A hundred years ago, Easter Monday fell in late spring. That was the day my grandfather, Tom McTeggart, took up arms and joined the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Easter Rising, against the English government that had occupied Ireland for centuries.
Born in 1888 on a remote farm in County Fermanagh, he grew up in a society divided between a privileged ruling class and an impoverished peasant one. His family’s memories of the Great Famine of 1845-1852 were still fresh, including that of the pregnant aunt killed by a shot fired through a wooden door.
The Royal Irish Constabulary had come to evict the family. Terrified, she had refused to unbolt the door because her husband was away cutting peat.
It was a period of societal breakdown and of unbelievable inhumanity. Enough food to feed the starving was being grown in Ireland throughout the famine years but was exported by the mostly absentee landowners.
The English government’s position was the Irish peasant class had brought their suffering upon themselves, and any aid would weaken them through dependency. More than a million people died of starvation and disease.
My great-grandparents on both sides of the family survived by coming to America, later returning home to buy small farms at a time when 97 percent of Irish farmland was owned by 750 families.
Granddad would laugh as he described how, in the years leading up to the rebellion, he and his comrades trained and drilled right under the noses of their overseers, using hurling sticks instead of guns.
At the start of the revolution, he lived in the town of Dundalk, 50 miles north of Dublin, where most of the fighting happened. Due to contradictory orders issued by competing factions, his unit went out and drilled rather than attack on April 24, 1916. They were all arrested and spent several months in English jails anticipating execution.
Instead, the English government decided to execute 16 leaders of the rebellion and sent hundreds of rebels home.
The war was on. Granddad served as a courier in the guerrilla Irish Republican Army. He worked for a tea wholesaler, making the rounds on his bike to the little shops in Dundalk and surrounding villages. It was the perfect cover for someone carrying military orders and maps to arms caches.
He never talked about the actual fighting. But I remember the murderous fury in his blue eyes and his sense of the deep injustice committed against his family and an entire people.
Looking around me today, I see parallels between agrarian 19th century Ireland and our 21st century San Joaquin Valley. We have people suffering from hunger, unlivable conditions, undrinkable water and more. Despite our democratic ideals, we have a landed gentry and a growing peasant class. The separation is worsening, the suffering increasing, and the disregard deepening.
From local officials disparaging advocates for the poor to presidential candidates scapegoating immigrants, I know what Granddad would have thought of it all.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said it well: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
The bravest among us embrace their humanity and advocate for change. The craven and corrupt fight to maintain the status quo and attack those who dare speak up. Too many others are simply indifferent.
Fortunately, our country has a far better system of governance than that of British-ruled Ireland a century ago. But it only works when elected leaders respect everyone’s rights and when we all participate firmly, directly and peacefully.
Kevin Hall has lived in Fresno since 1971, where he works as an air quality advocate and community organizer. The son of Irish immigrants, he is the first person in his family to have been born in the United States.