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Easter, 1916 | Context


Irish History

For most of British history—at least since the Norman invasion in the 11th century—Ireland was an independent nation ruled under the British crown. This meant Ireland "belonged" to Britain but ruled itself independently. British control started in a small area, which expanded over time until 1603, when England claimed complete control of Ireland. At various points in history, power returned to Irish princes and princesses, who ruled for brief periods before the English returned to stake their claim on the country, including after the English Civil War when English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell doled out acres of Irish land to repay English soldiers for their army service. When English King Henry VIII took the throne in the 1500s, he also requested control of Ireland.

There wasn't a major shakeup of power until the late 1700s, when the native Irish began agitating against British control in pursuit of better trading laws to benefit their own workers. In 1801 the Union Bill passed, formally recognizing Ireland as part of Britain. From this point, Irish nationalists fought to extricate themselves from British control, with failed uprisings in 1803, 1848, and 1867. The fight reached fever pitch during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–51, when more than two million Irish died or fled Ireland when potato crops failed. The British government, however, maintained demands on Irish farmers to meet wheat and dairy export orders. In 1912 the Home Rule law, which would grant Ireland independence, passed Parliament but was never enacted.

The Easter Rebellion

World War I broke out in 1914, with many Irish believing England would grant them independence if Ireland supported the war efforts. Of the 210,000 Irish volunteer soldiers, some 35,000 Irish died fighting in the British army. Back home, people grew angry at the number of Irish lives lost, and many joined the Irish nationalist movement in the hopes of securing Ireland's independence before the end of the war. James Connolly, who would later lead the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rebellion, wrote that in this war, "the working class are to be sacrificed so that a small clique of rulers and armament makers may sate their lust for power and their greed for wealth."

Midway through the war in 1916, Irish nationalists rebelled against British control in the event that became known as the Easter Rebellion, the effects of which Yeats immortalized in his poem "Easter, 1916." The uprising itself consisted of six days of fighting, which began on Easter Sunday, 1916. The relatively tiny group of 1,200 rebels was no match for the British army, which numbered over one million. At the end of six days, the British army surrounded the rebels and arrested those who hadn't already been killed. The uprising left 450 dead, 264 of whom were civilians living in the densely populated city center. In addition, 2,614 people were injured, and nine went missing, almost all in Dublin. Among the rebel fighters there were 64 deaths, a relatively small number given the nearly 20,000-strong army England sent.

Rebel fighters were arrested and jailed at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. As the leaders were paraded through Dublin, civilians lined the streets to curse and pelt them. The city had suffered extensive damage from English artillery, which angered those forced to live in the rubble. People were also likely upset about the high count of civilian casualties, as well as the assumption that since Germany, an enemy during World War I, had supplied the rebels with guns, the rebels were actually traitors. On May 2, 1916, secret military courts-martial began, and General Sir John Maxwell immediately sentenced to death three rebels, including Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, whom Yeats names in "Easter, 1916." They were executed the very next morning at dawn. Irish Prime Minister Herbert Asquith warned Maxwell that "anything like a large number of executions would ... sow the seeds of lasting trouble in Ireland," but Maxwell wouldn't be stopped.

In total, British security forces arrested 3,430 men and 79 women, with more than 90 sentenced to "death by being shot." The same Irish civilians who had lined up to pelt the arrested rebels days earlier now came to their support. Word quickly spread that at the courts-martial, defendants were not allowed to speak. Maxwell simply charged them with crimes and sentenced them to death. Most Irish believed the British government's punishment was far too severe. Public sympathy grew for the rebels and their cause. More people attended memorial masses for the executed rebels or purchased posters and photographs of them. Neighborhoods collected funds for the families of executed fighters, and artists such as Yeats, among many others, wrote songs and poems commemorating their sacrifice. Perhaps most importantly, young Irish men stopped signing up to volunteer in the British army. The Easter Uprising of 1916 proved to be a catalyst for change in the fight for Irish independence, which continued to rage until 1922, when Ireland was officially freed from British rule.

20th-Century Poetry

At the turn of the 20th century, poetry changed. Modern poets like Yeats abandoned traditional Victorian style and its focus on form and rhyme, preferring conversational styles that were accessible to a wide range of audiences. Whereas British poetry of the second half of the 19th century was often highly structured, romantic, or idealistic, early 20th-century poets sought to capture the world as it really was, no matter how gruesome or unpleasant. Yeats straddled the two poetic styles. He favored the untraditional, conversational style of modern poetry, as seen in "Easter, 1916," and his poems went far beyond traditional poetic concerns, such as idealized love or classical mythology; but he also loved romantic topics such as Irish mythology, nature, spirituality, and the occult. For this reason, Yeats is best classified as a romantic modernist. Another characteristic of modern poetry, which Yeats helped shape, was a focus on psychological complexity. This can clearly be seen in "Easter, 1916," as Yeats struggles to understand his emotional reaction to the uprising.

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