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These are the times that try men’s souls

Thomas Paine wrote those words after the shooting had already begun at Lexington and Concord, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a fact that always surprises me. We tend to think that by that time, the game was on, lines were irrevocably crossed, and everybody who was going to take a side and get involved was already committed. But not quite so.


We of course haven’t even had our Lexington moment yet and frankly I pray we never do. Even in the best cases (and the American Revolution was certainly one of those), shooting wars ultimately play into the hands of the most wily statists. Who shoots first, shoots straightest, has the biggest weaponry, or has “God on their side” doesn’t always determine how free people are once the smoke has cleared.

Oh, for sure, if our Lexington moment comes, let us be brave and let us be on the right side — and remain strong there. But we do better in the long run simply living around the present regime, learning and teaching freedom, waiting for the fall, and hoping when it comes we’re prepared not merely to survive, but to build something better on the ruins.

Though it could come as suddenly as that other famous recent fall, this regime’s fall may be a long way off. (How many hundred years did it take Rome to crumble before those definitive Barbarian invasions?)

These remain the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.


I’m watching an excellent three-part documentary this week on the Irish Rebellion. April was its 100th anniversary, which I wish I’d marked. The documentary came out this spring to honor and explain the occasion. Though it’s narrated by Liam Neeson, a Hollywood gun hypocrite I generally boycott, it’s irresistible. It’s got beautiful music and strong visuals, as well as a clear telling of this poignant, tragic, inspirational, educational, and ultimately triumphant story.

You may know the short version. I’ve mentioned it here before: After centuries of suffering under British rule and being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, a handful of no-hopers, including poets, journalists, teachers, and naive young kids, took over the Dublin General Post Office and a few other strategic buildings on Easter Monday in 1916 and held off authorities for a few days before being forced to surrender (as the ruthless British leveled central Dublin with artillery shells and fire, murdering some 300 civilians).

Their act was widely unpopular even with other fighters for Irish freedom. Rash, radical, and tactically stupid. Morally, this handful of radicals felt they had no other choice. But in the days before they took over the GPO, their 20,000 hoped-for guns had been sent to the bottom of the sea. One of their most important compatriots was arrested for trying to smuggle the arms from Germany. And thousands of would-have-been supporting fighters were called off by their commander.

No question about it: occupying the GPO, etc. was a hopeless, dimwitted move. And everybody else knew it.

Worse, it was an act of aggression at a time cooler heads felt it was better to wait for the British rulers to make some provocation that would justify armed self-defense.

Then the British stood the captured rebel leaders up before firing squads. Poets, teachers, starry-eyed kids. They killed them one-by-one. In cold blood. Under color of law. And in dying of official overkill, this pack of inspirational fools sparked the very thing they’d tried and failed to achieve: Irish independence.


But cut the soaring patriotic music.

Because, for years ahead there was not only war with and punishment from the British. But after that, there was civil war, with old Irish friends and long-time Irish leaders killing, or suspected of killing, each other. And even when that was over, they still ended up with a divided, chaotic country. A country dominated by poverty and a rigid, politically powerful priesthood. And government. Always government. And all the costs that go with it.

So those, too, were the times that tried men’s souls.


As I watched the first part of the documentary, which covers the lead-in from the late nineteenth century to the takeover of the GPO, I felt regret and guilt for not being a leader on the scale of Patrick Pearse or John Devoy, or even Maud Gonne or the Countess Markievicz (that’s her below). Never mind that I’m devoted to the idea that quiet, daily freedom is ultimately a bigger, though far less cinematic, way to restore and preserve liberty. There’s that craving to do something dramatic, decisive, definitive, and forever bold.


Personal feelings aside, one of the things that stands out about the run-up to Irish independence is that it was a cultural movement before it could be a successful military one. It’s no coincidence that so many Irish revolutionary leaders, both military and inspirational, were poets, schoolmasters, actresses, playwrights, journalists, students of the Irish-Gaelic language, and collectors of Irish folklore.

After centuries of physical, legal, religious, and military battering at the hands of the British, the Irish first had to reclaim themselves as a people before they could organize successfully for independence.

Americans may not share the cohesion around the arts that the Irish are so known for. But I think you can see the parallels here, right?

You can see that at least part of what we need to do is … well, what we are doing, but more of it: to remind people of who and what we were and are.

Prepare the ground for millions to stand on when today’s “normal” crumbles and we have an opportunity to grow a new world.


It does seem as if this fall’s election — with its anger and frustration and horrendous candidates — is likely to be a turning point. Well, already is a turning point, no matter what happens from here. But it’s probably not a turning point in exactly the way any pundit would think to predict.

Similarly with yesterday’s amazing Brexit vote across the water. Everybody’s got their own prediction of the consequences of the Brexit. Everybody’s got their own predictions about the horrors of a Trump presidency or a Clinton 2 presidency. Everybody will be wrong.

But no matter what anyone guesses, people are rising to reclaim who and what they are. They’re finally telling the elite and powerful (“foreign” rulers, even if they’re native-born), “You do not define us. You do not plan for us. You do not fool us. You do not rule us.”

Done wrong, with crazy leaders, this will be a disaster. Done well …

Sigh … these are still the times that try men’s souls.

But there’s hope. Perhaps more hope than political freedom has had in quite a while. In part, that depends on we the remnant and what we do with the opportunities ahead of us.


  1. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 24, 2016 12:44 pm

    Amen… just… amen.

  2. Tim McCann
    Tim McCann June 24, 2016 3:02 pm

    Thanks Claire, I just ordered it. If you haven’t read “How the Irish Saved Civilization” you need to.

  3. LarryA
    LarryA June 24, 2016 3:30 pm

    Then the British lined the captured rebel leaders up before firing squads.

    In too many fiction stories to count the hero is tired, the hero is reasonable, the hero just wants acknowledgement, the hero just wants to go home and to be left alone. But no. The bad guy (outlaw, or the law) has to push one more time, one step too far. And the hero, or his next of (spiritual) kin, unleashes the wrath of God upon the unbelieving evil ones. And they are utterly surprised at what they have provoked.

    It’s great fiction, because it is so often in history exactly what the outlaws, or the law, in fact accomplish in real life.

    My church’s parking lot happens to be a great location to watch the city fireworks from, so we’re having a Forth of July Celebration. As part of the program, I get to read the Declaration.

    Rabble-rousing at its finest.

  4. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 24, 2016 5:03 pm

    We tend to think that by that time, the game was on, lines were irrevocably crossed, and everybody who was going to take a side and get involved was already committed.

    Seeing how pro-liberty folk can’t even agree on whether Brexit is a step in the right direction or not, I kinda wonder what will happen when choosing a side really matters.

  5. Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson June 25, 2016 7:29 am

    Claire, wonderful article. I’m embarrassed that I never read all of Paine’s letter before, just the most popular reprinted snippets. What a treat the whole work is!
    Jim, I enjoyed the song. I turned up the volume so my red-headed wife could hear it in the yard. Irish music always gets her dancing. Then I explained the significance of “Come out ye Black and Tans…” and we had a great little 5 minute conversation about Irish history.

    What a great way to start the day.

  6. E Garrett Perry
    E Garrett Perry June 25, 2016 7:34 am

    There’s a wonderful short story, horribly sad in the way of so many Irish stories of that time, called “The Sniper.” As a marksman’s duel plays out over the rooftops of Armagh in the late summer of 1921, the eponymous sharpshooter intersperses his observations about the Civil War itself with snippets of the immediate backstory- The Rising, James Connolly, the Black And Tans, Croke Park.

    In the end, the Republican sniper finally kills his opponent. He climbs down from his hide and goes to confirm the kill hy taking his enemy’s rifle, only to discover that the dead Free Stater is his teenage little brother, slain by his own hand.

    I have read no better display of the horror, the soul-killing ugliness, of true civil war.

    The wounds of the Irish Civil War have yet to truly heal. Nearly a hundred years on, although nobody’s been killed over it for some time, it’s still a grand way of starting a fight after a few pints. Michael Collins’s murder is Ireland’s very own Kennedy assassination, but only if Democrats and Republicans had been killing each other since 1960, and if it was possible that the Democrats offed JFK themselves.

    Like in the US, the Irish wars of independence were probably a best-case scenario and they still went horribly for years and left many’s the innocent dead in their wake. Libertarians and “freedomistas” who pine for revolution and civil war are idiots. At least Padraic Pearse and his bunch knew they’d all lose and be shot- they were Irish revolutionaries after all, the6’d been practicing their last words since they could walk. These fools who think AmRev2 is gonna be a quick-and-easy, or at least glamourous, noisy little movie plot will be in for a lot of very ugly surprises. Revolutions, even the ones that go well, always eat their own.

  7. Shel
    Shel June 25, 2016 11:37 am

    This post has my head spinning. Regarding the Irish Revolution, I’ve read two excellent books. Shake Hands With the Devil, by Rearden Conner, is an amalgamation of true stories written as a novel (ignore the hit movie with James Cagney, it’s pitiful by comparison and only crudely resembles the book). Conner later wrote an autobiography, A Plain Tale From the Bogs, in which he wisely failed to mention any personal involvement in that conflict. An acknowledged first hand account was Guerrilla Days in Ireland (which I first learned of on this site), by Tom Barry, the commander of the “Flying Column,” the IRA attack force in County Cork.

    In his book Total Resistance, Swiss Army Major H. Von Dach deemed outside support essential to the success of any such effort. The Irish really didn’t have much of that, as we had with the French navy at Yorktown. They didn’t even have any means of communication from their headquarters in Dublin to the other revolutionaries other than extremely high risk clandestine personal travel.

    At one point, Barry and his men went out on an attack mission with only 40 rounds per man. It was all the ammunition they had, and they were counting on any engagement to be close and brief. They felt the need to reaffirm their presence outweighed the grave risks involved. About a month before the end of the conflict (of course Barry knew nothing of the timing involved) the British tried a combined arms sweep of the area to bottle up Barry’s column and annihilate them. They retreated to western County Cork, where the locals contacted a man who could lead them through the bogs. They met late in the day at the assigned place; the man was there with many ropes tied together to make a very long one. He instructed the soldiers to follow him precisely, as deviating more than three feet could easily result in a man’s sinking into the bogs. They proceeded on “a march of nightmarish proportions” with men having their hands on the man in front of them. They all made it. After a couple of days the British went back to their barracks and the Irish immediately returned to the offensive to let them know the sweep had been ineffective. Visiting those bogs through which they escaped at night is on my [ambitious] bucket list.

    After the Revolution Barry Fought for the Republicans and was captured. He was in custody while Michael Collins was killed. He wrote that he witnessed the remarkable sight of hundreds of men on their knees praying with their rosary beads for the soul of Michael Collins. Even though he had been their enemy recently, they all knew what he had done to get them independence. Later, after escaping, Barry talked to the men involved in the incident. He was told they had been waiting in ambush for some vehicles, but gave up when nothing seemed to be coming. When they were about a quarter of a mile from the road, the vehicles came. Just to let the other people know they were there, they fired some shots before leaving. Collins was the only one hit.

  8. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 25, 2016 12:29 pm

    I don’t know anyone who actually wants a “civil war.” In that sort of conflict, both sides want to become the rulers and whoever “wins” becomes the new breed of tyrants. We could hope that these people would all come to their senses and stop the aggression… but I certainly don’t expect it.

    Personally, I hope that the current tyrants and all of the wannabe replacements won’t start any kind of “war” – But that WILL happen if they decide to confiscate our guns, food, etc.

    Unfortunately, the coming collapse of the economy and the increasing tyranny will result in a great deal of suffering and death on every “side,” no matter what kind of “war” it is called.

    Far as I can see, those of us who love life and liberty simply are prepared to defend ourselves the best we can. The outcome of that is both beyond my ability to predict, and completely out of my hands to prevent. I do wonder sometimes just what the historians will say about us in another hundred years or so. The survivors (the winners anyway) write the history…

  9. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 25, 2016 1:17 pm

    ” We tend to think that by that time, the game was on, lines were irrevocably crossed, and everybody who was going to take a side and get involved was already committed.”

    It’s easy to say that now. But at the time, there would have been no way to know what the consequences were. I’m picturing 100 or so founding fathers giving the colonial version of “Oh, S***!!!”

    I would bet that more than a few of them were looking for ways to back off from what they’d just done. That is the part that was trying their souls, and what Paine was trying to encourage them through.

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