Bruton: Commemorations Reveal What We Believe Today

Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 11 a.m., Monday 28th March, in Iveagh House, Dublin, as part of RTE's “Reflecting the Rising” series.

President John Kennedy once said that a “nation reveals itself “ by the events and people it chooses to commemorate.

This state is a rule of law based, parliamentary democracy, which has integrated itself with its European neighbours by peaceful negotiation and compromise, which is militarily neutral, and where its military power is subordinate at all times to the civil power.

If we decide that we will choose from our history a “foundation event,” and choose as that foundation event the 1916 Rebellion and Proclamation, does that accurately reflect, or reveal, who we really are in 2016?

That is the argument I would like to explore today.

I believe our democratic state of today, in fact, came into being as the result of a process, not of one event. 


The Rebellion of 1916 was launched on a platform that left no room for compromise.

The Proclamation, which our schoolchildren are now being asked to regard as the founding stone of our democracy, left no room at all for democratic negotiation.

Therein lay the seeds of Civil War because, in politics as in life, compromise and negotiation are essential to a civilized life.

Rather than the Republic being proclaimed, on the steps of the GPO, in the name of a living Irish people, whose opinions had been taken into consideration, it was proclaimed in the name of “God and the dead generations.”

Neither God, nor the dead generations, could be consulted about what they really meant.

The rights of the proclaimed Republic were not conditional on consent, but were “sovereign and indefeasible.”

By definition, the Irish people would thus have no right to compromise the “sovereign and indefeasible” rights of the Nation, which was treated, in the chosen wording of the Proclamation, as something separate from the people. 


The fact of fierce resistance in North East Ulster, even to Home Rule Administration, let alone to a Republic, governing North East Ulster from Dublin, was fully known to the signatories of the Proclamation.

But in what they wrote in their Proclamation, this political reality was swept aside, as if it did not matter at all. This was politically irresponsible and showed no understanding of Irish history.

The only oblique reference to the Ulster problem in the Proclamation was a promise to cherish all the ”children” of the nation equally, and to be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government.”

It is worth reflecting on the assumptions being made here. Ulster Unionists were “children,” and normally children were in that era expected to be obedient, whatever they might think themselves.

The wish of Ulster Unionists not to be governed from Dublin was assumed by the Proclamation’s signatories, not to have been a conclusion that they had come to freely themselves, but only the result of “careful fostering” by “an alien government.”

At the very least, this did not show very much respect for the seriousness, or the reasoning powers, of those who had signed the Ulster Covenant, only five years previously. 


The Proclamation acknowledged the support received from “gallant allies” in Europe, namely the German, Austrian and Ottoman Empires. It was not neutral in the war. It took the German side.

The Proclamation thus sits oddly beside the present Irish policy of inflexible military neutrality, one that requires a UN Security Council resolution, for Ireland even to allow its forces to go overseas to defend another EU country that might be attacked. 


It is important also to stress that the 1916 Rebellion was not launched just to fight FOR, or to obtain, an Irish Republic.

The Republic was proclaimed already to exist, once declared outside the GPO, and to exist as a “Sovereign Independent State,” of 32 counties. No room for compromise there.

Such a state does not even now exist. Yet its existence was declared “indefeasible” in the words of the Proclamation. A recipe for endless conflict.

It is on the strength of, and in pursuit of, that unfortunately absolute and unqualified claim, that people continue to be killed, including Adrian Ismay a couple of weeks ago.

Those who declaim the Proclamation, as many have been doing at pageants in recent weeks, should think about what its words mean, and about what they led to.

That is aptly described in a 1924 quotation, from a member of the IRB Supreme Council at the time of the Rebellion , about the what 1916 led to, until 1923 in this part of Ireland, but for much longer in the other part.

P.S. O'Hegarty said: 

“We turned the whole thoughts and passions of a generation upon blood and revenge and death; we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas. We derided the Moral Law and said there was no law but the law of force . . . . Every devilish thing we did against the British went its full circle and then boomeranged and smote us tenfold.” [1]

That is what the decision to initiate military action in 1916 led to, in the opinion of one of those who took it. He faced up to the consequences of that decision, while his memory was still fresh. He knew what he was talking about.

As well as reading the Proclamation, Irish schoolchildren, 100 years later, should be invited to read P.S. O'Hegarty’s words. 


And it needs to be said that it was not just “the British” who were killed as a result of the decision to start a rebellion in a heavily populated, built-up area in 1916.

For every Volunteer killed (including those executed afterwards), three Dublin civilians died as a result of the fighting the Volunteers’ leaders had initiated.

The first casualty to die, on Easter Monday, was James O'Brien (right, in the middle), an unarmed DMP policeman from Limerick, shot in the face at the gate of Dublin Castle.

Another early unarmed DMP casualty of the Volunteers was Michael Lahiff, a 28-year-old Irish speaker, from the West of Ireland, shot in cold blood on St. Stephens Green.

Michael Cavanagh, a Dublin carter, who tried to retrieve his cart from a Volunteer barricade, was executed by the Volunteers.

These were not “Brits.”

They were Irishmen.

They were the first to die.

Their pictures adorn no public building, this Easter in Dublin, but they should.

The prominent display of the pictures of these men, 100 years after they were killed, would have reminded future generations of the real cost of 1916. Unfortunately, that opportunity has now been lost. It seems that, even after 100 years, to have done that would have been too much of a challenge to ancient myths, too much of a challenge to our ability to reimagine things.

O'Brien, Lahiff and Cavanagh are still being treated by official Ireland as mere “collateral damage,” as they were treated by the people who killed them.

One must indeed ask the question of whether killing unarmed people is ever justified in war.


One must also ask the question whether this particular war was justified.

When it comes to taking life, moral questions always arise. Such questions should be at the centre of any commemoration, especially one we have decided to hold on the same day as the great Christian feast of Easter.

Was the decision to take up arms in 1916 in accordance with “the Moral Law” in O'Hegarty’s simple and clear words?

It is especially important to ask that question now, because the Irish State has chosen to place such a huge emphasis, on implanting the 1916 Rebellion as the supposed foundation event of our democracy, in the uncritical minds of today’s schoolchildren.

Given that one of the purposes of education is to pass on a moral sense to the next generation, it is vitally important that the morality of the decision, to initiate killing and dying in 1916, be examined by, and for, these schoolchildren.  That is a responsibility of the Irish State, and if it fails to discharge it, it is failing the next generation.

Let me cite an example of the sort of moral blindness that pervades the current commemoration of 1916.

I read a history professor, in a Sunday newspaper recently [2] say that to have expected those who started the rebellion to have sat down beforehand and examined “whether what they were planning met the criteria for a just war, makes no historical sense”.

Really!  “Makes no historical sense”?

That is like saying that moral considerations ought have no weight, in the taking of other people’s lives.

Of course, the leaders who initiated the Rebellion should have examined whether the course they were embarking upon conformed to morality. I am sure some of them actually did so.

To say that it “makes no historical sense” (whatever that means!) to use moral considerations, in judging the past, is dangerous nonsense.

We study history partly to learn lessons that are valuable to us in the future . . . so that, drawing on past experience, we can better weigh up, in the most informed way possible, in light of evidence from the past, what is right and what is wrong for the future.

It is that moral sense, in my view, that makes us human. It is the mark of a civilised man or woman.

The decision of the IRB, Irish Volunteer, and Citizen Army leaders to initiate military action in 1916, was a FREELY TAKEN decision, it was not taken in self defence, so MUST be examined against the criteria for a just war.

These criteria for a just war include the following: 


“Only a competent authority, or popular representatives, has the right to start a war or insurrection.”

Interestingly, the IRB’s own constitution of 1873 made exactly this point.

It said, "The IRB shall await the decision of the Irish Nation as expressed by the majority of the Irish people as the fit hour of inaugurating a war against England.”

By no stretch of the imagination could that criterion be said to have been met before the killing was started on Easter Monday.


Furthermore, as far as the Irish Volunteers were concerned, the rebellion was initiated in direct contravention of the orders of their military commander, Eoin McNeill.

This is a serious issue for today, given the prominent involvement of the Irish Army in this centenary commemoration .

An orderly state, and the proper civilian control of the army serving such a state, is vital to civilization. The maintenance of an orderly state requires scrupulous respect for military discipline, and careful respect for the chain of command, when it comes to the taking of life. Both were seemingly ignored when violence was initiated in Dublin 100 years ago

The contravention of military orders of Eoin McNeill in 1916 should not be celebrated, without serious and well-explained reservations.


Another criterion for a just war is “War requires a just cause: armed aggression or governmental policies (e.g., genocide) threatening the civilian population”

Ireland was not being attacked in 1916. In fact the Volunteers were allowed by the authorities to drill freely, something that would not be allowed nowadays.

Governmental policies, in the previous years, had [i], in many respects, been particularly beneficial to Ireland.

Old age pensions and social insurance, from which Ireland was a net financial beneficiary, had been introduced.

The landlord system had been completely overturned.

All that had been achieved by democratic methods.

Furthermore, the principle of legislative independence for Ireland had already been won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law, and signature by the King, of the Home Rule Bill.

All that happened BEFORE any rebellion here, and, as Conservative leader Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there would have been no going back on Home Rule.

The point of principle was already won, without a shot being fired. 


Another criterion for a just war, is that war should be a last resort, not a first recourse. All other methods of redressing grievances ought to have been first exhausted.

Given that the principle of Irish legislative independence had already been conceded, in a bill passed into law only a year and a half previously, it is hard to argue that starting a rebellion in 1916, and the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921, were, either of them,  a “last resort.” In fact, much of what was being sought had already been conceded, in principle and in law. Home Rule was law, and there was no going back on it.

For example, Home Rule was accepted even by the Conservatives as a “fundamental fact,” the only issue outstanding being that there be no “forcible coercion of Ulster” to go in under it. [3]

The only open question was whether, or in what conditions, Home Rule might apply or not to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps to Fermanagh and Tyrone, which had narrow nationalist majorities).

I believe the Home Rule government would not have got jurisdiction over all those counties.

But, after all the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period, and the Treaty of 1921, the Free State did not get jurisdiction over those counties either!

Nor after the “Armed Struggle” from 1970 to 1998, does this State have such jurisdiction today. Indeed, under the Good Friday Agreement, we no longer claim it, but respect the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future in that regard. 


If we ever do have a United Ireland, it will not be achieved by the methods used in 1916. Our centenary
commemorations should realistically acknowledge that.

But, under Home Rule, if the exclusion of some Ulster counties had once been accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty. That could have been achieved by peaceful negotiation, if it was what the voters of the 26, or 28, counties wanted.

Further, the 4 or 6 counties, if excluded from Home Rule, would have been under direct rule from Westminster. There would have been some continuing southern Irish representation in Westminster, too.

This would have meant much better protection for the Northern nationalist minority than there were under the Stormont arrangements, that were set up in response to the Armed Struggle initiated in 1916.

Indeed some of the powers withheld from the Home Rule administration in the first place were only withheld to reassure Ulster Unionists, because it was originally envisaged in the Home Rule Bill that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.

The same principle of legislative independence, conceded to Ireland in September 1914, was conceded b to Canada, Australia and other dominions.  We know now that they all proceeded to full sovereignty, without the suffering and bitterness of war.

The path of violence, started upon by Pearse, Clarke and others in 1916,and followed from 1919 to 1923 by their imitators, was traversed at a terrible price .

Given the value Christians place on each human life, those who take life, have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open.  I believe that burden of proof was not discharged.


Some may seek to justify the 1916 Rebellion on the ground that the UVF had threatened violence in 1912-13. That is to claim that two wrongs can make a right, not a view I accept.

Others may justify the 1916 Rebellion because there was a war on anyway, the Great War. Again, this is an argument that two wrongs would or could add up to a right. The Anglo Irish War, started in 1916, was not caused by the Great War. It was a new conflict and, as such, it must be justified or not, on its own merits alone.

I believe it was not necessary, or justified. 


Home Rule, already law, could, if it had been allowed to do so and had not been derailed by the 1916 Rebellion and the 1918 Election result, have led this part of Ireland peacefully to the same position of Canada enjoys today, if that was the wish of its people.

I say this for a number of reasons.

Home Rule parliaments would have been elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918.

Sinn Fein might have won significant representation in the Home Rule House of Commons, as would the Irish Labour Party and the group led by Tim Healy. All three groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond Dominion status, the policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election.

It is not credible to say that the UK would have denied, to a Home Rule Ireland, the powers it freely granted to dominions like Canada and Australia, under the Statute of Westminster of 1931, if that is what the Irish people really wanted.

The suffering of the War of Independence was thus not needed to achieve Dominion Status.

In the 1918 Election, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was Dominion Status for Ireland. So also was the policy of the Asquith Liberals and the Labour Party. The policy of  the Lloyd George Liberal / Conservative coalition government remained the implementation of Home Rule, on the basis on which it had been passed into law four years earlier.

The policy of Sinn Fein, led by Eamon de Valera, was complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.

Sinn Fein won the election in this part of Ireland but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, what they ended up with was Dominion status, the very policy of John Dillon and their other defeated Irish party opponents. 

Therein lay the roots of the Civil War from 1922 to 1923.

After all the deaths of the War of Independence, the separatists had to accept, in the Treaty of 1921, the exact policy of their democratically defeated Irish Party opponents of 1918.

It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports on Irish territory.

But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation. The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War Two, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.


If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if different historical choices had been made.

The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to severe and honest reappraisal, in light of what we can now see might been achieved, without the loss of life.

If we fail to do that, we are passing on to the next generation, through  “indoctrination by commemoration” a  dangerous misunderstanding of history.

The focus on  the 1916 Rebellion, and particularly on its uncompromisingly worded Proclamation, as representing the core values of our state, is a worry at a time when there is already such a level of disdain for ”politicians,” and for the compromises that are a necessary part of democratic  politics.

. . .

Redmond, Dillon and Devlin, whose achievement of getting Home Rule finally passed on 18 September 1914, a feat that eluded O'Connell and Parnell, were “politicians" who achieved what they did by tough but peaceful parliamentary methods. Two years ago, on 18 September 2014, that achievement by these mere “politicians” was almost ignored by the Irish State.

Like W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera after them, those “politicians” -- Redmond, Dillon and Devlin -- LIVED and worked for Ireland.

But that’s apparently not romantic enough to “re-imagined” by our poets and seers.

But THEY got the job done. They got Home Rule passed into law, they won back the land of Ireland for the people who worked it.

In contrast, the 32-county Republic, proclaimed at the GPO in 1916, never came into existence.

This was for reasons that were knowable at the time, namely the implacable resistance of Ulster Unionists. These reasons were unfortunately ignored, because they did not fit into the ideology of the Proclamation, and of those who drafted it.

That needs to be explained to Ireland’s schoolchildren, too.


[1] PS O Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Fein (Dublin Talbot Press 1924) page 91

[2] Souvenir Supplement of the “Sunday Times” 13 March 2016, page3

[3] “Irish Times “ , 18 November 1918

Views: 815

Tags: 1916, Civilian Casualties, Easter Rising, Historical Commemoration, Irish Freedom Struggle, Opinion

Comment by Jim Curley on March 30, 2016 at 7:43pm

"Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said."

                      Yeats, "Easter, 1916"

When England next "keeps faith," it'll be the first time.

Comment by Gerry Regan on April 4, 2016 at 8:52am

'Bruton wrong to claim Ireland could win independence by peaceful means alone' -- A reasoned rebuttal of John Bruton's premise:

Comment by Kieron Punch on April 5, 2016 at 4:30pm

It would appear that Bruton, or 'John Unionist' as Albert Reynolds accurately labelled him, had help writing this speech by Eoghan Harris, Kevin Myers, Ruth Dudley Edwards or one of the other revisionist apologists for British misrule in Ireland.

How strange that Bruton should condemn Pearse and the other 1916 leaders for causing the deaths that occurred during the Rising, particularly the deaths of fellow Irish people, while he himself worships at the church of John Redmond as Prime Minister Bruton had a picture of Redmond above his desk). Bruton conveniently forgets that it was Redmond who urged tens of thousands of Irishmen to sacrifice their lives fighting an imperial war for the largest empire the world had ever known. Bruton condemns Pearse and his comrades for having no mandate for rebellion but was the Irish public consulted before Redmond committed them to Britain's war? For that matter, was the British public given a choice about whether, or not, they embarked upon war with Germany. Even if the British public had voted on the subject it should be remembered that the vast majority of the men who wound up fighting in the trenches were still denied the vote - no women, of course, would have the vote for several years.

Bruton must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel if he had to quote P.S.O'Hegarty to support his argument. Bruton states that O'Hegarty's opinion was that of one of those who made the decision to initiate military action in 1916. That is a lie. O'Hegarty has no involvement in the planning of the Rising and was working in Britain in the postal service in April 1916, where he remained until 1918.
O'Hegarty, who was a man most of his colleagues found obnoxious and impossible to work with, wote those comments in 1924 at at time when he was serving as Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs under the Free State government. He was an ardent supporter and apologist for the Free Staters, so of course he would deplore and deprecate the militarism of the Republicans who had fought against his side in the recent civil war and who claimed to be the upholders of the principles of Pearse and the other militant 1916 leaders.
O'Hegarty was no pacifist, democrat as Bruton would have us believe. One of his first actions in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs was to cut the pay of his workforce, suppress their union (with miltary backing), fire many members of staff and only remploy those who accepted that they would lose their pensions. He supported the Free State government when they sent military detachments to suppress workers' co-operatives and workers councils. His comment, from the above quote, that, "we placed gunmen, mostly half educated and totally inexperienced, as dictators with powers of life and death over large areas" merely shows his contempt for the rural poor and urban working class who formed the majority of the Irish nation and who had born the brunt of the fight against British oppresion.
Bruton says that 100 years after the Rising, Irish people should read and remember O'Hegarty's words. He is right, we should remember what sort of man O'Hegarty was from his words and what Bruton's support of this man's words says about him. Here are some of O'Hegarty's gems:
(Speaking of the Irish people who filled the ranks of Sinn Fein) "When it swept the country, it swept into itself a great deal of bad material, drunkards and crooks and morally unsuitable people of all sorts...With the vanishing of reason and principle and morality we became a mob, and a mob we remained."

(Speaking of Irish women) "They were the first to be thrown off their base, and, as the war lengthened, they steadily deteriorated. They took to their hearts every catch-cry and every narrowness and bitterness, and steadily eliminated from themselves every womanly feeling."
"In the worst phases of the war, Dublin was full of hysterical women, living on excitement, enjoying themselves in the thought of ambushes and stunts..."
"War, and the things which war breeds - intolerance, swagger, hardness, unwomanliness - captured the women, turned them into unlovely, destructive-minded, and begetters of violence, both physical and mental violence."
"Cumann na mBhan concentrated itself of making twenty thousand first-aid outfits - contemplating with enthusiasm twenty thousand approaching casualties - and on learning to shoot."
"In the whole period of war, both the 'Tan' war and the civil war, the women were the implacable and irrational supporters of death and destruction. They never understood the political situation and they never tried to understand it...the women jumped to conclusions without any considerations whatever, save their emotions, and once having done so, never afterwards looked facts in the face or attempted a re-examination of the situation. Their influence, even in the 'Tan' war, was not good, but in the civil war it was wholly bad."

(Speaking of his former comrades now in the 'Irregular' IRA) "The Irregulars drove patriotism and honesty and morality out of Ireland. They fouled all the wells which had kept us clean, and made the task of saving Ireland tenfold harder than it had been. They made people ask themselves whether Ireland was worth saving..."

(Speaking of the Opposition to the Free Staters in the Dail) "It has no more thought for the good of the country as a whole, no more notion of real patriotism, than have the mass of the people themselves."

(Speaking of the morailty of the Irish people) "There has been a grave increase in sexual immorality, and a general abandonment to levity and dissipation. Jazz dancing, the motions and postures of which are ugly and ungainly, and vary between suggestiveness and indecency, has swept Ireland like a prairie fire. Bazaars, fetes, dances, crowd each other out, and amusements and dissipation of all sorts flourish...The atmosphere of materialism and dissipation which we are developing is cinsistant neither with fine thinking, fine living, nor fine accomplishment." (Anyone who has seen the film "Jimmy's Hall" will recognise in these comments, and thos below, the fascist views that dominated Irish life in the decades after the Free State victory in the civil war)
"We mus go get back to simplicity and strenuousness. Jazz dancing, joy rides, fetes, and bazaars have never built a civilisation, and never will build one. They lead only to fatty degeneration of the morals, of the character; to inefficiency and extinction. We may go out in a blaze of light, and music, and garishness, as Babylon went out, but unless we produce something other than a crze for idleness and amusement, we certainly shall go out. There is more in life than amusement, and as a people we must find that out, We must rediscover work and rediscover honesty. We must rediscover the Duties of Man, and bury the illusory Rights of Man..."

And Mr Bruton, while it is tragic that some members of the DMP and RIC were killed in cold blood during the Rising, lets also remember the people beaten to death by DMP thugs during the Dublin Lockout only 3 years before the Rising
or the hundreds of thousands of Irish people evicted by these lackeys of the British Empire

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 6, 2016 at 3:11pm

Me thinks that Bruton  should read his history books again,,, not only were thousands of Irish men killed for  during the  1st  and 2nd World Wars  Britain but the also signed up for the Boar War.. And to add insult to injury in all of this,,, many , many thousands of Irish people were  in mud huts ... living in squalor.. living on the street  living from day to day   , hand to mouth as my Grandmother would have said. I think Bruton should be ashamed to have written that book at all,,, the 1916 Easter Rising took place on the backs of the Dublin Lock out 1913 .. and the Wexford lock out of 1911...

Then going back further than any of that , there was the Famines,,, all caused by the British ,,, the greedy Landlords etc...

Hang you head in shame Bruton  

Well said above Kieron Punch  above 


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