Yeats, Easter Rising and Irish Independence

Categories: IndependenceRebellion

The struggle for Irish independence is the central theme of William Butler Yeats’ Easter, 1916. Yeats’ view of the revolutionary and national movements before the Easter Rising rebellion reflects his opinion of the need to rethink the ideologies and leadership of the initiatives. Furthermore, Yeats illustrates that there is a need for civil society to break its complacence and acceptance of the English rule of the country. He believed that the independence movements lacked public support and was too mired in politicking of its leaders.

Yeats counts himself among the people in society that practice the exchange of “Polite meaningless words” without having any real interests in other people in Ireland, as suggested by the line “lived where motley is worn” (Yeats line 8, 14). This view of society reflects Yeats’ view that the Irish people have become used to their society and have become apathetic and uninterested with the concerns of their countrymen. He illustrates that social exchanges have become ritualized that neither affords the discussion of real issues whose sole purpose is for entertainment, to “please a companion”, or to impress others (line 11).

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Yeats’ views are supported by Charles Townshend’s analysis of the events that built up to the rebellion: majority of the debates where limited to a few societies and even if there were affluent patrons of the independence movements, there was a general reluctance from being associated with the initiatives (44-52). Another difficulty in creating progress is the fact that issues were often tied up in political debate without social reform.

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At times, the issues were even viewed as concern limited to only a few social circles which in turn had their own particular issues (Easter Rising 1916: From Home Rule to Independence)

To illustrate this, Yeats presents the first of several characters associated with the rebellion. Modeled after Constance Markievicz, a countess advocating for the independence movement, he points out her “ignorant good-will”, implying a shallow understanding of the independence and its price (line 18). In the case of his portrayal of Patrick Pearse, referred to as the “man had kept a school, And rode our winged horse” as well as that of “his helper and friend”, Thomas MacDonagh, Yeats clearly values their writing and educational efforts rather than their initiatives towards a revolution (lines 24-26).

Right after the rebellion, Yeats observed that many of the so-called leaders of the independence movement were either shunned, became reserved in their beliefs and even vilified because of the association with Germany who was them at war with England (Townsend 117-129). He uses this to further develop his thesis of the weakness of independence initiatives. He believes that few of the so-called leaders understood the implications of asserting for independence because they were more concerned in making impassioned speeches that fell on hardened hearts (Yeats, lines 53-59).

At this point in the poem, Yeats again returns to the illustration of a society that has remained generally unresponsive to the idea of independence because it has come too long and to slowly. Yeats implies that it took the death of leaders such as James Connolly and even that of John MacBride, whom he clearly did not hold in any high regard, if not the military action taken by England in response to the rebellion, for society to regard issues with greater importance.

Townsend considers the rebellion the true beginning of the struggle for Irish independence not only among intellectuals but for the public as well (75-81). According to Garret FitzGerald’s speech in memoriam to the Easter Rising, the participants of the rebellion challenged Ireland to “…see them as they were seen at the time by those who decided to proceed, despite the virtual certainty of failure. ” (Easter Rising 1916: From Home Rule to Independence).

It should be noted that Yeats does no consider the Easter Rising futile, in fact, it can be equated with the central theme of the poem as stated in the line, “A terrible beauty is born” (Yeats, line 16). However, he considers it a product of unsound ideologies and weak leadership and has caused the sacrifice of people who truly believed, misguided or not, in the value of Irish independence (lines 78-79).

It can be then concluded form Yeats poem that he considered the efforts towards independence prior to the Easter Rising was too politicized and did not have enough social relevance. He cites the apathy displayed by the public due to years of complacency as an issue that was not addressed effectively. Considering the leaders of the rebellion, he believes that though they had noble intentions and believed in their cause, their actions lacked foresight which resulted to violence and the loss of lives including their own.

For Yeats, independence can only be realized if there is a full understanding of its cost and when society is willing to practice libertarian ideas and not just talk about it. Works Cited “Easter Rising 1916: From Home Rule to Independence”. BBC Online. 13 November 2007. <http://www. bbc. co. uk/history/british/easterrising/> Yeats, William Butler. “Easter, 1916”. Online Literature. 13 November 2007. <http://www. online-literature. com/yeats/779/> Townsend, Charles. Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Yeats, Easter Rising and Irish Independence. (2017, Apr 14). Retrieved from

Yeats, Easter Rising and Irish Independence essay
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