Table of Contents
2. Theory of Myth
2.2. Functions and Characteristics of Myth
3. The Easter Rising as a Myth
3.1. Mythmaking by Pádraic Pearse
3.2. Staging of the Rising
3.3. The Myth of Blood-Sacrifice
When reading articles about the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, one encounters the word ‘myth’ sooner or later. Repeatedly, it is mentioned how mythicized Ireland’s past is. How is this possible? How is it acceptable to call a historical event that happened only one hundred years ago a myth? Is its existence in question? Why is it treated like a legend?
The Easter Rising of 1916 was a rebellion planned in secret by the military council of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. The rebels seized Dublin’s city centre, declared an Irish Republic and managed to defend their position for nearly one week until they ultimately surrendered to the forces of the British army which were superior in number. The rebels’ names – Pádraic Pearse, Tom Clarke, Séan MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett among others – became the names of Irish national heroes though in the initial reaction of the Irish public this did not seem likely. When the rebel leaders were escorted into captivity, the public loathed them – for the destruction of the city, the unnecessary rebellion during the Great War and the threat they posed to Home Rule.
However, the rebels and revolutionaries cursed by their contemporaries became national heroes over time. The unwelcome rebellion today is considered a foundational event or a national myth of the Irish Republic. How did this change come to pass? How does an event become a myth during the lifespan of those who lived through it? Why does this version of the narrative seem to be the commonly accepted one? One answer is that history is dynamic: the image of the past is always changing in the present (Stråth 19). The perception of events is highly dependent on the present and constantly in a state of transformation. Also, mythicizing is an answer. By retelling an event, its meaning is shaped over and over again until it becomes a myth.
In this essay, the term ‘myth’ will be defined and looked at for its significance and functions in communities. Among others, three factors will be looked upon more closely. The first factor is the charismatic persona of Pádraic Pearse, one of the planners and leaders of the Rising. The second is the staging of the Rising, meaning how the rebellion was orchestrated and contextualised by a narrative, not how it came to pass. Last but not least, the myth that was shared by the rebels and became a universal myth after their deaths will be analysed.
2. Theory of Myth
To talk about the mythicizing of the events of 1916, the term ‘myth’ needs to be specified further. Myth in general is defined as “a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age taken by preliterate society to be a true account, usually of how natural phenomena, social customs, etc, came into existence” (Collins 2009). This derives from the literal meaning of ‘myth’ or ‘mythos’. Derived from ancient Greek, ‘mythos’, meaning literally ‘tale’, stands in opposition to ‘logos’, the irrational stands in opposition to the rational and facts (Overing 1). But this general definition, which is our common understanding of myth, does not fit the thesis of myth as a concept that was and is applied to the historical events like the Easter Rising. The Collins Dictionary offers a second definition: “A person or thing whose existence is fictional or unproven” (Collins 2009). Again, this definition is not sufficient to be applied to the Easter Rising since neither the existence of the event nor the people involved in it can be denied. Myth in a cultural studies context is not considered a lie, there is always the awareness of myths not being history. The question is not whether myths are true or not but why they are believed and how they shape the reality of a community that shares them.
The ancient myths are, of course, objects of cultural studies. But, bearing in mind that there are not only ancient but also contemporary myths (Sayers 271), the term might be applied to modern history in cultural studies, too. A less general and more academic definition leads to the view of myth as “a story or fable that acts as a symbolic guide or map of meaning and significance in the cosmos” (Barker 129). Myth is viewed as a way to give meaning to events. Following the work done previously by Barthes, he explains the two sides of signification to a myth: the first-level meaning or denotation and the connotation, the extended meaning made by associations (Barker 129). In this sense, myth is not only a story passed down from generation to generation but also a process still going on, a transformation always changing the past in the present. Meaning is always constructed over and over, deconstructed and re-constructed again. In opposition to ancient myths that were set in stone and of fundamental importance for early peoples, this shows a dynamic composition of history and myth.
Myth is also closely linked to the concept of narrative: a myth is spread in form of a narrative and a community sharing the myth will hold onto it in this form (Schöpflin 19) to memorize and retell it. In terms of meaning-making, the term ‘emplotment’ also plays a role. Emplotment is “organising in the form of a story” (Hogan 29) and the “narrative shaping of history” (White qtd. in Hogan 30). Emplotment is the instrument and process that creates a narrative and the narrative is a way to tell a myth. These interrelations are complex and in the frame of this essay, there will be no further distinction between them. The umbrella terms ‘myth’ and ‘mythicisation’ will be used and applied. A working definition of myth for this paper could be summarised as a myth being not a legend but an influential narrative that is commonly accepted in a community. Though it might be not completely factious but there is or might be awareness of its closeness to fictionality. Myth is making meaning of historical events or their effects.
2.2. Functions and Characteristics of Myth
Myths possess some distinctive characteristics that explain their power and their functions. They have the “capacity to give pleasure and to involve the emotional participation of an audience” and they not only have an aesthetic appeal but also possess enormous persuasive power (Overing 2). They often simplify the complexity of events and therefore have even more emotive power (Schöpflin 23) because they are accessible to larger audiences. Being a tale that is so powerful, myth can offer means of identification and, by doing this, also contribute to the unification of communities (Stråth 20). These characteristics also suggest one of the main functions of myth: Myth is control (Schöpflin 22). One who controls myth in a community controls the community because myths shape their values, views and opinions.
Mythmaking, then, is a means to pursue several aims. Different kinds of myths appeal to different aims. If the myth is put in the form of a powerful narrative which dramatizes certain events (and maybe leaves out others since narratives do not only consist of including parts of the story but forgetting and excluding others, too), it can be used for a special purpose (Sayers 280). Though “myths do not directly constitute events, they offer interpretative narratives” (Beiner 377) and thereby shape reality to the extent that people believe in them (Stråth 25). There are, for example, myths of territory, myths of unjust treatment, myths of redemption and suffering (Schöpflin 28-34). By shaping the way a community thinks of facts and events, they can mobilise. In terms of emplotment, there is the heroic genre: if there is a threat to a community, it has the right to defend itself. The threat justifies war (Hogan 29f). This is only one example of how easily myths influence the present. In modern myths, there is sometimes even a recourse to folklore and ancient myths for purposes of legitimisation (Sayers 279). In European cultures, for example, which have mostly been Christian since the Middle Ages, the myths of redemption and sacrifice are accepted and received easily because Christian religion relies on these concepts in the Bible.
The relevance of these considerations for this essay is evident. Talking about the Easter Rising as a myth is not meant to deconstruct its existence but to question why it is such a powerful event and commemorated as the founding event of modern Ireland. “Whether factually erroneous or not, myth moulded popular outlooks which influence the course of modern Irish history” (Beiner 369). Myths of sacrifice and redemption are essential to this essay. In Ireland's case, there has been objective suffering: famine, loss of sovereignty, loss of culture and language etc. (Hogan 34). There was a recourse to Irish myth and Gaelic culture to re-introduce Irish national identity and, thereby, an opposition to British culture. In 1916 there was no objective threat, so the heroic myth of defence does not quite fit (Hogan 31). This is where the sacrifice comes into play. There is a narrative that constitutes that “the way to end the suffering is through sacrifice” (Hogan 31). What sacrifice for one’s country could be greater than giving one’s life for it? With this thought in mind, the Easter Rising was planned by the military council.
3. The Easter Rising as a Myth
3.1. Mythmaking by Pádraic Pearse
One central figure to both the planning and the mythicizing of the Easter Rising was Pádraic Pearse, a teacher and headmaster (in a Gaelic speaking school) and poet. His significance is emphasised by many works in the large number of publications that came out for the centenary of the events of 1916. Though some scholars describe his involvement in the fighting in Dublin during the Rising as rather small, his literature, his activism and ideology have had a huge influence up to the present day. Pearse was a member of the secret military council that planned the Rising. Sometimes depicted as an unlikely character to be involved in a revolution since he never was before connected to political violence or militant struggle (Dorney 98), he became the “face and voice of the rebellion” (Crowley 125).
His activism and literature play an important part in the myth of the Easter Rising since they elaborate on how Pearse himself was trying to create a myth during his lifetime. In his literary works, namely the plays The King, The Master and The Singer he openly addresses ideas, spirit, problems and beliefs related to the Easter Rising and Ireland's current state. The premiere of The Singer, which was to be staged a few weeks before the Rising, was even cancelled because it was feared it might reveal the rebels’ plans (Hogan 32).
During Easter week 1916, Pearse was not a military strategist; he was more involved in creating a myth and staging the rebellion. “As a revolutionary, Pearse had many shortcomings, but an understanding of the importance of the power of symbolism, myth and imagination was not among them” (McGarry 46). He can be considered one of the main creators of the myth. The barely noticed reading of the proclamation which he (among others) wrote and signed named him “President of the Provisional Government” (Hogan 35). He is also said to have maintained morale in the GPO. Finally, he was the one who decided to surrender on Friday noon and signed the statement. “We must surrender to save the lives of the citizens” is said to have been his statement onto the hopeless situation (in Dorney 131), which shows the nobility and heroism of the rebels which was depicted and emphasised after their executions. Their surrender was not only defeat but contributed to mythmaking: if the Rising was meant to inspire people, the executions made the rebel leaders heroes. This was well calculated: “The poets [Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett] especially assumed that they would die in battle for they shared a common myth” (Hogan 32). The composition of this myth will be further analysed later (chapter 3.3 Blood-Sacrifice). Before that, it is interesting to look at Pearse’s posthumous reception.
“There is an ironic posthumous apotheosis for Pearse and the others” (Tobin 144). Their self-awareness and active mythmaking during their lifetime resulted in them becoming national icons, especially Pearse. The “view of [him] as a political saint and martyr quickly took hold” (Crowley 127). This also emphasises how deeply the sacrificial myth is associated and connoted with Christian religion. He was emplotting himself and used the “story of Jesus to develop the role of the nationalist poet” (Hogan 43). Pearse’s remarks like “A man’s life for a nation’s happiness! What a magnificent exchange that would be!” (Pearse qtd. in Augusteijn 296) only unfold their power after his death. Without him dying for his ideals, the myth of the Easter Rising would not have the influence it has now. Though these quotes seem to display some irony of life, this was planned. In a letter written to his mother just before his execution he asks her to “think about it as a sacrifice which God asked of me and of you” (Augusteijn 321).
Therefore, it is clear why Pearse often is considered the most iconic of the rebel leaders. In the aftermath of the Rising, memorabilia, often showing pictures of the destroyed city centre but also portraits of the rebel leaders, came into fashion. Pearse’s best known portrait, which shows his profile, is also part of his mythicizing (Crowley 117). The power of the picture later made it an icon. Again, this is no coincidence. Pearse portrayed himself as a revolutionary and visionary, for he said about it himself: “After I'm hanged my portrait will be interesting but not before” (qtd. in Eliott 91).
3.2. Staging of the Rising
Many scholars of the Rising have emphasised its importance as a gesture, not as a military action. In terms of strategy, the Rising was meant to fail in its planning: the plan was to hold Dublin city centre for as long as possible, nothing more. There could be no victory in the sense of a military success. It was more of a gesture, “an armed demonstration to show that separatists were serious” (Dorney 99) that became an “opening volley of a largely successful Irish revolution” (Beiner 378).
An example of the mythmaking in the staging of the Rising is the appearance of the revolutionaries. Both Irish National Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army wore uniforms, though partly homemade and slightly different; they tried to convey the image of the rebels as a disciplined army (Dorney 123) and furthermore constructed something that had not been there before: an Irish military identity. Generally, uniforms imply discipline, hierarchy and they legitimise violence (Tynan 28). In the case of the Easter Rising, this legitimisation was needed by the rebels whose secret conspiracy desperately tried to represent the nation. Most popularly, Pádraic Pearse wore this uniform while reading out the Proclamation of the Republic in front of the GPO. In this way, the rebellion and the respectable military image were connected to the myth they created: the unjust treatment of Ireland, the right to fight for Ireland’s freedom and the creation of a national identity.
- Quote paper
- Almut Amberg (Author), 2016, From Unwanted Rebellion to National Founding Myth. How the Easter Rising of 1916 became a Myth, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/954651