Standing on the front steps of Dublin’s general post office a century ago, the poet Padraig Pearse announced the Poblacht na hEireann—the “Irish republic.”
He was reading from a proclamation, the ink barely dry, of a provisional Irish government declaring its independence from British rule. It was just after noon on April 24, 1916, the opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.
It’s 100 years since some 750 men and women threw up barricades and seized key locations in downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe 1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the post office in flames, the streets blackened by shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.
And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history—a “failure” that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost half a century later.
Anniversaries—particularly centennials—are equal parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from them is always a tricky business. Yet while 1916 is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.
Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The lamps, as the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and steeped in almost inconceivable death and destruction. Shortly after the last Irish rebel was shot, the British launched the Battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 would die in its first hour. By the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.
Europe is still at war, in some ways retracing the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan. Italian special forces are stalking Islamists in their former colony Libya. French warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.
And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed wire is once again being unrolled, not to make killing zones out of the no man’s land between trenches but to block the floods of refugees generated by European—and American—armies and proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.
In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost.
The British and French between them secretly sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in.