Felix M Larkin



TCD 1916 Heroes?

Speech by FELIX M LARKIN at the

University Philosophical Society, Trinity College Dublin

on the motion

‘This House believes the Men of 1916 were no Heroes’

4 February 2016


The leaders of the 1916 Rising were certainly men and women of high ideals, but they were no heroes – for their actions were profoundly undemocratic and morally suspect.

They had no popular mandate for what they did – nobody can deny that. The distinguished historian, F.X. Martin, writing in 1966 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary, characterised the Rising as ‘a conspiracy of a conspiracy of a minority’. He wrote that ‘the Easter Rising was a coup d’état against the British Government, it ran flat counter to the wishes of Redmond and the majority of Irish Nationalists, it was a mutiny against MacNeill and the constitution of the Irish Volunteers, and it usurped the powers of the IRB [the Irish Republican Brotherhood]’.

And the case against the Rising on democratic grounds had been eloquently stated by Eoin MacNeill in a memorandum that he circulated to his fellow officers in the Irish Volunteers in February 1916, two months before the Rising. MacNeill began by asserting that ‘the only reason that could justify general active military measures ... would be a reasonably calculated or estimated prospect of success, in the military sense ... [and] not merely some future moral or political advantage which may be hoped for as a result of non-success’. He then wrote, and I quote:

Now we believe that we think rightly on national matters, and if possibly we do not all agree on every point we believe that the consensus we hold among us is right as far as it goes ... [It is] our duty to so act that our country itself, i.e. the Irish nation, shall learn, as far as may be secured, to think in the same way ... In other words, if we are right, it is our duty to get our country on our side, and not to be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong.

He concluded as follows:

I am definitely opposed to any proposal that may come forward involving insurrection. I have no doubt at all that my consent to any such proposal at this time and under these circumstances would make me false to my country besides involving me in the guilt of murder.

That is a clear statement of the reasons why MacNeill opposed the Rising and sought to stop it, and it explains the problems that the Rising presents for the democrat and the theologian.

This brings me to the moral argument. There are, traditionally – going back to St Thomas Aquinas – five criteria which, taken together, would justify revolution. The first is just cause. In the context of 1916, the government would have to have been a tyranny, without a legitimate title to rule Ireland. Second, violence must be a last resort: there should be no other option for getting rid of the tyranny. Third, there should be proportionality between the evil caused by the revolt and the evil that it aims to replace. Fourth, there should be a reasonable prospect of success – and fifth, the action should have the approval of the community at large. It is, frankly, doubtful whether even one of these criteria was met when the men of 1916 marched out on that Easter Monday. 

I accept, of course, that the UK parliament had denied the will of the Irish people for some form of self-government, but the Irish people since O'Connell's time had chosen electorally to pursue their goal of self-government by constitutional means. The support for those who advocated other means – for example, Young Ireland in 1848 and the Fenians in 1866  had been derisory. The leaders of 1916 thus flouted the clear will of the Irish people as regards the means by which they wished to pursue the goal of self-government. And we must acknowledge that, in 1916, Ireland sent its freely-elected representatives to the Westminster parliament and they participated fully in its deliberations – not exactly the oppressive, tyrannical regime that some apologists for the Rising would argue existed in Ireland in 1916.

As regards proportionality, let me say this: there were 3,000 civilian casualties in New York on 9/11. That represented 0.037 per cent of the city’s population in 2001. In 1916 the innocent civilian victims numbered in excess of 250, which represents a casualty rate of 0.08 per cent  twice that of the 9/11 atrocity. When one factors in the casualties among the rebels, army and police, the dead of 1916 rises to about 0.16 per cent of Dublin’s population. That, I think, puts Easter Week 1916 into its proper perspective – relatively speaking, in terms of the loss of life, far more calamitous than 9/11. Accordingly, I regard 1916 as an example of what Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi, has called ‘altruistic evil’ – by which he means evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals.

Now some will say that, in the general election of December 1918, the Irish people gave its approval in retrospect to the Easter Rising. But I’m afraid history isn’t as simple as that. The 1918 election was won in Ireland by the Sinn Féin party which had no hand, act or part in the 1916 Rising and was after 1917 a much broader coalition of advanced nationalists than the IRB cabal that had brought about the Rising. Moreover, the Sinn Féin triumph in December 1918 was boosted by the anti-conscription campaign earlier in 1918. So there was not a clear line of descent from 1916 to 1918.

Nevertheless, the claim of ‘retrospective endorsement’ of the Rising by the people of Ireland in 1918 is now the standard defence of the Rising against those who would query its democratic or moral credentials, or both. Apart altogether from its dubious validity from a historical viewpoint, this argument brings us into dangerous political territory. The sophistry of thus attempting to justify the Rising leaves the way open to any crackpot movement to claim that its actions are justified by an imagined or hoped-for retrospective vindication. That is precisely what successive generations of republicans have argued in defence of their armed campaigns since 1922 – campaigns that have repeatedly threatened to undermine the democratic and truly republican character of the independent Irish state. This legacy of political violence bequeathed to us by the men and women of 1916 is another reason why we should not, and I cannot, regard them as heroes.


OTHER GUEST SPEAKERS: Patsy McGarry, Liz Gillis & Professor Liam Kennedy


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