Thursday, 1 September 2016

On the Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

For anyone unaware of what is happening in Brazil, the president has been formally impeached under spurious charges of "corruption", which in the context of Brazillian politics reminds me of the line in Apocalypse now about handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. About 60% of the people who voted for Dilma Rousseff's impeachment are themselves under investigation for corruption.
Basically this is a right wing coup against a popular president with a leftist background but whose coalition government has been in-acting pro-austerity policies. In the local context you could compare Rousseff to Gerry Adams or the current leadership of the ANC, someone who in the distant past was a Marxist guerrilla fighter when the country was under a corrupt anti-democratic junta in a state of civil war but in the intervening decades has made the long journey to parliamentary politics and eventual power through the normalisation of the political process and a series of increasingly extreme betrayals of their leftist principles and capitulations to neo-liberalist orthodoxy, while winning a few minor reforms.

Mug Shot from her Guerrilla days
So basically she's gone from Ché to Tony Blair over the course of her career. But apparently that wasn't enough for the shower of bitter old bastards that make up the Brazillian ruling elite who have never forgiven her for being what she once was and have now mounted what is effectively a coup. These are the same old bastards that were behind the '64 coup, but this time they are using the judiciary and constitutional means rather than the army because an armed coup d'etat wouldn't fly these days.

And it looks like its going to be successful. It also shows up the limitations of reformism. The Workers Party was cobbled together out of a broad left alliance of the old militant left, Labourists and Trades Unions and were generally elected over the last 13 years on fairly innocuous social-democratic platforms and in power never really challenged the status quo or American imperialism in the region and were used as a wedge to beat down other more progressive genuinely leftist leaders in the global south. They never tried to mobilise the masses behind them, create a social revolutionary movement on the streets or do anything about shifting the power relations that constituted the old order.

Which goes to show, the various competing factions of the ruling class and their representative parties, left right and centre, they're all just spokes on a wheel, this ones on top, then that one's on top, and on and on it spins, generating profit for those on top and crushing those on the ground. Our aim should not be to stop the wheel (as the WP tried to do), but to break it.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

On the Eve of the EU referrendum

In 2014 when the Scottish referendum happened what could have been a typical politically empty, nationalistic / jingoistic (from both sides) shitty spectacle actually became something more than it was intended to be. The Scottish left and activist spectrum turned it into a real debate, one centered around Austerity and the real fight happening within contemporary society beyond the circus side-show that is political discourse in the UK.
This year we're voting on the UK's continued membership of the EU, and nothing of the sort has happened. The focus of the debate has been skewed from reality of what the EU is and what the member states will be facing in the near future to a lot of petty squabbling and wars of position for hegemony within the Tory party being presented as the breath of the debate. The British left has shown no leadership in terms of getting the word out that, and I know this may surprise a lot of people, there are actually plenty of good reasons for wanting to leave the EU and that you don't have to be a slathering xenophobe to want out. and actually a lot of the arguments for staying are on extremely shaky foundations. The Left-Exit argument has been so marginalised and the Leave position so thoroughly dominated by the right that I am genuinely embarrassed to be voting to leave tomorrow, though that isn't actually going to stop me - it just pisses me off.
I can see that there are plenty of arguments for voting to remain, from the personal fear of what might happen with regards to their pensions, because they do benefit from the EU's internal migration policy, out of spite at the loyalist thugs merrily shouting 'vote leave' as they beat up random people they presume to be catholics (this is literally what happened to people I know) - the fear of a resurgent right capitalising on a Brexit vote is a legitimate one The EU at least recognises Palestine and is its biggest provider of international aid and is at least critical of Israel, though that aid is channeled through the PA and is in no small part responsible for the maintenance of the corrupt PLO leadership over the PA and consequently the continuing divisions within the movement. There's a certain validity to the argument that the EU has provided an amelioration of the excesses of the British political establishment, consensus politics in Europe does tack slightly to the Left of consensus politics in the UK (though even with the Human Rights Act, it didn't stop Section 28, or what what was going on over here during the Troubles). They're right that the Exit camp haven't really put forwards a viable or inspiring vision for an alternative outside the EU, they're right, that would have been the job of the British organised left and they fucked that one up. I honestly wouldn't think less of anyone who voted to stay in tomorrow.
Personally though I can't justify it to myself. I can't not think of Alan Kurdi, and all the other people murdered by the EU's immigration policies. I look at Greece and see the Troika doing to the Greeks what the English did to us during the Great Potato Blight of the 1840s, killing people with the ruthless application of Free market economics to ineptly fix a problem created by free market. Seriously, what they've done in Greece is disgusting, its imperialism pure and simple and I've no wish to be a part of it. That hasn't quite gone down here but at some point should we ever attempt to break in earnest with austerity, it will.
You can say that my position with regards to Brexit is abstract or idealistic but I don't see reforming the EU from within as a viable option, Syriza tried that one and got kurb-stomped for their efforts.
So, stay / go, either way its not a great choice and either way the real fights are still to be had. It didn't have to be like this, it could have been a party. Again getting back to my initial point in this post, looking at the way the debate around the Scottish referendum went I can't help but think of how different it might have been. Anyway, in spite of the class-baiting scare mongering in the popular press, its been a foregone conclusion since the start, we're definitely not leaving the EU, the vote will go to the Stay option, though probably by a slimmer margin than expected at the outset of the campaign. None of this bodes particularly well for the future.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Bodies in Revolt: Embodied discourses and the experience of bodies in the Easter Rising of 1916

This is a paper I wrote nearly ten years ago for one of the modules on my MA in Cultural History at the University of Essex.  In retrospect it is an amalgam of the fairly advanced and theoretical Po-Mo academic culture in UoE and the more straight forward empiricist approach of the Queens University Belfast history department.  For the uninitiated, what I casually refer to here as Body History is just basically the academic concept of the human body as a historical subject, rather than say, more amorphous things like the history of a nation, a movement or looking at an individual through their physical experience of the world around them rather than their writings, which would be the typical historians approach.  I present it here on the 100th anniversary of the Rising with a few pictures added.


One of the advantages of the recent development of body history is that it can throw into sharp relief a period of history or event that is quite well known and studied, but not well understood.  As Dorinda Outram says in her introduction to her monograph on Bodies in the French Revolution,

            “Like a prism, the body has a unique capacity to concentrate together in the same space…(I)ntentionality and episteme come together and objective subjective experience can be assessed as something other than simply a personalised anarchy.”[1]

 In this study what I am attempting to do is to examine the Easter Rising of 1916 through an analysis of the body in the discourse around the Rising in its immediate aftermath and much later and the bodily experience of those who participated in it in order to see how this analytical technique can better help us understand the complexities of the events in that week in Dublin, their relation to events elsewhere and their place in history.

Even by the standards of Irish history, the Easter Rising of 1916 was an unusual and problematic incident.  By turns tragic, comic, heroic, romantic and farcical, it nonetheless remains one of the key events in Irish history.  Organised and instigated by a conspiracy within a secret revolutionary organisation within a larger paramilitary movement, doomed to failure from nearly the start, and defying any logic of conventional revolutionary or military tactics, it nonetheless succeeded in changing the orientation of Irish history.  In taking the tool of the body-as-sociological-method from Foucault’s conceptual tool-box and applying it to the Easter Rising, much of what traditional political and military historians of the rising have found hard to comprehend becomes much clearer, particularly when viewed within the context of the bodily experience of the Great War.

The contribution of an analysis based on body history immediately does three things.  Firstly, implicit in the notion of a social order being based on the restriction of bodies[2] is the notion of what happens when the social order is broken, i.e. when the bodies are in revolt.  Secondly it brings into focus the use of body imagery in the discourse around the rising in both the propaganda for the rising[3] and the use of the rising by various parties and movements in Ireland subsequently.   Finally by looking at the body in the Easter Rising the lived experience of participating in and being around the rising is brought to prominence.  In this survey I’ll be looking at some of the subsequent events in Irish history, as well as some recollections of the rising and reflections on the rising in literature and poetry.


To begin with however, it is important to frame the Easter rising within the correct historical contexts.  The most important of these, is the Great War.  This provides the opportunity and the justification for the Rising to take place.  As much as the Ulster Crisis, which occurred around the Third Home Rule bill in 1912, had led to a pronounced millitarisation and radicalisation among the Unionist, Irish Nationalist and a section of the Trade unionist/Socialist political currents in Ireland before the war began, without the war it is unlikely that the crisis would have taken the particular form it did.  The war also provides an episteme of conflict, which informed the discourse around the insurrection and the actions and practice of the insurrectionists throughout the rising.  Another major effect of the war on the Rising was demographic.  Because of the war, emigration was impossible for the large numbers of young men who would normally have left Ireland in this period.  These surplus (and predominately male) bodies and the unvented male energy were to have a profound effect on the period[4].

Another important context of the rising is its place in the tricky historical relationship between Britain and Ireland.  Hitherto in the British imagination, Ireland was considered as an integrated part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland[5] – commonly embodied, for example in the pages of Punch magazine, as Britannia’s younger (and feebler) sister.  The rising was the beginning of a process, combined with the electoral victory in 1918 of those who were either participants in, mistakenly associated with[6] or at least supportive of the rising, that marked a fundamental shift in that assumption. 

Concurrently in Ireland since the Gaelic revival of the Fin De Siecle, Irish writers and cultural nationalists had come to assert a national identity in the form of the Shan Bhan Bocht – the Poor old woman, also referred to as Cathleen Ni Houlihan.  This feminised and maternalised national figure would provide ample resource for the nationalist propagandists and polemicists.  This worked to create an image of Ireland as the Mother, a figure that had to be protected and which had authority over you and to which you owed your existence[7].  In the writings of the insurgents, Ireland is unfailingly charcterised as female.  The most famous and striking example of this, the fabled Declaration of the Irish Republic, begins thus;

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.[8](my emphasis)

The theme is also present in the writings on non-republicans.  One recalls for instance James Joyce’s famous description of Ireland as

“The old sow that eats her farrow”[9].

Another important context in which to consider the rising is the revolutionary tradition.  There is a tendency to place Irelands’ revolutionary tradition as outside of European revolutionary currents, particularly among popular histories[10], on the grounds that Irelands’ unique geographical location and its peculiarity rules this out.  A cursory examination of the dates of the main revolutionary upheavals prior to 1916 (1798, 1802, 1848, 1867) tells another story as each comes at a time of continent-wide revolutionary turmoil.  Furthermore, the influence of the revolutionary tradition on the rhetoric of the insurgents is also evident, and particularly, though not exclusively, in the general revolutionary mentality concerning bodies and bodied metaphors. For example, James Connolly’s Workers Republic editorial of the 5th of February 1916, which ends with,

“…of us…it can truly be said, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no redemption’.”[11]

is usually cited by historians as evidence of Connolly’s descent from more internationalist concerns to quasi-religious messianism, and generally falling under the influence of Pearse[12].  While this may be true, we should also acknowledge that it also and certainly deliberately echoes the words of the old Communard Meillet,

“without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation”.[13]


Padraig Pearse
So, what was the Easter rising and how did it come about?  The first important thing to understand is how it was both like and unlike the revolts and revolutions in the following years, i.e. Russia’s February Revolution and the various revolts across Germany and the rest of Europe in the aftermath of the war.  Nor did the Easter rising occur because of pronounced economic distress (at least not relative to the usual level of Early 20th century Dublin).  Neither did it arise directly out of class struggle, as in the Bolshevik Revolution.  The insurgency happened because of the apparent impending success of the moderate nationalists of the IPP who had gotten the Home Rule bill on the statute books in 1914 just prior to the war.  This home rule bill would grant Ireland a degree of sovereignty and a parliament in Dublin, but crucially, would maintain the historic link between Britain and Ireland.  To cultural nationalists like Pearse this was unthinkable. To Pearse, this was an offense against the notion of Ireland as an embodied entity.  In Ghosts, his pamphlet of Christmas 1915, he says that

“(t)hey have made the same mistake that a man would make if he were to forget that he has an immortal soul”[14].

To Pearse the sin of the IPP was denying the spiritual side of the Cartesian dualism of the nation[15].  The way in which the IPP are characterised in the pamphlet is again tied in to bodily metaphors, this time about their manhood;

“One finds oneself wondering what sin these men have been guilty of that so great a shame should come upon them. Is it that they are punished with loss of manhood because in their youth they committed a crime against manhood?...”[16]

For Pearse, they have not been to make the correct analysis and have been too timid to carry out the true wishes of the Irish people by severing the link with Britain because having betrayed a real man like Charles Stewart Parnell[17] they have been robbed of their own manliness.

Pearse opposes this in two ways.  Whereas the IPP were selling the nation short because of their pre-occupation with practicalities, he would snub the compromising real-politick of the IPP in favour of actions of symbolic import.  Indeed he makes a virtue of his own impracticality, for example in the poem “The Fool”[18] (characteristically written in the first person with himself as the main protagonist) where the fools insistence on squandering years in attempting impossible things,

“deeming them alone worth doing”[19],

is presented as heroic in contrast with the “wise men”, who, unlike him, for all their wisdom cannot intuitively grasp the power of dreams.

The other basis that Pearse puts forward for his opposition to the IPP is to invoke the revolutionary tradition in Irish nationalism that seeks to fully sever the tie with Britain by way of physical force.  It is this component of Pearse’s platform in which we find his richest and most consistent use of body symbolism.  This can also be subdivided into two areas.

Firstly, there is the classic romantic revolutionary notion of the revolutionary as the embodiment of the people.  Pearse’s poem, “The Rebel”[20] is a classic example of this.  The whole 2/3rds of it is mainly just a series of images re-iterating this over again in intense, emotive language.

I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow

My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs;
The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten

            “I am flesh of the flesh of these lowly, I am bone of their bone

The poem was written shortly before the rising at a time when the plans for the insurgency were well under way.  It feels like it would have taken about as long to write as to read and is as good an example of the mentality of anyone who takes up arms on behalf of an oppressed people, whatever time, place or for whatever political or religious cause, as you are ever likely to find.

Interspersed with the theme of embodiment in the poem are the bodily sufferings of “The People”, that,

Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters, …
The hands that have touched mine, the dear hands whose touch is familiar to me,
Have worn shameful manacles, have been bitten at the wrist by manacles,
Have grown hard with the manacles and the task-work of strangers
, ”

While the Poet justifies his actions through his empathy with “The People” in their suffering.

And because I am of the people, I understand the people,
I am sorrowful with their sorrow, I am hungry with their desire:
My heart has been heavy with the grief of mothers,
My eyes have been wet with the tears of children,

I have yearned with old wistful men,
And laughed or cursed with young men;
Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it,
Reddened for that they have served, they who should be free,
Reddened for that they have gone in want, while others have been full,
Reddened for that they have walked in fear of lawyers and of their jailors

“I could have borne stripes on my body rather than this shame of my people

Secondly and in conjunction with this, is the way in which Pearse invokes the revolutionary tradition by invoking the bodies of the dead generations of revolutionaries.

It is no accident that some of the most famous words spoken by Pearse were from his oratory at the graveside of the old Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, where he said,

“…the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead - And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”[21]

In the pamphlet Ghosts he identifies the dialectic in Irish politics between the moderate, constitutionalist position, with which he equates the IPP, and the revolutionary traditions that always seem to occur as a counter to them[22].  In this, “Separatist”, tradition he puts the Irish Volunteers, who will be the organisation through which he will mount the rising and the intended audience of the pamphlet.  To persuade them of this[23] he invokes all the dead generations of men who have opposed British rule in Ireland from the Gaelic princes who fought off the Anglo Normans through the Irish and Old English lords who fought the second wave of colonisation in the Tudor and Stuart eras, the secret societies of the 18th century and the Republicans from the 1790s on.

The solution to the problem Pearse presents us with is to have a rising in order to reinvigorate the separatist tradition - after what was by that time a hiatus from the political mainstream of nearly five decades - is also bodied.  The imagery he used is that of rebirth through a blood sacrifice.  In Peace and the Gael Pearse writes approvingly of the war and its effects;

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth….

…It is good for the world that such things should be done. The cold heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.

and readily applies this logic to Ireland[24], where he hopes that

“(Ireland) must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God”.

One final point about Pearse’s language of rebirth is its Christian nature.  Pearse, himself a devoted Catholic[25], foreshadowed the liberation theologians in identifying the suffering of “The People”, with the sufferings of Jesus Christ, whose naked suffering body in virtually all of Pearse’s poetry and political writings.  The greatest significance of this for Irish history was that the Rising was timed for Easter Sunday, the day Christ symbolically arises from death[26].  It is also clear from Pearse’s recurring use of the imagery relating to Christ that while Pearse did believe in the necessity of bloodshed and used the imagery of blood a great deal in his political and literary output, he was different to others who have used similar imagery[27], as unlike them it was always his own blood he was referring to rather than anyone else’s.


In understanding the bodily experience of the Easter rising as a revolution, we can adapt Bryan Turner’s model of the social order as based on the restriction of bodies - through their capacity to reproduce, the restraint of their appetites, the regulation of their movement in space and their representation[28]- as a conceptual framework in which to operate.  When we consider that in a revolution the social order is inverted, and the measure of a revolutionaries success is the extent to which the social order is inverted with the eventual aim of replacing it (or doing away with it altogether) then by inverting Turner’s categories we have a sociological model of what bodies actually do, or attempt to do in a revolution.
ICA Volunteers on the rooftops in Dublin
The first category of Turner’s model, reproduction, is challenged and inverted in revolutions through the institution through which it is most commonly maintained, i.e. the female body.  In revolutions the division of labour and the traditional gender roles tend to be challenged, if not on occasion entirely reversed.  Women have been at the forefront of revolutions from France in 1789 to the events in Bolivia earlier this year.  Indeed revolutionary periods tend to coincide with the high-tide mark of women’s participation in politics and women’s rights.

During the Easter Rising there was a paramilitary organisation of women, Cumman na mBan[29] who participated in the insurgency.  Although their role was primarily the traditional female one of providing support and nourishment for the troops in the form of field they played an active role in the fighting under dangerous circumstances, running field hospitals, reloading rifles, ‘spotting’ for snipers, dispatch, “requisitioning” provisions (sometimes at gun point) etc[30]

In addition, a significant proportion of the women who participated in the rising were not in Cumman na mBan but were members of the Irish Citizen Army which excepted women on an equal basis with the men.  Women in that organisation fully participated in the rising.  At least one of the women who was involved in the insurgency and several others who may have been innocent bystanders are known to have been killed in the fighting.  Also, of course, was the famous role played in the rising by the “Red Countess”, Constance Gore-Booth, the Countess Markievicz.  She was a member of the Irish Citizens Army and the Irish Volunteers and commanded the insurgents on St Stephens Green, and had the second highest rank of those who survived the rising[31].

In the second of Turners categories, i.e. policing the bodies appetites, the inversion of this has less to do with the action of the revolutionaries than the response of the people who live through a revolution and usually expresses itself in the looting of shops, off licenses, public houses and other premises where alcohol and food are available.  In Ruth Dudley Edward’s detailed biography of Pearse she details such incidents going on in front of the Rebel HQ at the Dublin General Post Office[32], much to the consternation of the rebel leaders.  Indeed few historians accounts of the rising neglect to mention the working people of Dublin being generally more interested in “epic feats of looting in the damaged Dublin shops”[33] than actually joining in with the rising.  That the insurgents themselves didn’t loot, and indeed were generally respectful of the property seized, issuing IOUs for any food seized, in the uprising, this is probably indicative of the unpopularity of the uprising and the smallness of the numbers.

The looting is also emblematic of the breakdown of the next of Turner’s social order model (and indicative that we should not view the categories as discreet, but rather assume mutually supportive interaction between them).  This category is also the most conspicuously revolutionary and it is the infringement of this that generally characterises the action, and perceptions of the action of bodies in a revolution.  I am of course referring to the restriction of bodies in space.  Whether it be storming The Winter Palace, manning the barricades or freeing prisoners from the Bastille, the momentous events (at least of the beginnings) of revolution all occur around the transgression of restricted space.  It is when the immaterial walls that demarcate the boundaries of allowed space come down and the body becomes capable of going anywhere it is physically able to, that you know something momentous has happened.

In the Easter Rising, this meant occupying and fortifying buildings at various sites around Dublin.  It meant rending portals in party walls with 7 lb. sledgehammers liberated from the Dublin Dockyards to turn whole streets into bunkers as per James Connolly’s theories on urban warfare[34].  It also meant an assault on Dublin Castle, the site of British rule in Ireland since the Plantagenates, on the morning of the first day of the Rising.  Although the Castle remained untaken by the insurgents, due to their inability to believe that it could be taken as easily as it appeared to have been, according to some accounts[35], few historians writing about the rising have missed the historical significance this would have had had they been successful[36].

Finally, the last category in Turners model, – the representation of the body.  In Turners model this relates mainly to the clothes we put on our bodies and the social significance of certain types of clothes.  An example of the most extreme examples of the transgression of the prescribed dress codes would be the situationists in Post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia who on occasion would jump naked onto the Petrograd public transport.  More generally, what happens is that fashions in clothing and hair will shift towards the pre-Revolutionary fashions of the classes and groups involved in the revolution or the ideologies that inspired it.  Examples of this in history include the Irish Republicans of the 1790s-1800s adopting the ‘Cropped’ hair of the French ‘sans culottes’, or the Black Power groups of the Afro-American Diaspora adopting more obviously ‘African’ hair such as Dreadlocks or Afro-puffs and African clothing like dashikis.

Constance Gore-Booth, the Countess
Markievicz, Irish rebel and fashion icon
In the Easter Rising the way in which this aspect of the social order was transgressed was in the use of military uniforms by the insurgents.  Although not officially prescribed, the wearing of uniforms did have a profound psychological effect on the rebels.  In his autobiographies the playwright Sean O’Casey[37], recalls seeing the ICA in their

“new Dark green uniforms…(the) dire sparkle of vanity lighting this little group.”[38]

The putting-on of uniform also had a particular significance for the women participating in the rising.  For the Cumman na mBan women in their uniforms of skirts and tunics it ,

“signified their Millitarism and femininity”[39],

and for the ICA women wearing the same uniform as the men signified their equality in defiance of social norms, indeed on of the iconic images of the Rising is that of Countess Markievicz with pistol in hand in full ICA uniform of jacket, trousers and knee length army boots.


The exercise of the state power over the bodies of those who oppose it would in the aftermath of the rising play an important role in its eventual outcome.  While the rising hadn’t been greeted with the enthusiasm or support it’s leaders had expected, the way in which they were disposed of would eventually do the job it had been intended to do.

In the aftermath of the rising bodies become contested grounds, both the physical bodes of the insurgents and the rhetorical bodies they become. As the rising is put down, the physical form of the insurgents become forfeit to the forces of order as it is re-imposed.  During the arrest and internment of the leaders of the rising, they found their bodies treated with casual brutality, mainly by an Irish captain in the British army by the name of Lee-Wilson who was charged with holding them while they were still being corralled in the open immediately after the surrender.  Among the privations he was responsible for carrying out on the Prisoners were ordering the prisoners to relieve themselves where they lay, taking away Sean McDermott’s walking stick[40] having the elderly fenian Tom Clarke stripped, ripping of the sling he was wearing and re-opening the bullet wound in his arm[41].

The most extreme manifestation of the states’ control over the unruly bodies of the insurgents was of course the executions of 16 of the Rising’s leaders and most prominent figures.  These executions were to have a profound effect on the public reaction to the rising.  Through consciously embodying the mythic tropes of militant separate tradition, Pearse, as he had intended, created the conditions where,

“Myth and reality were themselves warring in the Irish mind”[42].

Nor did it end with the executions.  One of the leaders of the rising who had survived the executions, Thomas Ashe, would die on hunger strike in the Frongnoch prison in Wales through choking to death while being force-fed, the first person to die in such a way in the 20th century.  The imprisoned insurgents and the other members of the Republican movement at home would also defy their confinement through successfully running one of their number as a candidate in a by-election in Longford.

The indignation of a large proportion of the Irish and British people at the physical treatment of the bodies of the insurgents would eventually result in the electoral victory in Longford and the eventual electoral victory of Sinn Fein in 1918.  Indeed the bodily experiences of the insurgents resonate right into the present.  In his account of the rising the nationalist historian Tim Pat Coogan almost gleefully relates how Michael Collins would avenge the treatment of the prisoners by tracking down and killing Captain Lee-Wilson during the Irish War of Independence[43].  The imagery of the executions[44], is indelibly seared into Republican consciousness and the hunger strike would be utilised by different shades of Republicans at various times for the next 65 years.  The overall effect was to recreate a cult of martyrdom around the leading figures in the rising that would be exploited by the revived nationalist movement in the struggle for independence, in the creation of the state that came out of the struggle and by the dissident Republicans who opposed it.

To those critical of the rising, both at the time and subsequently, the bodies of the participants in the rising would become, and indeed remain, contested.  For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Rising there was a pronounced reaction to the transgression of the patriarchal sexual norms.  Early press responses to the rising would continually downplay the role of women in the rising, usually just by ignoring them and in some reports claiming that male rebels would disguise themselves as women[45].  The less easily dismissed figure of Countess Makievicz, a woman in male uniform leading 120 men was used to,

“…emphasise the nonsense of the rising, denying it any legitimacy.”[46]

In Irish popular culture there has emerged an iconoclasm as an antithesis to the popular nationalist sentiment regarding the rising, particularly in opposition to the use of the rising by the state in imposing its own social order.  This particular tradition begins with the socialist playwright Sean O’Casey writing only a decade later.  One of the series of plays written about the revolutionary period in the early 20s, The Plough and The Stars[47] being the first play written by an Irishman to depict the rising.  This tradition continues through the rest of the century right up until the present with two of the most popular and critically acclaimed Irish books of recent years being purposefully iconoclastic depictions of the events of the rising – A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle[48] and At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O’Neil.

In these revisionist depictions of the rising, one of the main themes is the problematic and sordid reality underneath the glorious rhetoric of the rising.  Naturally this often comes out in the depiction of the physical bodies of the participants.  In his Autobiographies, in the passage cited above, O’Casey goes on to describe James Connolly in his new uniform, and gives particular attention to how he

“didn’t look well in it for he had a rather awkward carriage and bow legs…added to the waddle in his walk”[49]

Pearses’ and squint his supposed vanity about it is another recurring feature in this literature.[50]

Also, in the wider context of the history of revolutions and revolutionaries attacks on the physicality of revolutionaries are not uncommon.  In his survey of the French Revolution the Marxist writer and broadcaster Mark Steel notes that most of the leaders of the revolution were commonly described as ‘ugly’ by bourgeois historians, often against the available evidence[51], though O’Casey and Doyle both oppose the Rising from the left.


So what, if anything, was the experience of bodies in the Easter Rising?

In relation to the body experience of the First World War the Easter rising stands as both a reflection and counterpoint.  Both reflect contemporary assumptions about the nature of warfare.  In what Robert Kee had remarked on as the

“essentially static nature of the rebel command’s psychology”[52]

we see how the leaders of the insurgency were unconsciously recreating the bodily experience of the western front.  In this context the seemingly bizarre decision to waste precious time constructing a trench in St Stephens green is de-mystified.  Also, some of the psychosexual elements of the First World War are evident in the rising.  For example there is a striking parallel between the association of the exposure of the body to injury and sexual exhibitionism suggested by some accounts of the war[53] with the ending of Patrick Pearse’s play “The Singer”[54], which was finished just before the rising, in which the main character strips naked before heading off to fight “the Gall[55]”.  Furthermore, in its radical nature the space given to women to women to express their militarism and patriotism beyond the norms of conventional warfare makes the experiences of women in Cumman na mBan and the ICA stand out against that of women in and around the conventional military forces.

Ultimately, the Easter rising represents an intersection between the physical bodies of the insurgents and the rhetorical bodies of the Irish Republican tradition.  As we have seen, it was Pearse’s intention from the beginning for a symbolic gesture to be made to revive the flagging separatist tradition by joining it to the now.  Pearse evoked the ghosts of those who had almost passed from living memory.  By creating the conditions of the physical annihilation of their own bodies they were able to discorporate and so become ghosts, reborn in symbolic bodies that would achieve in death what was impossible in life, thus overcoming the physical constraints of their own bodies.  As the poet Takahashi puts it,

“…(after falling before the firing squad) Death
stands up in their stead each time,
climbs freely over the walls,
roaming streets and villages
like bad news to inflame and
inspire their comrades-in-arms.”[56]

As much as either Pearse or Connolly would have been appalled at the Ireland that came out of the revolutionary period, their actions would shape Irish politics, society and culture for most of the next century.


(N.B.  Anything quoted from Pearse would have been written initially in Gaelic and any quotations may have translations that are peculiar to the source, which are the Garrity book for the poems and Rose Tempany-Pearse’s WebPage for everything else.)

Tim Pat Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising (London: Pheonix, 2005)

Michael Cronin, Romantic Ireland revisited: sexuality, masculinity and nationalism in some recent Irish texts (Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Sussex, 2003's_diss.pdf)

Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999)

Owen Dudley Edwards & Fergus Pyle (eds.) 1916 The Easter Rising (London: McGibbon & Kee, 1968)

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1990)

R. Fitzroy Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin, 1989)

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: OUP, 1977)

Devlin A Garrity (ed.), The Mentor Book of Irish Poetry (New York: Mentor, 1965)

C. Desmond Greaves, The Life and times of James Connolly (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1972)

Alvin Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998 (Oxford:OUP, 1999)

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London : Jonathan Cape, 1930)

R. Kee, The Green Flag; A History of Irish Nationalism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972)

Sean O’Casey, Autobiographies I: I Knock at The Door, Pictures In the Hallway, Drums Under the Windows (London: Macmillan & Co., 1963) 

Dorinda Outram, The Body and the French Revolution: Sex Class and Political Culture (New Haven: YUP, 1989)

Annie Ryan, Witnesses: Inside the Easter Rising (Dublin: Liberties Press, 2005)

Louise Ryan, ‘”Furies” and “Die-Hards” Women and Irish Republicanism in the Early Twentieth Century’ Gender and History, Vol.11 No.2, (July, 1999) pp256-275

Mark Steel, Vive La Revolution (London: Scribner, 2003)

Mutsuo Takahashi, Beyond the hedge: new and selected poems, translated by Frank Sewell and Mitsuko Ohno (Dublin: Dedalus, 2006)

Bryan S. Turner, The Body and Social Theory (London: Blackwell, 1984)

[1] D. Outram, The Body and the French Revolution: Sex Class and Political Culture pp5
[2] As in the work of Bryan Turner, which I’ll come to later.
[3] Particularly in the language used by Padraig Pearse in his various public speeches, proclamations, publications and literary efforts.
[4] Indeed thanks to the work of historical geographers such as David Fitzpatrick this is one of the few areas on which there is currently a consensus opinion.
[5] In spite of the sometimes erroneousness of this supposition, as evidenced by the events of the Irish Famine, the experience of Irish immigrants in Britain and the ongoing popular support in Ireland for various forms of Irish nationalism.
[6] Specifically, Arthur Griffiths’ Sinn Fein.  Although Sinn Fein was the political platform on which the republicans stood after the Easter rising, Sinn Fein actually played no part in the Easter rising.  What happened was that in the early witnesses and contemporary press reports of the rising mistakenly referred to it as a Sinn Fein rising, Sinn Fein being the largest group of Irish nationalists outside the Irish Parliamentary Party.
[7] The non-sexual connotations of this are interesting and worth commenting on.  After the demographic changes wrought by the Famine, particularly after the shift from paritable inheritance to non-paritable, for those who stayed on the Island the opportunity to marry young was significantly reduced, compared to before the famine.  The average age of marriage shot up as it became incumbent on the individual to make a good match as the family farm could no longer be subdivided between the children.  In this sexually stultifying atmosphere, as captured in the works of Joyce, Synge, Brian Friel, and poetry such as Patrick Kavanaghs’ The Great Hunger, the most significant female relationship a man tended to have right into adulthood was with his mother.
[8] P. Pearse and J. Connolly, Declaration of the Irish Republic (
[9] J. Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
[10] See for example the episode of Kenneth Clarke’s television series Civilisation dealing with revolution and romanticism or the A.J.P. Taylor television series and book Revolutionaries.
[11] C.D. Greaves, The life and times of James Connolly, pp396
[12] R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 pp479 – to give but one example.
[13] C.D. Greaves, The life and times of James Connolly, pp396
[15] Something he saw as intimately bound up with the Gaelic language and culture.
[16] P. Pearse, Ghosts ( – The crime referred to in the passage is the betrayal of Charles Stewart Parnell, who unsuccessfully attempted to pass the First Home Rule bill in 1887 and died four years later after being savagely turned on by many in his own party after his long standing affair with the wife of one of his lieutenants was made public.  Many of those who were active on savaging Parnell such as Tim Healy were, at the time of Ghosts being written, leading figures in the Party.
[17] Who while he may have been as basically constitutional in his aims as they were, had worked with the Irish people from the land agitators of the Land Leauge in the Gaelic West of Ireland and the IRB, and has seen the Home Rule issue as a means to the end of Irish freedom – or so Pearse belived.
[18] D.A. Garrity The Mentor Book of Irish Poetry pp320-321
[19] D.A. Garrity The Mentor Book of Irish Poetry pp320
[20] D.A. Garrity The Mentor Book of Irish Poetry pp319-320
[21] P. Pearse, O’Donavan Rossa: Graveside Panegyric (
[22] P. Pearse, Ghosts Ch. V (  Specifically, Grattans Parliament – Tone’s United Irelanders, O’Connells Emancipationists – Thomas Davis’ Young Ireland.
[23] They were after all intended to be used to defend the IPPs home Rule policy.
[24] P. Pearse, Peace and the Gael, (  It should be added that Pearse’s belief in the glory of war wasn’t an acceptance of the logic of conquest but recognising the transformative radicalising power of the war and is more analogous to Lenin’s desire for the war to become a revolutionary war than the apologists for the war itself, though some of the language used is closer to theirs in its religiosity and nationalism.
[25] Though not so devoted as to follow the actual rules of the Church with regards to revolution or not to associate with noted atheists like James Connolly or Anti-Clericists like the old Fenian Tom Clarke.
[26] Though in the event due to last minute complications in the shape of Eoin MacNeil’s countermanding order, the rising ended up taking place on the Monday.
[27] Such as Enoch Powell for example.
[28] B. Turner, The Body and society, (ch4, ‘Bodily Order’pp103-125)
[29] Translates as either “Organisation of Women” or “Women’s Association”.
[30] L. Ryan, ‘”Furies” and “Die-Hards” Women and Irish Republicanism in the Early Twentieth Century’ pp258-9
[31] The highest ranking survivor, was Commandant Eamon DeValera who was not executed as he technically wasn’t a British subject having been born in America.  Originally sentenced to death by the courts martial that tried the insurgents her sentence was later commuted in view of her gender.
[32] R. Dudley Edwards. Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure pp285-6
[33] R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 pp482
[34] A. Ryan, Witnesses: Inside the Easter Rising, pp109-110
[35] E.G. In T. P. Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising pp105
[36] Though according to the statement given by Frank Robbins, a veteran of the rising, to the Irish Bureau of Military History some decades after the rising it had never been the intent of the insurrectionaries to capture the Castle, but to isolate it (A. Ryan, Witnesses: Inside the Easter Rising pp214), whether this was an accurate description of what happened that morning or whether he was replying to later criticism of the rising is unknown.  What is known is that most of the guards who should have been on duty at the time had slipped off to watch the Irish Grand National (T. P. Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising pp105).
[37] Who was the general secretary of the ICA for a time but did not participate in the Rising.
[38] S. O’Casey, Autobiographies Volume I pp647.
[39] L. Ryan, ‘Furies’ and ‘Die-Hards’ Women and Irish Republicanism in the Early Twentieth Century pp257
[40] Without which he couldn’t walk having been crippled by polio years before the rising.
[41] T. P. Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising pp142
[42] R. Kee, The Green Flag; A History of Irish Nationalism pp568
[43] T. P. Coogan, 1916: The Easter Rising pp142, Interestingly id describing Collins’ revenge he picks up and employs the reference to urination from earlier in the paragraph. 
[44] Particularly that of James Connolly who had to be strapped into a chair to be executed because of his injuries.
[45] L. Ryan, ‘Furies’ and ‘Die-Hards’ Women and Irish Republicanism in the Early Twentieth Century pp260
[46] L. Ryan, ‘Furies’ and ‘Die-Hards’ Women and Irish Republicanism in the Early Twentieth Century pp261
[47] The Plough being the emblem of the ICA.  The other plays in this sequence being ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and ‘Shadow of a Gunman’.
[48] Whose first book “The Commitments” has been filmed by Alan Parker.
[49] S. O’Casey, Autobiographies pp647
[50] E.g. R. Doyle A Start Called Henry pp115
[51] M. Steel, Vive La Revolution pp60 – he goes on to add that its likely that if a revolution broke out in America led by Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow, “in a hundred years time historians would write ‘Pitts frame jerked in an ungainly fashion, his boulbous pot belly wobbling hypnotically with each malevolent cry of Power to The People, while Paltrow’s straggly unkempt hair hung menacingly across her piggy nose and obtrusive unaligned eyes’”.
[52] R. Kee, The Green Flag; A History of Irish Nationalism pp572
[53] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory pp271
[55] Literally - foreigners
[56] Mutsuo Takahashi, ‘Visit to Kilmainham Jail’ in Beyond the hedge: new and selected poems, (translated by Frank Sewell and Mitsuko Ohno)