In today’s world, we are more likely to hear about a “Muslim Brotherhood” than an Irish one, but that was not the case one hundred years ago this week when seven members of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood launched a massive uprising, which became known as the “Easter Rebellion”, to bring an end to British rule in that country and establish the independent Irish Republic. Almost 500 people were killed during that Easter week a century ago, with another 2,600 wounded, and these events marked one of the most decisive moments in Ireland’s march towards independence. The rebellion was brutally suppressed by the British army who arrested around 3,500 people and sent 1,800 of them away to internment camps in Britain. The British authorities also court-martialed and executed all of the rebellion’s leaders, making them martyrs and encouraging ongoing, violent republicanism as the British were increasingly seen by many in the devastated streets of Dublin and elsewhere as the enemy, a belief that has only recently been put to rest.
Today, many in Britain and in the far-away former colony of Canada can now understand how the Irish felt a century ago as we comprehend better why peoples around the world have a basic desire to govern themselves, free from the shackles of foreign control, but such was not the case in 1916. Like it or not, the Empire Club of Canada was of that mindset as it celebrated its 13th birthday in 1916, and made plans to have a speech delivered to the Club on “The Irish Problem”. As things didn’t move as fast a century ago as they do today, this speech was ultimately delivered to the Club in 1920 by a Member of Parliament and two reverends from Great Britain, and clearly, they had no sympathy whatsoever for the insurrectionists in Ireland and what their concerns may have been…it was all about loyalty to the Empire, which meant unquestioning loyalty to the British and their occupying forces. Here is an excerpt from that fascinating speech delivered to the Club on February 12th, 1920:
“I am here to say that Sinn Fein is out to destroy British authority in Ireland, and through Ireland the Government if they can. As Ireland is one of the pivotal points of the Empire, they are out to destroy the structure on which this great edifice of Empire is built. So I am glad to speak with you of this Empire Club, you businessmen, and I put it to you when you look at the whole situation, are we wrong in Ulster? (“No”) I am a man of business, and I put it to you in this way:-If you have a sleeping, quiet partner who leaves you to do almost as you please in business, and when you come to balance your accounts every year if you find you are a little bit on the wrong side and you know what a worry it is to find an overdraft at the bank and the balance on the wrong side it is a grand thing to have a dear old gentleman with plenty of money to whom you can go and tell your troubles, and who will most benevolently give you a cheque to square the whole thing and ask no questions, I say, if I have that kind of a sleeping, quiet partner, I am not going to dissolve the partnership. (Loud applause)
Men of this great Club, of this great Empire City because you are more than a Canadian City, your influence thrills through the whole empire-I thank you from the bottom of my heart as one of the delegations, and in the name of the whole delegation, I thank you; and it delights my heart to know how thoroughly loyal you are to the Empire. We knew before we came amongst you what we might expect, and we have not been disappointed in our welcome; and I tell you, if the British Government ever falls, I believe you will take up the cudgels and hold the empire together. (Great cheering)”
In today’s world, our belief systems have become far more nuanced and no one would ever entertain a speech like this in 2016, but the Empire Club was set up in the era of Empire with all that the word has behind it in values. We keep our name and are proud of the remarkable role that the Club has played in history, to be sure, but the belief systems and convictions of our Club have evolved as much as the world has in the past one hundred years, so we must recognize that at any given point in history we may very well have had belief systems that were reflective of the times. It is most possible that in another century some future leaders of the Club will look back at some of the speeches delivered in 2016 with discomfort and perhaps even a bit of eye-rolling, but this is the reality of being a current affairs institution that has been blessed with such longevity. Belief systems change and hopefully evolve, and today the world will celebrate with the Irish as they mark this extraordinary historical chapter of 100 years ago as the beginning of a painful process that has led to independence, solidarity, peace, and stability in Ireland today, allowing the Queen herself to visit that country five years ago and officially mark a new era of détente and cooperation between the two countries. As Ireland heads into a week of what some are saying will be the largest celebrations in its history, most Canadians and Empire Club followers will be watching with pride and satisfaction to see that this country has achieved many of its dreams and aspirations and that the future looks far more promising today than it was on this day one hundred years ago.