The Irish Troubles began hundreds of years ago and have rumbled on ever since, like a volcano; always bubbling beneath the surface and erupting periodically, even when, as now, there is hope that an end is in sight.
In 1916, frustrated by the stalling of Irish Independence (the Third Home Rule Bill was passed by Parliament but shelved because of the First World War), a disparate band of intellectuals and revolutionaries formulated a plan which they hoped and believed would accelerate their objective.
Like many such insurrections, it was stronger on feeling than planning. Matters within and beyond their control conspired against them and the major offensive was instead replaced with a limited insurrection, capturing and controlling a number of key buildings in and around Dublin, most notably the General Post Office on O’Connell Street.
Insurgency and poetry have always been closely linked, perhaps because both require an intensity of thought and an outpouring of expression. Patrick (Padraic) Pearse, named ‘President of the Provisional Government’ of the proposed Irish Republic, was a school teacher and published poet. (For an example of his poetry, read ‘The Mother’.)
W.B. Yeats himself was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, although he played no active role in the events of April 1916. He had, it is often explained, joined to keep himself in the affections of Maud Gonne; a fiery, intellectual beauty she was his muse and the love of his life. She, however, had married John McBride, one of the leaders who had taken the Jacob’s Factory hostage and was summarily executed in the British backlash to the uprising. Debate still rages about whether these executions turned terrorists into martyrs, but certainly they were viewed as such through Irish eyes.
Yeats’ poem, a phoenix from these ashes, is both celebratory and condemnatory. He was moved by the events but was unsure of how the future could be wrought from them. He was aware that the contemporary view was one of derision (“wherever motley is worn”) but recognised that the stand would become almost mythological in the future.