Skip to main content

Imagination And History

July 2024
5min read

Sometimes a quiet book about high and far-off times of long ago takes on disturbing overtones; as if, while he follows the story of things past, the reader begins to hear a faint but insistent cry from the street outside the window—a newsboy, perhaps, crying an extra, saying that something ominous is going on even though his words cannot at first be made out. Reading about a terror that vanished generations ago, we find it taking shape beside the armchair.

For an example of this, read William Irwin Thompson’s thoughtful little book, The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916 .

In a way, this is a book of literary criticism. It is also a sketch of the famous Easter uprising in Dublin, which was quickly suppressed with shootings and hangings but which somehow touched off something that could never be suppressed. Most of all, the book is a study of the place of imagination in the making and understanding of history.

The thesis here is that a great historic happening cannot be understood without imagination. It could not even have taken place if someone’s imagination had not been at work. What is and what is dreamed interact endlessly. As Mr. Thompson remarks: “History is, in fact, a process by which a private imagination becomes a public event, but any study that restricted itself to public events would have to ignore the fact that history is also the process by which public events become private imaginations.”

The Easter uprising of course had complex origins, but Mr. Thompson believes that it would not have come when and as it did if it had not been for the Irish literary renaissance of the early years of the century. The literary people were objecting to the increasing Anglicization of the land, which was eroding old traditions and old values, and to the increasing burden of raw industrialism—Dublin by 1916 had the worst slums in western Europe; and they were calling their countrymen’s attention to a simpler, cleaner, more inspiring life of the past. They had no intention of creating an actual revolution, complete with bloodshed, wrecked buildings, and scaffolds. William Butler Yeats, the chief figure in the literary movement, whose play Cathleen ni Houlihan did so much to inspire the people who presently led the nationalistic movement, seems to have been slightly appalled by what he had helped to start. Years afterward he wrote a few lines of verse about it:

All that I have said and done Now that I am old and ill Turns into a question till I lie awake night after night, And never get the answers right. Did that play of mine send out Certain men the English shot?

It did. Out of the imagination of writers complaining about their alienation from the society in which they lived came, in due time, one of these public events that derive from things imagined.

The Easter uprising, to be sure, was most amateurishly organized and executed, and it was quickly put down by British troops. It involved only a small minority of the people of Dublin, the authorities shot and clubbed it into extinction without great difficulty, and much of the disorder came because the mass of the slum dwellers, caring nothing about the uprising itself, went out into the streets to loot and pillage … and it is at this point that the reader begins to hear that distant and disturbing cry from the streets; have we not, in our own land and time, seen something rather similar happening?

Mr. Thompson sharpens it, step by step. He remarks that “from the beginning the Irish artist was placed in that psychologically painful situation which the American Negro writer now encounters,” finding that his real audience is not his own downtrodden people but the educated classes in power. These are not really the people he set out to talk to, and yet in the end they help him, because revolution is so often “the dream of those insecurely placed people at the bottom of the top and the top of the bottom”; the word filters down, and what started as an ideological movement begins at last to crystallize into an action program. Men start to think on a different level and in a different way, as witness the angry complaint of the nationalistic Irish labor leader James Connolly:

Ireland is rotten with slums, a legacy of Empire. The debt of this war will prevent us from getting money to replace them with sound, clean, healthy homes. Every big gun fired in the Dardanelles fired away at every shot the cost of building a home for a working class family. Ireland has the most inefficient educational system, and the poorest schools in Europe. Empire counsels us to pay pounds for blowing out the brains of others for every farthing it allows us with which to train our own.

The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916, by William Irwin Thompson. Oxford University Press. 262 pp. $6.75.

It sounds familiar, somehow.

In any case, the Easter uprising eventually became one of those public events that set imaginations to work. The uprising was the work of poets—chief among them the heroic Padraic Pearse, who died on the scaffold for his pains; and “the imagination of the poet-rebels had been so far beyond the reality of the nation that it took the nation three years to catch up.” Catch up it finally did, however, and before long a hard realist named Michael Collins took over and began the task of dismantling the British Empire. Collins indulged in no poetic flights and struck no heroic attitudes; he simply set out to bring about a general state of disorder, betting that this would be more than the heavy-handed authorities could handle. He lost his life doing it, but he succeeded in what he tried to do. The empire began to shrink.

Mr. Thompson sees a pattern in all of this, and as he traces it, that disturbing cry from outside the window begins to come in more clearly. “Whether,” he writes, “it is the case of the Jews rejecting the Egyptian Empire, the Irish rejecting the British Empire, the Black Muslims rejecting America, or … the Africans rejecting the entire civilization of the West, the pattern is similar. In the face of overwhelming material evidence of the superiority of one culture over another, the inferior culture elaborates a new myth in which it claims to possess the secret to a more holy, more moral, or more beautiful way of life.” The intellectuals begin it, but somewhere along the line they meet ordinary folk who have wrongs that need to be righted: “The explosive power of revolution comes from this encounter of the intellectual trying to save his soul with the common man trying to get even as well as equal.”

Furthermore, the explosion comes when we are not really looking for it—even when we think that things are at last beginning to get better. Hear Mr. Thompson on this point:

The revolution comes not when oppression is greatest, but when oppression has been relieved somewhat; it comes when the revolutionary can glimpse his chance and has the energy to seize it. The revolution came in Ireland when the farmers were profiting, as agricultural countries always do, from the war; it came when the farm boys, who were not bothered by conscription, were jealous of the heroes of 1916 and were looking for trouble. And even our own American Negro Revolution did not come when oppression was greatest, when the slightest mumble of complaint would bring instantaneous murder; it came at a time of improvement, when prosperity dramatized what the Negroes did not have, and liberal whites were displaying the symptom that Professor Brinton calls the failure in confidence of the ruling elite. The appearance of conscience and a divided consciousness in the men at the top is a signal for the men at the bottom, who by force of adversity are not troubled by such problems, to strike for their rights.

The intellectual, in short, starts something and then gets left behind by it, and Mr. Thompson points out that the Negro revolution, like the Irish, has its literary movement:

The early Yeats … screamed revolution, and was welcomed into the better salons of British power and was thus rendered harmless as a revolutionary. James Baldwin, shouting execrations and anathema, is welcomed into the best Manhattan penthouses, where his hands are politely tied by having an ash tray placed in one hand and a martini in the other. If history is always new in content and texture, it can repeat itself in form and structure.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.