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Timing is Everything

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 26, 2010

Some say image is everything, but if I have to pick something other than God and grit, I’ll place my bets on timing. There is a significant mystery involved in why some things catch on at one time and not another, and there is a significant talent (or what some would call luck) in discerning what is likely to work out well at any given moment in history. I’ll pull a page from the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 to demonstrate what I regard as a universal point.

In the second half of the 19th century, Irish leaders did their best to foster a strong sense of Gaelic culture, which was reflected in everything from political speeches to popular ballads. The movement for Irish separatism (from England) grew slowly. But around the turn of the 20th century, in the years preceding World War I, there developed a new atmosphere in favor of expanded suffrage and sympathetic to the resistance of local peoples against colonial power. Something in the very air suddenly caused separatism to take hold in the minds of a new generation of Irishmen who began to see Home Rule as an absolute minimum in terms of Irish self-realization. Timing.

In the early 1910’s Protestant Ulstermen began to arm themselves in opposition to the threat of Home Rule, and this triggered the establishment of armed volunteer forces in favor of complete independence throughout the rest of Ireland. The growth of the volunteers was explosive. By 1914, one in three Protestants and one in five Catholics were in volunteer forces, with regular drilling modeled on that of the British army, and with a growth of separatist political influence to boot. By the Summer of 1914, local militias were the law in Ireland. Timing.

But then World War I broke out, and the sympathies of most Irishmen were with the British against the Germans and their allies. Almost overnight, participation in the volunteers shrank by an astonishing 94%. Remaining volunteers were ostracized. The mysterious winds of popular opinion had shifted dramatically. Timing.

When it comes to war, though, popular opinion is ever fickle. Nobody really likes to stay a difficult course. So as the war dragged on it became unpopular. Sentiment shifted, and the Irish volunteers emerged again, becoming a strong force in favor of separatism by late 1915. Now the leaders, such as Tom Clarke, Sean MacDermott and Patrick Pearse, realized that if they were to have any chance of success, they would have to stage an insurrection before the end of the war. This was essential both to capitalize on the resurgent Irish feeling and to arrange German support in Ireland against the English, especially considering the Irish need for arms. Timing.

For better or worse, the Easter Rising of 1916 failed. It was ill-organized, and its leaders underestimated the resurgence of sentiment in favor of England in the face of armed local resistance, especially while Germany (which never helped the rebels) was still a threat. Some, most notably Patrick Pearse, never believed it would be successful. For Pearse, the whole point—often uncommunicated to the rank and file—was to make martyrs, the memory of which would rally the Irish people at a future date. Though morally questionable, Pearse was right as to the result. At first largely reviled, the Irish rebels later became national heroes who were instrumental in securing Irish independence, but only after their deaths. Timing.

Though it is not the point of this commentary, I can recommend to those who desire greater detail an outstanding new history by Fearghal McGarry entitled The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916. The book lays many myths to rest by making extensive use of thousands of statements by actual participants in, and witnesses to, the Rising—statements compiled by the Irish government starting in 1947, when most participants were still living. It’s a fascinating and colorful account by a fine historian, published by Oxford University Press. Our Amazon link appears below. But here I am using the Rising to illustrate a larger lesson.

There is a great mystery to the success or failure of all human enterprises. The best-managed efforts often fail, and those with no special claim to superior strategy often succeed. Such successes and failures are inextricably bound up with (among other things) both the spirit of the moment and the spirit of the age. I do not say this to encourage any sort of pagan fatalism. Rather, these things are part of the mystery of Divine providence. God too has His own sense of time, in which a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years (Ps 90:4; 2 Pet 3:8).

This is yet another reason why true Christians strive to do what is right as well as they can, leaving the results to God. Indeed, a Christian ought happily to take exactly as little credit for success as he is willing to take for failure. But of course we Christians have a secret. We know that the fullness of time has already come and is already ours, and that it really is everything. Timing.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - May. 26, 2010 11:57 PM ET USA

    Your pieces are excellent. Thank you Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - May. 26, 2010 9:30 PM ET USA

    Words matter: "Separatism" applies to the English subjects in the provinces formerly held by English on the American Atlantic coast. "Nationalism" or the expulsion of invaders describes the end of 841 years of on-going occupation by the English in Ireland.