March 4th is the date which by common consent is set aside in Ireland for the commemoration of the heroic attempt of Robert Emmet. March 6th is the anniversary of the Fenian Rising of 1867. Does March 1916 carry in its womb anything of national importance for Ireland? Will our children be commemorating an attempt, celebrating a victory, or mourning over a lost opportunity?
At this date who can tell? Despite all the pretensions of the British Government during the trial of Emmet, and despite all the alarmist and suspicion-breeding reports of the moderates since, we now know beyond all doubt that had Robert Emmet pushed on to the Castle on the day of his rising he would have captured that edifice of evil omen, and roused all Ireland by the blow. The Government were not in the least prepared for the emergency, and were only saved by the reluctance of the young patriot to go on in a fight the first moments of which had been stained, as he conceived it, by the useless shedding of blood.
Dublin Castle is not of so much importance today in the political or military government of Ireland, but in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was the real centre of all the activities of foreign rule in this country, as it had been for centuries before. In the hands of the insurgents Dublin Castle would have been the centre of a revolutionary uprising such as would have shaken the British Empire to its foundations. It did not fall into the hands of the insurgents, as we have said simply because the revolutionists were not as ready to shed blood as were their rulers.
It is not probable that much blood will ever again be shed for the sake of the capture of Dublin Castle, but it is probable that the evil example of the Irish and English press in extolling and glorifying deeds of blood in the present war may make future revolutionists less scrupulous as to means, and more determined to be as ruthless as their rulers.
The Fenian Rising in March, 1867, was almost foredoomed to failure because like the United Irishmen in '98, and the Young Irelanders in 1848, the leaders had allowed the golden opportunity to slip away, and their attempt when it came was belated. The Government were on the alert, and the Irish regiments suspected of Fenian sympathies had been rushed off to India, and other places where their English masters could rely upon them.
Irishmen in the British Army in India in those days, like Irishmen in Flanders or Gallipoli in our own day, fought the enemies of England because they wanted to get back home to Ireland, not because they loved England, or cared about the Empire. If they did not kill the enemies of England the enemies of England would probably have killed them. The Irish soldiers do not fight for England; they fight for their return ticket to Ireland, and England always keeps the return half in her pocket as long as she requires their services.
Thus in the days of Fenianism the English Government by shipping off the Irish soldiers out of Ireland did a double stroke of work. She weakened her Irish enemies, and strengthened herself against her Indian enemies. The leaders of the Fenian movement had preached and practised caution, and counselled delay until their plans were thoroughly matured, but the Government struck before that time, and all the sacrifice and suffering bore no immediate fruit.
Remember. It is easy for us now to be wise after the event, and to tell with unerring accuracy just when the blow might have been struck with the greatest probability of success. It is easy for us now because we know certain things which it was impossible for the Fenian leaders to know. If we know where they made a mistake it is not because our judgment is better than was theirs, but rather because we are judging a crisis that is past and whose happenings are all therefore familiar to us.
The hurler on the ditch sees the most of the game because he is on the ditch, and not intent upon keeping his own end up in the place allotted to him on the field. So the student of history is wise, and can justly criticise the mistakes of men whose powers of judgment may nevertheless have been infinitely superior to his own. He may justly criticise their mistakes, but may also in the part he is playing in the historical crises of his own time be making mistakes a thousand times more serious and less excusable.
The United Irishmen waited too long, the Young Irelanders waited too long, the Fenians waited too long. This is the opinion of every student of history worthy of the name. But who dare censure these brave men and women? Assuredly not the men and women of our generation. To us also a great opportunity has come. Have we been wise? The future alone can tell.
In these days of March let us remember that generations, like individuals, will find their ultimate justification or condemnation not in what they accomplished but rather in what they aspired and dared to attempt to accomplish. The generation or the individual that is stricken down in the attempt to achieve a high and holy thing is itself therefore high and holy. By aspiring to reach a height the generation or the individual places its soul unassailably upon that height, even should its body be trampled in the mud at its base. Upon what height or in what sunless depth of corruption has this generation placed its soul?
Judged by the record of its Parliamentary Party, its public press, its capitalist class, this generation of Irish men and women has sunk to a lower depth than has yet been reached by any white race under the sun. Judged by the marvellous fight they have made to save the Irish cause in all its integrity and historic purity, those who have stood for an independent Ireland have climbed higher against greater odds than ever before were brought to bear against the soul of a people.
Is it not an awe-inspiring, but yet glorious thought, that somewhere above the souls of those martyrs whom Ireland gave to the cause of freedom in March are weighing and judging the actions of those who invoke their memories in March, 1916. Shall our souls rest eternally on the heights with them or in the depths with their betrayers?