The realities of War

Week V

Rupert Brooke: Glorified dying for your country. The reality was a very different experience.

Rupert Brooke: Glorified dying for your country. The reality was a very different experience.

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!

There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,

But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.

These laid the world away; poured out the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be

Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,

That men call age; and those who would have been,

Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,

Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,

And paid his subjects with a royal wage;

And Nobleness walks in our ways again;

And we have come into our heritage.

Rupert Brooke ‘THE DEAD (1914 )*

It seems incredible today, when we have seen the brutalities and waste of successive wars, that at the outbreak of World War I there was a glorification of blood sacrifice. The poet Rupert Brooke embodied this ideal, but ironically saw very little action himself. His sentiments, however elegantly stated, were imaginary. Brooke died at 27 years of age on board ship on its way to the Gallipoli campaign on April 23 1915. He developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite.

Yet he was immensely popular and influential. His poetry was widely read during the scramble to enlist in the British army; and its sentiments spilled over the Irish Sea. Pádraig Pearse has been criticised for his ‘intoxication with the idea of bloodshed for love of fatherland.’ And Pearse probably went beyond the conventional war rhetoric of the day, in actually celebrating bloodshed. He wrote:‘ It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never offered to God as this, the homage of lives given gladly for love of country.’

Acted with humanity

Reality, however, was very different. Pearse, with others, prepared an effective and achievable military plan for the Rising. On April 24 1916 the authorities were taken completely by surprise. Rebel forces were able to capture and occupy most of the prearranged positions around the city, which they held for six days of intensive fighting. Poorly armed, however, they could not survive the intensive bombardment of artillery, and from a gunship anchored in the Liffey, that was soon brought to bear. Great swathes of the centre of Dublin were reduced to rubble. There were the added problems of the chaos caused by looters who rushed in their hundreds from the tenements to grab what they could from this unexpected bonanza. Civilians, living in the battle zone, risked their lives to dash for safety. Some 300 civilians were killed. Eventually surrender was inevitable.

Yes Pearse could have charged the British barricades waving the tricolour above his head, similar to Edward Delacroix’s emotive painting of Liberty leading the People over the Barricade. It would have been a glorious and a noble death. Instead, he acted with humanity and proper military procedure. Professor JJ Lee observes: ‘The sight of the shedding of innocent blood seems to have revolted Pearse as much as the rhetoric of blood excited him.’ Earlier in the week, appalled by the looting, he refused to follow his own injunction of shooting captured looters. ‘Now after seeing three civilians with a white flag shot down, Pearse surrendered in the hope of saving civilians, and his followers on April 29.’**

His last hours

At his court martial on May 2, Pearse won the admiration of the presiding English officer. “ You cannot conquer Ireland,” he told him, “ You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed.” He was sentenced to death before dawn the following day.

I hope the romantic soul in Pearse calmed him in his last hours. He spent his time writing farewell letters to his mother, and his brother. He wrote a poem on the beauty of this world. At 3.30am he was taken into the yard of Kilmainham jail, and shot. He was 36 years old. His body was dumped into a lime pit. Fourteen other prominent members of the Rising were also executed including his brother Willie, who was shot the following day.

And what of Ros Muc, his refuge and place of beauty? His friend Desmond Ryan has described how, when the Clifden train rounded the corner, and the mountains of Connemara came in sight, Pearse would become animated and excited. He would‘ wave his hand over the land naming the lakes, and mountains, away into the Joyce country under its purple mist. There were long walks and cycle rides. Pearse recounting the stories which the people had told him...’ He obviously found freedom from his financial worries, and peace there; and the courage to bravely meet his destiny.


Whether it was the confusion of the date for the Rising, or the remembered kindness of Lady Rachel Dudley, only one man from Ros Muc, Colm Ó Gaora, answered the call to rebellion that April. Colm was the man who, 13 years before, had met Pearse at Maam Cross station when Pearse first came west as an inspector with Conrad na Gaeilge. On Easter Sunday Colm walked the 25 miles into Galway with his loaded revolver and his 50 bullets in his pocket. He attended Mass, and was surprised that the mobilisation of the Volunteers had been cancelled. He spent a frustrating few days trying to understand what was going on. The rumours from Dublin were unclear. Then hearing that there was fighting in the Mayo area, he set out on a bicycle for Castlebar; only to be told that the leadership had been arrested. Then hearing that there was fighting in Athenry, turned his bicycle west again. He stopped in Cong for a rest at a friend’s house, only to be followed by four RIC officers. He drew his gun, fired and missed. His second shot jammed in the barrel. He was thrown to the ground, and the gun forced from his hand....

As for Teach an Piarsach it is still there. It is being refurbished at present; but there it is. With all its dreams.

Next Week: Something completely different. Hollywood in Galway.

NOTES: *A more realistic picture of the war can be found in the poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and in the writings of Vera Brittain. The writer Virginia Woolfe has popped up before in this series. WB Yeats had described Rupert Brooke as ‘the handsomest man in England’. Virginia drove her sophisticated Bloomsbury friends mad with jealousy by regularly boasting that she and Rupert swam naked together in Byron’s Pool, at Cambridge.

** Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by Cambridge Press, 2009.


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