wherever green is worn
This year marks the centenary celebration of Ireland’s Easter 1916 rebellion. The “Rising,” as it is called, took place on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. Irish nationalists attempted to take and hold key positions, notably Dublin Castle—the seat of British rule in the country, Trinity College—the university founded during the reign Queen Elizabeth that only admitted Catholics in the 20th century, and the GPO—the General Post Office, the façade of which still famously sports its more than fair share of bullet holes from the insurrection. These holes frame the bronze statue of Cuchulain, the mythic, martial Irish hero, who now reclines in the front window.
In the early twenty-first century, then, it seems unsurprising to witness a form of collective historical memorializing in Ireland itself. The seduction of nostalgia, to imagine a singular vision of national identity and venture into the past, is hard to resist when local shops serve up centenary-themed sweets, posters of the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic,” t-shirts, and postcards all of which sport versions of the events, images, and heroes of the nation. Books, conferences, and television programs (stay tuned for the Liam Neeson narrated documentary “1916 The Irish Rebellion” that will run on PBS, RTE, and the BBC this spring), all contribute to the collective retrospective gaze. The centenary in Ireland will be marked through a range of events, from the staged solemn ceremonies to informal celebratory frivolity.
The most well-known, influential source of this emotive vision is WB Yeats’ poem, “Easter 1916,” a work that famously asserts, “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” The lamented dead become martyrs to the emerging Irish nation for Yeats. The pronoun “all” in the final stanza becomes the present tense “are” to reinforce the sense of action and accomplishment. They are “number[ed]… in the song” and even one whom he personally reviled, who had “done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart,” a reference to John MacBride, the abusive husband of Maud Gonne (their son, Sean MacBride, would become one of the founders of Amnesty International and win the Nobel Peace Prize). Yeats also alludes to Thomas MacDonagh, a poet and playwright, names James Connolly, the labor leader, and describes Constance Gore-Booth, who later married and became Countess Markievicz, as having a voice that “grew shrill” from her “nights in argument.” Her death sentence was commuted because of her gender. The male leaders of the Rising were executed by firing squad at Dublin’s Kilmainhaim gaol in short order, with the exception of Roger Casement. Casement is a remarkable figure. Knighted for his 1904 report that detailed the shocking brutality of the rubber trade in the Belgian Congo, he was sold out by his Norwegian Sailor lover and was captured as he landed ashore. Casement was taken to Britain for trial and remains the last Knight of the Realm hung for treason. The British used his sexual life detailed in his diaries against him to forestall efforts at clemency. Yeats doesn’t include Casement in the poem, but he will write and name a poem for Casement later. For Yeats, in “Easter 1916” the heroes are framed within a singular gallery of national sacrifice—all have been transformed from living as jesters, “where motley is worn,” to existing as martyrs for the nation, “Wherever green is worn.”
While it may seem surprising to so conspicuously foreground literary culture in the creation of a national identity, Ireland is especially notable for the prominence of its literary arts in public life. Locations from the Dublin Writer’s Museum to the Guinness Storehouse (a kind of theme park for the dark liquid) have marked the Irish landscape through the vision of its writers, whether through formal exhibits or even just the original inscriptions on the windows of the Storehouse’s Gravity Bar. Before the adoption of the Euro, the face of James Joyce himself was on the 10 Punt note, an irony that Joyce (who frequently borrowed money throughout his life) would have undoubtedly enjoyed.
Joyce largely avoided allusions to the Rising in his Ulysses. Though published in 1922 (and written while Joyce was in exile), the novel is set in the Dublin of 1904. In this notoriously challenging book, a few lines work as possible if anachronistic (for the year of its setting) commentary on the Rising. Joyce alludes to a “recent war,” overtly the Boer War, as he asks, “did this traitor to his kind not seize the moment to discharge his piece against the empire of which he is a tenant,” a question that seems to awkwardly conjure 1916. Later in Ulysses, he writes of “Distant Voices,” who say, “Dublin’s burning! Dublin’s burning! On fire, on fire.”
Today, Dublin’s tourist maps are dotted with writers’ houses and libraries, large and small. Yet, the focus on literary figures has to some degree allowed Ireland to skirt the challenges of historical representation in officially sanctioned public culture, especially that associated with political discord that has erupted in violence. Yeats and his poem bring these divergent and sometimes uncomfortable sensibilities together.
The import of the Irish achievement as the first colony to escape the British Empire was critical in global efforts for decolonization. In fact, the struggle for Irish freedom from colonial rule would inspire such figures as Marcus Garvey who explained the symbolism of his UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) flag as “The Red showed their sympathy with the ‘Reds’ of the world, and the Green their sympathy for the Irish in their fight for freedom, and the Black—[for] the Negro.”
Yet, contemporary Irish writers are questioning the disquieting aftermath of 1916 (violence, death, abuse) and its appropriation into Ireland’s national mythos. What does 1916 mean for Ireland at home a century later? Elaine Feeney’s recent collection of poetry, “Where’s Katie?” asks for a reconsideration of Ireland’s heroes and heroines from Yeats and the Celtic Revival. For example, the heroine of Yeats’ and Augusta Lady Gregory’s play, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” the female embodiment of Ireland (the role was written for Maud Gonne) who laments that she has “strangers in my house,” accepts the sacrifice of a young man and through his loss becomes regenerated; the old woman suddenly has “the walk” of a “young queen.”
Feeney reconsiders Ireland after 1916 now in “Our Very Own Republic,” to consider if the promised national regeneration of sacrifice for Cathleen / Katie has been fulfilled. She looks for modern avatars of the mythic heroine even as she avers, “This is no country for anyman–/ Yeats you fucking pansy! / The young are dying in one another’s arms.” In the title poem of her collection “Where’s Katie?” she explains, “we’ve revved and motored past a second coming” placing Yeats firmly in an earlier age. She finds Katie, in fact, wearing neither the motley clothes of a clown nor the green of the martyr, but in “a lap dancing pub” where “Inside this pathetic den there’s a glimpse / of Katie in a raw purple nightie.”
Yeats’ enduring dream vision of “terrible beauty,” his mourning for and his celebration of 1916, has influenced generations, from schoolchildren to literary scholars and historians, who grapple still with the complexities of the Rising and its aftermath. In the wake of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace of a kind to the “Troubles” of the North as well as the frenzy of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent economic collapse, the promise of the nation remains beguiling and elusive, even as we see her dance across the stage.
Maria McGarrity is in the English department at Long Island University-Brooklyn. She is the author most recently of Allusions In Omeros: Notes and a Guide to Derek Walcott’s Masterpiece and co-editor of Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.