FOR 61 YEARS AFTER the British executed 16 leaders of the Dublin Easter Rising - the first skirmish in the long struggle which resulted in the partition of Ireland between the Republican and British Ulster - the bitter memories of the dead martrys poisoned not only any attempts to bring peace to Northern Ireland but to INCORECT COMMAND SENT

Last Tuesday, in a deceptively mild statement, an American President brought some fresh thinking to the problem of resolving the civil and religious war in Northern Ireland and perhaps a new dimension to American ethnic politics as well.

At the urging of House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan and New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey, Carter suggested that efforts to end Northern Ireland's eight-year-old strife would be accompanied by U.S. promotion of aid, especially the creation of jobs, for the province's stifled economy. He also reaffirmed existing American policy that there will be no U.S. government tolerance of illegal arms shipments to either Protestant or Roman Catholic extremists, that there will be no U.S. attempts to dictate the terms of a settlement, and that any peace agreement that ultimately might be worked out would have to be approved by both the British and Irish governments.

If Carter's words represented a departure in U.S. foreign policy, they were perhaps equally important for what they told about Irish-American domestic politics. In a nation in which a long list of ethnic, religious, racial and national-origin groups regularly press to affect U.S. policy toward the lands of their forbears, there has been a long government silence so far as involvement in the Irish conflict is concerned. In fact, Carter's statement made him the first American President to search publicly for a solution to the issues of Northern Ireland since the province was partioned in 1922. Afraid of Involvement

IN NO SMALL MEASURE, the past silence was due to the ineffectiveness of the Irish-American community in foreign affairs, particularly the failure of the moderate majority of Irish Americans to press its views. One Dublin civil servant, who worked on preparation of the Carter statement and who is a longtime student of Irish-American politics, says that "moderates have always been afraid of getting involved" in influencing Washington policy because almost every time they do try, the small minority of Irish-Americans who support the Irish Republican Army's extremist wing have insisted that any U.S. policy include a call for withdrawal of Britiain from Northern Ireland.

This is not entirely unlike the situation in Ireland itself. There, in both north and south, an overwhelming majority rejects the idea that violence can solve their problems. But this majority, more victim that participant in the bloody battles, has been at the mercy of the rival Protestant and Catholic extremists. In the United States, perhaps 2 per cent of Irish Americans approve violence as a tool in Northern Ireland, but the rest have had little say in the past. Moreover, those who demand above all immediate British withdrawal, without violence, control the boards of the major Irish-American cultural groups, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Compounding these problems for Irish-American influence on U.S. foreign policy has been an uncertainty among Irish Americans about the present and future character of that troubled land and their own ties to it. Another Irish civil servant, for example, contrasts this lack of consensus among more than 15 million Americans.

"The Jews can organize because they have a very clear idea, most of them, about the sense of identity they want to have as Americans and as supporters of Israel," he says. "The Irish have no such sense. This stems directly from the conflict of opinion in Ireland over how to solve the question of the whole country, whether we're to have a Gaelic Protestant Ireland or a pluralistic Catholic Ireland."

It took the initiative of Irish-American political leaders who have strong popular to cut through these impasses in the Ireland-American community and press for a new U.S. policy on Ulster. Specifically, it was Tip O'Neill who first started talking to the new administration about Northern Ireland. It began one evening in April, at a dinner party in the Georgetown house of Rep. Jonathan Bingham, the New York Democrat. After dinner some of the guests, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security chief, began talking about foreign policy, and O'Neill rumbled out a question about Northern Ireland.

"No one seemed to know anything about it, even Brzezinski," says a close associate of O'Neill, recalling the evening later. "Tip said: 'That's what's wrong. That's the whole problem. There's no awareness of what's going on in Northern Ireland.'"

O'Neill joined forces with Kennedy, who, like O'Neill, had been having long discussions through the winter with John Hume of Derry, the persuasive leader of the Catholic moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party in Ulster. Hume, a former schoolteacher, preaches cooperation and nonviolence and is constantly in danger for doing so.

Together, Kennedy and O'Neill, joined later by Carey and Moynihan as representatives of the populous New York Irish community, approached Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. What they wanted was a meeting with the secretary to discuss some thoughts they had about helping to bring peace to the divided community of 1 million Protestants and 500,000 Roman Catholics.

It was not easy to set up the meeting. O'Neill was first asked by a State Department official why he wanted to talk to Vance about Northern Ireland; the secretary was a busy man, the official said. O'Neill's reply was simply. "Because he wants to know why, that's why."

Vance agreed to talk with the a speaker and the others and asked the State Department's North European desk to bring him up to date on Northern Ireland. State Department officials say that getting the information together forced a level of activity on the subject of Northern Ireland that had not been seen in two decades.

Vance took with him to Capitol Hill the deputy he had brought with him to Washington from New York, the highly regarded Matthew Nimetz. Agter that meeting early in June, both men agreed that the outline that had been presented by O'Neill, Kennedy and Moyniban (Carey was due to attend, but the New York State plane in which he was traveling to Washington had to turn back with radar trouble) was indeed modest and resonable. In fact, it seemed surprisingly reasonable to a secretary who is under constant bombardment from an array of groups speaking or claiming to speak for Greece, Israel, Cyprus, Italy and many other nations.

"All these guys from Capitol Hill wanted," said one well-placed official later, "was an umbrella that the moderate Northern Irish Protestants could get under. The Protestants have a far harder time in reaching a position where they can compromise than the Catholics do. The Protestants are in the majority, but in more than 50 years they have never been able to accept their role as part of the United Kingdom. They don't see themselves as part of the British parliamentary system, and that makes them much more scratchy to deal with than the Catholics, who are in fact the objects of discrimination."

As far as the State Department was concerned, the proposal, which did not call for intervention, for a massive infusion of tax dollars or for anything which might damage the President's political prestige, was a sound one which should be put into draft form and sent to the White House.

Drafts were prepared by several interested parties. The Irish embassy in Washington (some of whose officials had been responsible for planting the original idea with Kennedy and O'Neill) had some ideas. The British wanted the statement to appear supportive of recent British efforts to stabilize the situation in Ulster, including a $1.75 billion grant and a record of decreased violence.

But the Carter administration, the Irish-American political leaders and the Republic of Ireland insisted that the final document not be a prop for British policy but instead should emphasize a new American perspective.

"All in all," said one senior aide to the congressional leadership, "it was a process of education. We wanted by this to educate the American people, especially the Irish Americans. So we saw to it that the State Department was educated and the White House was educated, and when everyone understood that this was important and why it was important, then we got what we were after." Politicians as Pupils

BUT THE PROCESS of education actually began with the Irish-American leaders as pupils.

For some years now, a group of Irish civil servants, largely concentrated in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, have felt that Irish Americans have too long been prisoners of their own myths - ideas which may have been valid in the days of the Troubles from 1916 to 1922, but which are about as useful today as a broken umbrella in Donegal.

At the center of this mythology, they believe, is the persistent notion that Irish Americans owe unquestioning allegiance to the idea that, before anything else can be done, Britain must be removed from Northern Ireland, no matter what the cost in blood and treasure.

In the eight years since violence erupted again in the North, the cost has been high indeed. Illegal arms have come to the Catholic extremists - the Irish Republican Army's "Provos" - and their Protestant opposite numbers, the Ulster Defense Association. At one point, when harsh British actions in 1972 spawned countermeasures, about $2 million in illegal arms for the Provos came from U.S. million in illegal arms for the Provos came from U.S. donations. Not as much, but still a considerable amount, went to the UDA.

The Provos and the UDA usually had no respect for whether a victim of terror was Protestant or Catholic. Violence spawned more violence; the economy, already seriously hurt, grew whose. Even more serious, a siege mentality settled on the already scuffy industrial suburbs with their boarded windows, bales of concertin wire and gerry-built roadblocks made of oildrums filled with concrete.

In Dublic - and to a lesser degree in London - the feeling was increasing that the despair and sense of personal and group isolation could only be broken by a bold stroke of policy from somewhere other than Dublin. London or Belfast, where new ideas had long been gripped in a modern version of Bunyan's Slough of Despond.

The Irish civil servants, many of them only in their 20s or early 30s, began to look at a reservoir of innate goodwill in the Irish-American community. If these millions could be made to see what a force they could be, ran the reasoning in Dublin, the logjam might be broken, the slough turned to slurry.

In 1976, the-Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on St. Patrick's Day. The audience, some of whom had already been "drowning the shamrock" before the speech, obviously expected a nice speech, one evocative of leprechauns and tributes to the horny hands which had come from the Ould Sod to carry the hods and build the cities of the New World.

But, instead, Cosgrave gave his audience a message that was as plain as a potato and strong as Galway tea: Americans must stop giving money to buy arms because they are helping kill and maim both Catholics and Protestants when they do.

Cosgrave repeated the message in most American cities with large Irish populations, and among those who were most heartened were the British, who had been trying to coordinate their own policy against illegal arms with Dublin.

Indeed, in 1972, after British paratroopers killed 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators in Derry's "Blood Sunday," and followed that assault with mass internaments accompanied by brutal interrogations, London found itself in much the same position it had been in 1916.

At the time the leaders of the Easter Rising were excecuted in Dublin in 1916, Britain was coincidentally trying to bring America into the war against Germany. The executions, however, so inflamed Irish America, then at its zenith as a political force, that they helped make sure American stayed neutral for another year.

To avoid inflaming America's Irish millions anew, as well as to help it faltering attempts at cooperation between London and Dublin, Britain began to moderate its policies.

Kennedy particularly had been outspoken in his anti-British views, even calling press conferences in London and writing letters to British newspapers. O'Neill, who never really sought a constituency outside his own Cambridge district and the House, was less vocal.

But the British moderation began to make itself felt. By 1973, one of the Irish civil servants said, "Kennedy and his friends began to shut up." Last year, after the Cosgrave visit, Hume, a man of great persuasion and presence, came to Harvard on a fellowship, placing himself right in Kennedy and O'Neill's backyard.

He met and talked for hours with the two American political leaders and convinced them that peace could come if the Northern Irish could get rid of their siege mentality and meet under moderate and noncoercive auspices. In other words, no one should tell either Protestant or Catholic what sort of government the province should have or when or how or if it eventually should seek freedom from British rule and union with the Republic. All that, said Hume, was up to the Northern Irish to decide for themselves.

The first public act by Kennedy, O'Neill, Carey and Moynihan was a joint declaration issued last spring for St. Patrick's Day. It called for just that - independence of approach and impartiality by the United States - as well as for an end to violence and a choking off of the flow of illegal arms.

Then came a speech by Carey at Trinity College, Dublin, in which he said that Irish-Americans supported these same goals. Kennedy repeated the message in May with a speech to the moderatedly oriented Ireland Fund dinner in New York.

An era was ending, these leaders were in effect saying. Only the old basked in the memory of a land that never really was, while the young, some of them, limited themselves to jamming the pseudo-Irish pubs in American cities and trying to remember all the words to "Kevin Barry." But all of them, together, would have to work to help bring peace someday back to the Irish.

In 1916, after the Easter Rising executions, William Butler Yeats warned that the hatreds planted then would bear their poisoned fruites for many years to come. In "Sixteen Dead Men," he wrote:

O but we talked at large before

The sixteen men were shot,

But who can talk of give and take,

What should be and what not

While those dead men are loitering there

To stir the boiling pot

Sixty-one years later, in another era and another nation, an American President has begun to talk of the give and take. Given the bitter history of Northern Ireland, Carter's words cannot be expected to provide some miracle solution of the people there. But perhaps they will provide some measure of help, some new injection of hope. And perhaps they will help to heal the divisions in Irish America as well.