Earlier this month, the Irish Times carried an article critical of the confluence of Pádraig Pearse's thinking with Catholic thought and criticised the 1916 Easter Rising for being "overtly Catholic". (Patsy McGarry," Pádraig Pearse’s overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic," The Irish Times, 5 January 2016).
This brings the issue to what extent this is the case and whether this is compatible with republicanism of the Wolfe Tone variety.
Not only Pearse admitted that he was "old-fashioned enough to be both a Catholic and a nationalist" but to him Catholicism was central to Irish nationalism as such. He wrote at Christmas 1915 in Ghosts that Irish nationalism was “like a divine religion, national freedom bears the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession”. In his essay The Separatist Idea Pearse assimilated Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis and John Mitchel, all Protestants, into the pantheon of Catholic nationalism: "God spoke to Ireland through Tone"; Emmet died "that his people might live, even as Christ died. Be assured that such a death always means a redemption"; Mitchel, he fervently believed, "did really hold converse with God; he did really deliver God’s word to man,delivered it fiery tongued." With a conception of national freedom "like a divine religion" as Pearse put it, the rebels of Easter week saw themselves as fighting in a holy cause that was sanctified by God.
Thus God is mentioned twice in the Proclamation of Easter Week where it is written that the insurgents "place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms". It was not only God's blessing they were seeking but also that of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The insurgents sent papal count George Plunkett to Rome a fortnight before the Rising to seek the blessing of Benedict XV on their enterprise. This is how Count Plunkett described his meeting with the Pope:
The Pope was very much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed, and the reasons for that decision. Finally I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred his Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland's liberty ... Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent my report of the results of the mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916." (Brian O'Higgins, Easter 1916: The Story of the Rising, Dublin: 1940, 42-43 and Wolfe Tone Annual 1946, 75-76)
Compare this with Wolfe Tone who wrote in his journal of 1 March 1798 that one of the “great ends” of the fight against England lay in “the emancipation of mankind from the yoke of religion and political superstition” and that he regretted that Bonaparte had missed a chance to “destroy forever the papal tyranny”.
There was little acknowledgment in 1916 of that element in the legacy of the 'Father of Irish Republicanism' and seeking the blessing of the Pope and pledging the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion would have for sure outraged Tone. During the fighting the rosary was recited every half hour in the GPO. For the insurgents who took part in the Rising, the fight was for 'faith' as well as 'fatherland'. For them the identification between Catholicism and Irish nationalism was absolute.
This is one of the reason most of the Protestant participants, such as Markiewicz or Casement, converted to Catholicism during or after the Rising. It is also significant that after the Rising, the monthly Dublin journal, the Catholic Bulletin carried a mass of material on the religious complexion of the Rising. Eamon de Valera stated in a speech given over a year later that Sinn Fein “would not divorce religion from politics, and if the party wanted success they must have religion”. (Irish Independent, 3 November 1917) It is not surprising that Sinn Fein chose papal count George Plunkett mentioned above as its first candidate for the Roscommon by-election in February 1917.
It is important to note that the catholic nationalism of Easter week was not some "clerical nationalism"as some of the clergy opposed the insurgents but a "confessional nationalism: Catholicism was the hallmark of Irish Nationality, a badge to be worn proudly in the face of the Protestant enemy." (John Newsinger (1978) "'I Bring Not Peace But a Sword'": The Religious Motif in the Irish War of Independence, Journal of Contemporary History, 13:3, 625-626)
This 'confessional' aspect has had a lasting influence. For example, the 1981 hunger strikers and their supporters, as Richard Kearney put it in his essay Myth and Motherland, “articulated a tribal voice of martyrdom, deeply embedded in the Gaelic, Catholic nationalist tradition”. But in 2016, it is difficult to defend the 1916 insurgents' identification between Catholicism and Irish nationalism as absolute and impossible to accept nationalism “like a divine religion" bearing "the marks of unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession”. Tone would have rejected being called the author of some "gospel" and Pearse got his interpretation of Thomas Davis wrong. For a secular republicanism of the Wolfe Tone variety, there are tensions between fighting for 'faith' and fighting for 'fatherland'. This shows that there is discontinuity rather than 'continuity' within Irish republicanism and that as an ideological current it is unevenly secular and still requires demythologising.