisional Government of an Irish Republic. The Easter Rising, which was put down on April 29, is part of the creation myth of Ireland today, complete with its list of martyrs shot by the British. Though the Irish Republic celebrated the centenary on Easter weekend, the 24th to the 29th, this week, is the actual anniversary.
But Yeats' "terrible beauty" influenced (if not "changed utterly") events far beyond those regions "wherever green is worn." As the First World War ended, the Irish events influenced nationalist movements worldwide. I'll deal here only with the resonances in the broader Middle East. Long-established links between Egyptian and Irish nationalists were invigorated and reinforced. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, while deploring the resort to arms, often drew parallels between the Irish and Indian struggles. And in the coming years the Irish model would influence the Zionist movement, most profoundly its rightwing "Revisionist" wing. The underground operative who eventually became Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir took his Hebrew name from his nom de guerre Rabbi Shamir, but his earlier revolutionary pseudonym was "Michael," after Irish guerrilla commander Michael Collins.
Ireland and Egypt
Long before 1916, there were many critics of British colonial policies who recognized parallels between Irish and Egyptian nationalism. Augusta, Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish dramatist and folklorist who was a co-founder with Yeats of the Abbey Theater, wrote her first non-fiction essay on Arabi and his Household, an 1882 defense of Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi's revolt, which had been put down by Britain's intervention in Egypt. ‘Urabi's most vocal English defender, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who also knew Gregory, was also a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule, as well. His 1907 The Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt was a staunch defense of ‘Urabi and a critique of British policy.
Another Anglo-Irish advocate of Irish Home Rule, who made the parallels between the Irish and Egyptian cases explicit, was George Bernard Shaw, who in the "Preface for Politicians" to his 1911 Irish play John Bull's Other Island wrote a defense of Irish Home Rule to which he appended a denunciation of what he called "The Denshawai Horror," referring to the 1906 "Denshawai incident" in which several Egyptian peasants were hanged by the British after defending their village against British soldiers who had been shooting the town's pigeons.
So there were parallels between Irish and Egyptian Nationalism even before the 1916 Rising. Another irony linking the two: a figure we have already met in his role as General Officer Commanding, British Troops in Egypt: General Sir John Maxwell. On April 28, 1916, Maxwell was named Military Governor of Ireland with plenary powers under Martial Law. After the Rising was crushed he held a series of field court martials under Martial Law, which involved trial in secret and did not permit defense counsel. Ninety were condemned to death, though after 15 had been shot by firing squads, the remaining sentences were commuted to life after public outrage in England.
The subsequent history of the Irish independence movement would also have echoes in the Egyptian and other nationalist movements. In the elections of 1918 for the British Parliament, 73 members of the Sinn Féin independence movement won election to Westminster, but refused to go to London and instead proclaimed themselves the Parliament of the Irish Republic, Dáil Éireann. By creating a self-proclaimed provisional government, Irish nationalists created a model much used in other anti-colonialist movements, including the Egyptian move to name a Wafd or delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1919. Though the British exiled Sa‘ad Zaghloul, his Wafd became Egypt's nationalist party. In 1919 Egypt's Revolution of 1919 broke out (called by the British an uprising). That same year the Irish war of independence began (called by the British terrorism). In 1920 Britain began talks in Egypt on semi-independence. In 1921 they negotiated a limited independence for all but the northern six counties of Ireland. In 1922 both the Kingdom of Egypt and the Irish Free State came into being.
Tomorrow, we'll look at the echoes in India and Revisionist Zionism.