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Who's Afraid of the Easter Rising? 1916â"2016
By James Heartfield, Kevin Rooney
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney
All rights reserved.
Who's afraid of the Easter Rising? 100 years ago, on Easter Monday 1916, a few hundred men started a rebellion against British rule in Ireland. They seized the General Post Office in Dublin where they read out a proclamation inaugurating the Irish Republic. Though they fought bravely their forces were divided before the Rising began. After a week of intense artillery bombardment the Rising was crushed, the rebels rounded up and their leaders executed.
Within three years the Irish people had turned their back on the British Empire and elected a rebel parliament. What looked to many at the time like a quixotic act turned out to be the 'blood sacrifice' that would set Ireland on the road to freedom.
The Rising of 1916 was celebrated on the 50 anniversary in 1966 as the foundational act of the Irish Republic. A film was made, medals were struck, and the act was celebrated across the land. 25 years later on the 75 anniversary, in 1991, the Taoiseach Charlie Haughey rushed through a 'short, dignified ceremony' and issued some stamps commemorating the Rising. The whole event was over so quickly that some of the officials taking part were locked out of the Post Office.
The commemoration of historical events can be important affairs for states; the ownership of the past establishes the hierarchy in the present. Telling a national story is a way of building solidarity. But the origins of the Irish state of today in the Rising of 1916, and the independence struggle that followed it, have proved deeply uncomfortable to its present-day leaders.
Between the anniversaries of 1966 and 1991 people's idea of the Rising had changed. Heroic sacrifice it seemed on the 50 anniversary, but 25 years later a lot of people were saying that it was the act of political extremists – even Fascists – that put the gun into Irish politics, at a terrible cost in human lives over the decades.
Between 1966 and 1991 all changed when guerrilla war broke out once again in the six north-eastern counties of the Province of Ulster – that part of Ireland that had not joined the Free State in 1921, but instead had been kept in the United Kingdom. The so-called 'troubles' broke out in 1969, a conflict first between Civil Rights protestors and the Northern Irish State, quickly overcome by a state of war between Irish republicans and the British Army; that war led many to despair that Irish republicanism would always tend towards violence.
Many remembered that the young men and women who took up the gun had often been moved by the 1966 celebrations commemorating the Easter Rising 50 years earlier. Innocent and cheerful celebrations, but did they inspire a new generation to take up arms in the cause of the Irish Republic?
Some of those who took part in the first civil rights protests in the Six Counties in 1969–70 wondered where the bright future of those days had gone. The mood of sixties protest gave way to sour warfare and even sectarianism. Does Ireland suffer under the burden of too much history, they worried?
Genuflecting to the totems of the Easter Rising was less liberation than conformism, they thought, the past weighing down upon the future. Historians and political scientists set about re-examining the history, bravely tearing down the heroes of yesteryear in books and articles. An oedipal revolt against the men of Easter began.
Truth to tell there was always a strong streak of distaste for the Easter Rising. Most obviously the British statesmen, military leaders and British propagandists and historians have painted a harsh picture of the Rising and the traditions it gave rise to – which is hardly surprising since the rebellion was made against them. In the Six Counties, the political leaders of the Northern Irish State and the Orange Order that sustained them carried a special hatred for the men and women who challenged British rule in Ireland. In the south of Ireland, too, the respectable people who only wanted to hold together an orderly state and make their peace with the British Empire were shamed by that constant reprimand that the Easter Rising was to them: why is Ireland still divided?
Looking back at the history of Ireland in the 20 century many have properly focussed their attention on what is specific and unique to the country and its traditions. But looking today, in this parade of centenary commemorations, it is hard not to be struck by just how much the story of Ireland's uprising was a part and parcel of a conflict that was taking place across the whole world, the Great War, the First World War, from 1914 to 1919.
'The Easter Rising damaged the Irish psyche', said the former Taoiseach, John Bruton at a debate at the Irish Embassy on the centenary of the Irish Home Rule Bill, 1 July 2014. The Rising was 'completely unnecessary', and 'led directly to the brutal violence of the war of independence and the civil war that followed'. The Rising's leader Patrick Pearse 'had justified the provos' – the Provisional IRA.
These words are striking because the Easter Rising, the rebellion of 1916 led by Patrick Pearse, has until recently been held to be the beginning of Ireland's emergence as an independent state, with a government chosen by its own people – the very government that John Bruton led.
In Ireland today the history of the independence movement that sustained the people for so long is being re-written.
With the 100 anniversary of the rising approaching the Irish Times was genuinely worried. 'The Rising was a complex event', they wrote: 'There is a danger that shorn of context, it can be presented as a glorification of the cult of violence, as happened in 1966'. The spectre of the 50 anniversary of the Rising, in 1966, is almost as problematic as the original event of 1916. That is because many believe that the forthright celebration of that anniversary led directly to the outbreak of conflict in the still-occupied Six Counties of northern Ireland in 1969. So, for example, a special report by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly worries that Eamon De Valera's celebrations in 1966 'may have contributed to the environment from which the troubles may have emerged later in the decade'. Celebrating history in Ireland, it seems, is fraught with fears of stirring up ancient hatreds.
The Rising, claims the leading political commentator Stephen Collins, was a violent conspiracy that was out of keeping with the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond. 'Most of our modern political leaders have far more in common with the values of the old Irish Parliamentary Party and its leader than they have with those who directed the activities of the Irish Republican Brotherhood' – the militants of the Rising. 'Yet our current generation of politicians', writes Collins, are 'falling over themselves to pay obeisance to revolutionary leaders whose values they don't actually share'. Angered by the revolutionary moment embedded in Irish politics, Collins protests that 'the majority of law-abiding people who live by democratic standards are required to despise those earlier generations who adhered to the same values' – Redmond and the Parliamentarians, he means – 'while honouring those who rejected them', the rebels.
This view of the Rebels of 1916 would surely have been welcomed by English Tories of 100 years ago, but it is a surprise to hear an Irish political journalist dismiss the event that won Ireland its own parliament and right to debate its freedom as anti- democratic. Such, though, is the discomfort of the Irish political class with their own history, a discomfort that is driving them to dismiss it.
'I think 1916 is very problematic and the legacy is particularly problematic – the legacy of 1916 in the Republic', said Eoghan Harris, the television journalist and political commentator. Harris turned away from his republicanism of earlier days to compare the 1916 Easter Rising with the Loyalist-inspired promise of the Ulster loyalists to break Home Rule: 'I regard the Ulster Covenant of 1912 as a fundamentally delinquent political act, like I regard the 1916 Rising as a delinquent political act'.
The Easter Rising, Harris was saying, was 'what I call a delusionary reaction'. Pearse's view that 'if the Ulstermen have guns in their hands, we should have guns in our hands', was 'bullshit'. Sir Edward Carson, the Tory leader of the Ulster Covenanters, 'was very like Pearse in the kind of delusionary rhetoric he engaged in'. Harris, who had after all been a leading figure in Sinn Fein once, said he was 'very sorry that Pearse took up that kind of republicanism, which was delusionary and abstract compared to Wolfe Tone's republicanism'. According to Harris, Pearse was 'in a big tradition of European romanticism at that time, like a whole kind of fevered delusionary nationalism' ('to think that he could take German aid and there'd be no consequence to it').
The commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising is all the more problematic because it falls in the middle of another centenary: that of the Great War. Eoghan Harris contrasts the illegitimate Ulster Covenant with the 'completely different' Battle of the Somme. Remembering the Great War is itself a difficult and painful business for nations that have struggled over the intervening decades to put the violent chauvinism that drove them to slaughter one another behind them. Juggling the competing demands of honouring the war dead and preserving the peace is a problem across Europe. With the events of 1916 it is all the more difficult because the nation itself came to independence through the struggles of that time.
In October 2012 the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly drafted a special report called 'A Decade of Commemorations'. There the modern-day allies looked back nervously on their contested history. Hopefully, they argued that the 'British and Irish should commemorate histories together' – meaning the histories of the Great War and of the Easter Rising. Setting out their priorities they said that 'firstly we want to prevent the distortion of history that could be used to serve certain negative political movements'. Was this perhaps a slight at the British Education Minister, Michael Gove, who had deplored the pacifistic teaching of the British war effort? No. The fear was not one of British nationalism. Rather it was a fear of militant Irish republicanism. History, it seems, is too politically sensitive to be left to the historians, or to be allowed to speak for itself, but must be bent to meet the needs of today's elite. The 'Parliamentarians' set out their hope that the centenary should be used to 'work towards reconciliation'.
One way in which the Irish people are being asked to re-write their own history is to celebrate the militarism of the British Army in 1914. Though the meaning of the Easter Rising was a revolt against the beating of the Imperial Drum, Irish President Michael Higgins said at the dedication of a cross of sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, 1 August 2014, that 'we need to undo the disrespect that was sometimes shown to those who fought' in the 1914–19 war. Of course it would be truer to say that the disrespect was aimed at the recruiting sergeants who led those men to their slaughter. Still Higgins warmed to his theme of praising the sacrifices of British militarism: 'To all of the fallen in their silence we offer our own silence, without judgment, and with respect for their ideals as they knew them, and for the humanity they expressed towards each other'.
It was a painful formulation. What was the humanity that the armies of Britain, France and Germany expressed towards each other? Higgins' hope though was set out clearly enough. He wanted to avoid the judgment of the events of 100 years ago, and above all to silence those who stand in the tradition of the Easter Rising. It was a demand that the two competing goals of the conquest of Ireland by British Imperialism and the Irish people's revolt against militarism be put on an equal footing, smothered in a fog of silent sobbing.
Journalist Niall O'Dowd understood the true meaning of what the politicians and the elite were asking for: 'The glorifying of World War I and the denying of Easter 1916'. The historian Brian Hanley noticed that this newfound affection for honouring the war dead of the Great War comes from those who are critics of Irish republicanism. The anniversary of the Rising has been celebrated before – every year, but more dramatically on the 50 (1966), 60 (1976) and 75 (1991) anniversaries. Each anniversary became a measure of the Irish people, and the establishment's attitudes towards their own history, and to the state they governed. The memory of the Rising grew in importance in the first 50 years, but it became more and more tendentious after 1966.
1991: The 75th anniversary of the Rising
1991 was the 75 Anniversary, and a very strange one it was. In the run-up to the event, the Irish Association met in Dublin to hear a talk given by Joseph Lee, a History Professor at Cork University. 'The Commemoration of the Rising has become an embarrassment for many people because of the IRA campaign in northern Ireland', but also 'because the Ireland of the 1990s has failed to live up to the ideals of those who fought for an independent state'.
Like many historians, Lee was a little perplexed at the trouble his calling made, and wondered whether everyone should not calm down a bit. 'I think we should have more confidence in ourselves as a reasonable, normal people, who do not have a tradition of bloody hands to any greater extent than any other people.' Looking back at the newspapers that were being published in 1916 he was perplexed by:
their treatment of the war in Europe in which vast numbers were being slaughtered in one of the most stupid of all wars, and hear their rolls of honour, their tributes to gallantry and so on, for the poor devils getting slaughtered in France, and then there is the revulsion against the Rising.
Even back in 1991, when the peace process that ended the shooting war in northern Ireland was only in preparation, the Irish Association had asked the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble to give his views on the commemoration. Trimble was looking for as much common ground as he could find, but he was not about to dissolve the Unionist position. There was, he said, 'ambiguity' in Ireland about the Rising because whatever the links are between the Provisional IRA and 1916, 'they are the heirs of the mythology of 1916'. Celebrating founding myths was quite natural, thought Trimble, and 'something with which Unionists were very familiar'. The republican 'myths' it seemed were of a different order to those legitimate ones, because of what they said for the present. Trimble was troubled:
Your problem here, if I may say so, in the Irish Republic, is that the myths surrounding 1916 are not easily confined to the present State and, of course, are meaningless if they try to extend beyond it.
Trimble took heart from the difficulties that the Irish in the south were having over how to commemorate their founding myth. The 'confused and ambivalent response' of southern politicians to the 75 anniversary meant that it would not impinge on Protestants in the north. That was a lot better than the 'tub-thumping of 1966', the 50 anniversary, whose more thoroughgoing commemoration upset Protestants. According to the Ulster Unionist Party MP 'the 1966 fiftieth anniversary celebrations in the North were a significant factor in starting the current troubles'. Just when the administration in the six north-eastern counties of Ulster was 'ushering in a new era of accommodation, the old republican ghosts started walking and the Northern nationalists walked after them'.
Of course many will remember that it was the other way around. The Irish Republican Army was nowhere to be seen in the Six Counties when the Civil Rights demonstrations first started asking for equality. Only after the Protestant Regime in Stormont Castle sent its B-Special police force in to batter the protestors, and then after that when loyalist paramilitaries started attacking Catholic neighbourhoods in the lea of the 12 of July Celebrations, did anyone moot the idea of a self-defence force, let alone the re-born IRA.
Excerpted from Who's Afraid of the Easter Rising? 1916â"2016 by James Heartfield, Kevin Rooney. Copyright © 2014 James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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