1916, A Hundred Years On – Four Views From A Divided Ireland

Four quite differing analyses of the 1916 centenary which show that on one point, at least, there is agreement in Ireland about the origins of the 26 county state, and that is that there is no agreement.

The first piece, taken from an excellent newish history blog which specialises in the Northern IRA, pre-Troubles, The Treason Felony Blog,  presents, courtesy of Robert Ballagh, the traditional republican perspective. The second is a perceptive and well-researched article in the Irish Marxist Review by Kieran Allen; the third is from last weekend’s Irish Times, a conventional piece by historian Dairmaid Ferriter and finally, from The Sunday Independent in February last year, a typically raging polemic from Eoghan Harris. The four pieces more or less cover the gamut of 1916 and embrace all that is Ireland. Enjoy!

Not being anything to anyone: Ballagh on 1916

Robert Ballagh speaking about the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising this year at a recent book launch in Gorey:

Equating the sacrifices of the British soldiers who died …when they did so in the very act of destroying the republic we are supposed to be commemorating… They had intended displaying the names Pearse and Connolly along with many others from the opposite side in alphabetical order on a wall. Can you imagine that happening in London, with those from the Luftwaffe given the same prominence as their own soldiers, or in Arlington Cemetery in the USA? This is national self-abasement – trying to be all things to all people but in the end not being anything to anyone…

Worth bearing in mind as we get the first instalment of Rebellion,  RTÉ’s fictionalised reading of 1916,  giving an insight into what official Ireland probably wants us to make of events one hundred years ago.

Robert Ballagh at the launch in Gorey

Diarmaid Ferriter: 1916 celebrations must encompass all definitions of Irish freedom

The idea that there was ‘only one definition of Irish freedom’ is nonsense

Eoin Mac Neill with sons Brian and Niall in 1917.

Eoin Mac Neill with sons Brian and Niall in 1917.

In December, an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic was sold for £305,000 (€420,000) by Sotheby’s, an amount far above its £80,000-£120,000 guide. The price was an indication of the premium attached to 1916-related material as we face into an intensive period of commemoration of the Rising, which will be a dominant theme and preoccupation of this year.

There will be plenty of other opportunities for those with deep pockets to buy 1916 decorations, some sold under simplistic banners that promote the idea of a one- dimensional heroic narrative of 1916.

For example, seven bronze medals to commemorate the seven signatories of the Proclamation, taken from seven charcoal sketches by artist Robert Ballagh and housed in a wooden display case that contains a facsimile of the Proclamation, are currently for sale. The collection is limited to 2,016 sets at €499 each, available from Lee Brothers Ltd in Santry.

What is most revealing about this enterprise is the message under which the medals are being sold: “We know only one definition of Irish freedom.”

This is a slogan taken from Patrick Pearse’s assertion in August 1915 as he delivered his graveside oration at the funeral of Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: “It is Tone’s definition, it is Mitchel’s definition, it is Rossa’s definition. Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served by giving it any other name and definition than their name and their definition.”

One-dimensional rebels

It is a clarion cry that should serve as a red flag to bulls who seeks a more complicated narrative of 1916; a direct invitation to see the architects of the Rising as one-dimensional and exclude multiple narratives and ideas about 1916 as they existed at that time and as have been underlined by much research and access to many new sources in recent years.

In short, the idea that there was “only one definition of Irish freedom” in Ireland 100 years ago is nonsense.

It should not be beyond us to remember the 1916 Rising and treat its commemoration with due respect and pride while remembering those who defined freedom in a different way at the same time. In particular, it will be interesting to see how the reputation and legacy of Eoin Mac Neill will feature this year.

Mac Neill, as the man who tried to stop the Rising, has certainly not fared as well at the auction houses as the seven signatories. A copy of one of his 11-word handwritten countermand orders (“Volunteers completely deceived. All orders for tomorrow, Sunday, are completely cancelled”) sold for €30,000 – well below the guide price of €50,000 – when auctioned by Adams in Dublin in 2014. It is an important document; as a result of it, the Rising was almost entirely confined to Dublin; even there, the numbers were only about a quarter of what they might otherwise have been, had the order not been issued.

Mac Neill’s countermand was one reason why the Rising commenced in confused circumstances. Crucially, it was also a reflection of disagreement about the Rising’s validity.

Mac Neill had his own ideas about how best to achieve Irish freedom and the circumstances that might justify rebellion. As the founder of the Irish Volunteers, he was not a pacifist, but insisted in February 1916 that “what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction . . . it is our duty to get our country on side and not be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong”.

That contention went to the heart of the controversies of nationalist Ireland a century ago, and Mac Neill’s countermand and what followed need to be seen in the context of different and evolving concepts of Irish nationalism. Definitions of freedom, loyalty and legitimate violence were contested during this period of multiple allegiances, against the backdrop of the first World War.

Justification for rebellion

Mac Neill’s logic was clear; the only justification for rebellion would be “deep and widespread popular discontent”, but “no such condition exists in Ireland”. As far as he was concerned, any rebellion by the Volunteers should have been as a result of a British act of aggression or because a rebellion would have a reasonable chance of success.

This was hardly an unreasonable position to hold in 1916. The lenses through which we view Mac Neill, his decisions and dilemmas, should reflect the currents prevailing then. Of course, there was an alternative logic articulated by the organisers of the Rising, one no less sincerely held, which we also need to understand.

Mac Neill and those who shared his view ultimately found themselves on the wrong side of history. Still, it would be wise for us to do justice to the multiplicity of ideas about 1916 during this year’s commemoration, instead of being exclusive and allowing the likes of Mac Neill to remain lost or simplified.

Why 1916 Relatives should shun Sinn Fein

Published 08/02/2015 | 02:30

Last week, I suggested the defence forces be given the dominant role in the 2016 celebrations. To be honest, I did not expect an enthusiastic response. A country under the financial cosh is entitled to a lack of enthusiasm for military pomp and ceremony.

But even with their backs against the wall, the Irish people are patriots. To my surprise, I got overwhelmingly positive responses. And not just by email and text.

Because I spent last week teaching an intensive writing course at the National Digital Skills Centre in Tralee, I could canvass opinion face to face. And the consensus was clear: people want to see a prominent public profile by our armed forces all through Easter Week 2016.

Let’s be clear about what that means. All states, including the Republic of Ireland, are founded on force. In the last ditch, they have to be maintained in arms against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

So, when people say they want to see the armed forces of the State to the front, they do not mean they should have flowers in their helmets. They want to see rifles and bayonets.

That being so, I wonder if the disgruntled 1916 Relative know what they are doing when they say they are boycotting the Government celebrations and turn up at the launch of the rival Sinn Fein plan?

Let me lay my cards on the table: I have no time for the notion that 1916 Relatives should have any special place, or certainly any special say, in how the Easter Rising is celebrated.

That’s because this is a republic not a monarchy, a democracy not a tribal dynasty. The bravery of the men and women of 1916 cannot be passed down in a bloodline.

My grandfather and his two brothers were out in 1916. Credit or criticism belongs to them. Why should I brazenly bandwagon on their bravery?

But that is not the only complaint I have about the carping campaign of some spokespeople for the 1916 Relatives Association. My other complaint is about the company some of them keep.

Last Friday, Sinn Fein launched a plan to celebrate 2016 as a rival to the plans of the Irish Government. Apart from the plans lacking imagination, the launch was clearly a political stunt.

Furthermore, as I shall show later, Sinn Fein has the least claim to a clear lineage to 1916. Adding it all up, the bad politics and mediocre plans, surely sensible 1916 relatives should be avoiding Sinn Fein’s shoddy shaping.

Alas, James Connolly Heron, the great grandson of James Connolly, was there. In an earlier statement, he endorsed the Sinn Fein launch. “We welcome events by anybody, given the lack of Government organisation,” he said.

Can it be true that all the 1916 relatives welcome events by “anybody”, especially by Sinn Fein, which for over 25 years was the political wing of the Provisional IRA? Does the memory of the Disappeared cast no shadow over their readiness to share platforms with Sinn Fein?

By rejecting the Irish Government’s plans for 2016 and turning up at a rival Sinn Fein launch, the 1916 Relatives group is showing a serious ignorance of modern Irish history. Because Sinn Fein is the only party in Dail Eireann that cannot claim to be the direct political descendants of t he leaders of the Easter Rising.

Let me give the 1916 Relatives a reality check. The 1916 Rising was run by the IRB. The same IRB, led by Michael Collins, voted overwhelmingly for the Treaty.

Michael Collins’s IRB also formed the core of the officer corps in the National Army and the Provisional Government. Many officers in that army had fought in 1916 – and were proud of that pedigree.

So, there is literally a straight line of descent from the IRB in 1916, through Michael Collins and the National Army, the Free State and Cumann na nGaedheal. Accordingly, Fine Gael is the primary party which can claim lineal descent from 1916 leaders.

Now, this is not academic hair-splitting. In 1922, most people saw Michael Collins and the National Army as the true heirs of the heroes of Easter Week. If you doubt this, read the papers of the time

But while Fine Gael has first claim on 1916, Fianna Fáil can also claim a clear lineage through De Valera, for long, the only surviving leader of the 1916 Rising.

Finally, there is a direct link between the Labour Party and 1916 through James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army. So far, the Labour Party’s role has been sidelined by republican propagandists.

So where does that leave Sinn Fein? Out in the cold. Because the only republican grouping on the island that can lay little claim to 1916 is Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Provos.

Sinn Fein, today, can only trace its bloody line back to the carnage in Northern Ireland. It has no credible claim to 1916. In sum, it is muscling its way into the Republic of Ireland’s celebrations, waving its Northern tribal credentials. What a pity it is being helped stake a false claim by 1916 Relatives, who should be showing more sense.

The fact that the three main political parties can trace a purer path back to 1916 than Sinn Fein strengthens my conviction that the State should put the Army at the centre of 2016 celebrations.

But that means taking 1916 on board, warts and all. By which I mean, there are two sides to the 1916 coin. An upside and a downside. Both sides need to be reflected in the 2016 celebrations.

Let me start with the downside: 1916 was the first step to setting up a separate Irish state. It led to the pragmatic acceptance that partition was here to stay as long as one million Irish unionists were unwilling to join the Republic of Ireland.

But 1916 was also a victory for extremists. It played a major part in alienating Irish unionists to turn away from us. And it allowed the British to quietly set up the Northern state. From which it follows that unionists, rather than British royals, should be invited to the 2016 shindig on the basis that 1916 led to the formation of their state as well as ours.

But there is also a more carefree side to the coin. Back in 1922, the National Army and the Irish people shared a sense of euphoria and enormous pride in the fact that we had beaten the British out of 26 counties.

We forget that this feeling was widely shared, even by Harry Boland, until De Valera began his belated mad backlash.

Today’s Irish Army, as the successor of the National Army, must reclaim that sense of euphoria. It has made a fine beginning. The Bureau of Military History and Military Pensions projects were gargantuan efforts, especially given the meagre resources.

All of which reinforces my belief that the defence forces must be beefed up to play the leading role in the 2016 remembrance of the Easter Rising.

Sunday Independent

One response to “1916, A Hundred Years On – Four Views From A Divided Ireland

  1. Pingback: How 1916 Celebrations Have Mirrored Divisions In Irish Society | The Broken Elbow

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