In the blaze of battle during the Easter Rising priests set up confessionals, took in the wounded and administered last rites

Invited to make a contribution to Ireland’s commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916, I chose to speak, in a Dublin church, about the nuns and friars who ministered to the people during that fateful Easter Week.

The religious dimension is, nowadays, a somewhat marginalised aspect of Easter 1916 (regarded as the founding event of the Irish state). But it was central at the time.

True, the official Church was against the rebellion (as my mother would always call it): Pope Pius IX had anathemised revolution against “the legitimate authority” – as had St Paul. Moreover, the ecclesiastical authorities were supportive of Irish Home Rule and constitutional nationalism, rather than taking up arms.

Yet as Dublin became a war zone some priests quickly helped out, literally getting on their bicycles to offer spiritual aid and the sacraments to the participants (on all sides). One priest, Fr James Doyle, approached a group of English soldiers and offered them “conditional absolution”. They were doubtful, even contemptuous. Yet they accepted a padre’s ministrations. Some of them died shortly afterwards.

The nuns – particularly the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Charity, both linked with St Vincent de Paul – were quickly aware that the Dublin poor were without food or provisions, since all trade and communications were halted, and focused on relieving suffering. Their archives show little political involvement, but a commitment to care. As nursing sisters at St Vincent’s hospital, they also attended to the wounded and dying, often developing an admiration for the bravery of those they nursed.

Friars were outside the jurisdiction of the hierarchy, so they felt less bound by bishops’ orders, and the Capuchins were in the thick of the events from the start. Many were of a more nationalist turn of mind anyway, and several were familiar with the leaders of the Rising through the temperance movements.

Another overlooked aspect is the strong commitment to teetotalism of nearly all the rebels. Patrick Pearse and James Connolly were ardent teetotallers, as were many of their closest followers, sharing the view that drink was the downfall of society, while sobriety was morally uplifting.

Fr Aloysius Travers, a Capuchin, saw Pearse and his brother riding purposefully on their bicycles on Easter Monday, and he knew something was up. He and other Capuchins were soon taking in the wounded, hearing confessions, giving the last sacraments, and saying the rosary.

At Dublin’s iconic GPO, in the midst of the blaze of battle, the rosary was constantly recited, and priests came to set up impromptu confessionals. Michael Collins (whose sister was a Vincentian nun) thought there was rather too much praying – a distraction from fighting – but he was in a minority.

When the leaders came to be executed, the Capuchin friars – and in one case a senior Maynooth priest – accompanied the doomed men to the execution yard. All the 1916 signatories, except Tom Clarke (a veteran Fenian who never healed his quarrel with the Church) died not only Catholic deaths but, as Fr Aloysius testified, exceptionally holy deaths. Connolly, the Marxist, impressed him especially.

Whatever one’s political views, it is hard not to be moved by the sincerity, faith and acceptance of death which the friars saw when dealing with the men of 1916. They had taken up arms, yes, but they had also laid them down again. Pearse, troubled by the loss of life, ordered a ceasefire to bring the violence to a halt.

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This article first appeared in the April 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here