Paul McCartney doesn’t seem a natural bed-fellow for George Bernard Shaw but on one matter they do come together. In his famous song Give Ireland Back to the Irish (banned by the BBC), McCartney poses a question:
Tell me how would you like it
If on your way to work
You were stopped by Irish soldiers
Would you lie down, do nothing?
Would you give in or go berserk?
Shaw, writing at the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, made a similar point: “An Irishman resorting to arms to achieve the independence of his country is doing only what Englishmen will do if it be their misfortune to be invaded and conquered by the Germans in the course of the present [1914-18] war”.
Shaw’s response to the 1916 executions pinpointed Britain’s clumsiness in dealing with the rebels: “It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero, even though the day before the rising he may have been only a minor poet…The military authorities and the British Government must have known that they were canonizing their prisoners.”
You would think so but they probably didn’t. W B Yeats, meanwhile, looked back in old age and worried that his literary work might have created the Rising: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” It’s fair to say he over-estimated the power of his words and underestimated the determination of the rebels.
Anyone who has done the tour of Kilmainham Jail will remember the chill of the Stonebreakers’ Yard, where the leaders of the Rising were executed. Here is a description of the last minutes in the life of Sean Heuston, told by a Capuchin priest Fr Albert:
“At about 3.45 am a British soldier knocked at the door of the cell and told us time was up. We both walked out together down to the end of the large open space from which a corridor leads to the gaol yards. Here his hands were tied behind his back, a cloth tied over his eyes and a small piece of white paper about four or five inches square, pinned on to his coat over his heart. Just then we saw Father Augustine with Com. M. Mallin come towards us from the cell where they had been.
We were now told to be ready. I had a small cross in my hand, and though blindfolded, Sean bent his head and kissed the crucifix; this was the last thing his lips touched in life. We now proceeded towards the yard where the execution was to take place. My left arm was linked in his right, while the British soldier who had handcuffed and blindfolded him walked on his left. As we walked slowly along we repeated most of the prayers that we had been saying in his cell. On our way we passed a group of soldiers. These I afterwards learned were awaiting Com. Mallin who was following us.
Having reached a second yard I saw there another group of military armed with rifles, some of them were standing and some sitting or kneeling. A soldier directed Sean and myself to a corner of the yard, a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here there was a box (seemingly a soap box) and Sean was told to sit down on it. He was perfectly calm and said with me for the last time, My Jesus, mercy. I scarcely had moved away a few yards when a volley went off, and this noble soldier of Irish freedom fell dead.”