W.B. YEATS often wondered if he had helped to cause the Easter Rising. “Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” he wrote over 20 years after the event.
He was thinking of his 1902 drama Cathleen Ni Houlihan, in which Maud Gonne represented Ireland as a poor old woman who would become a beautiful queen if young men were prepared to kill and die for her.
While Yeats might have been a bit melodramatic, his question was valid. The Nobel Prize-winning poet had played a key role in the Gaelic Revival movement that swept through Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was this newfound pride in all things Irish that inspired the 1916 leaders, making the Rising seem like a spiritual event as well as a military one.
The Gaelic Revival really took off after the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell over his affair with Katharine O’Shea. With the Home Rule party split and political progress on hold, Irish nationalists began looking for other ways to express their identity.
Inevitably, these new cultural bodies were particularly attractive to people such as Patrick Pearse who felt that Ireland must eventually take up arms or rename itself ‘West Britain’.
The Gaelic Revival had three driving forces. One was the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 to preserve and promote Irish sports. At least four of its seven-man committee were former Fenians and they made their political position clear by imposing a ban on “foreign games”.
The Revival also had a literary wing inspired by Celtic folklore, which led Yeats and other writers to set up the Abbey Theatre in 1904. On Easter Monday 1916, the first Irish rebel to be killed was an Abbey actor called Sean Connolly – shot by a sniper as he stood on the roof of City Hill.
Most important of all was the Gaelic League, created in 1893 by Irish language enthusiasts such as Douglas Hyde (left) who feared that their native tongue was on the brink of extinction.
By 1906 it had 900 branches and 100,000 members, many of whom were there for the ceili dances and traditional music sessions.
Pearse saw it in much more dramatic terms, writing: “The Gaelic League will be recognised in history as the most revolutionary influence that has ever come into Ireland.”
Most of the Easter Rising leaders had close links with the Gaelic Revival. The veteran Fenian Tom Clarke certainly saw it as a perfect vehicle for recruiting new republicans.
His lieutenant, Sean MacDermott, spent years visiting GAA clubs and Gaelic League meetings around Ireland in search of kindred souls.
One notable convert was the young schoolteacher Thomas MacDonagh. He went to a Gaelic League event expecting to sneer but instead experienced “my baptism in nationalism”.
In 1909 MacDonagh answered a newspaper ad placed by a young middle-class Dubliner who was looking for an Irish tutor. He found a soulmate in his new pupil, Joseph Plunkett, and both ended up as members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood military council.
They were joined by Eamonn Ceannt, a passionate Gaeilgeoir and uilleann piper who had once performed for Pope Pius X.
Nobody, however, illustrated the link between cultural and political nationalism better than Pearse himself. He joined the Gaelic League at the age of 17 in 1896 and became editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (‘The Sword of Light’) just seven years later.
“A country without a language,” he wrote, “is a country without a soul.”
At Pearse’s bilingual school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, boys were left in no doubt that learning Irish was part of a much greater struggle. At one prize-giving ceremony he handed a 12-year-old pupil a rifle, remarking: “You will need this some day.”
James Connolly was the only Easter Rising leader who took a radically different attitude. As a down-to-earth socialist, he complained: “You cannot teach starving men Gaelic.”
While Pearse would never have agreed with that, he did start writing in 1913 that the Gaelic League had served its purpose and it was now time to start planning a blood sacrifice.
As for the Rising itself, some historians argue that it was mainly designed as a piece of street theatre to capture the public imagination. If so, it succeeded far more spectacularly than the first reviews suggested.
To use W.B. Yeats’s metaphor, the 1916 rebels might not have made Cathleen Ni Houlihan a queen – but they certainly gave her a whole new lease of life.