Monday, April 25, 2011
1916 Rising, still a great event !
95 years ago today Irish nationalists in Dublin staged a rebellion against British rule. The rising was planned and organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and carried out by the Irish Volunteers in conjunction with the Irish Citizen army. The proclamation of the Republic which was read out by Patrick Pearse on the steps of the GPO formed the principles on which the new Irish state would be built. Today the Constitution of Ireland is based on the 1916 proclamation. For decades the men and women who fought in the rising were idolised and immortalised in Ireland. However in more recent times revisionist historians have began to question the wisdom of the rising. This has taken on an added significance since the economic collapse which has led some to argue whether independence from Britain was ever a good thing at all. It is in this context that I want to discuss the rising in order to ask these tough questions and to see if it is apropriate to continue to commemorate the insurrection given the fact that dissident republicans still invoke the rising today as a reason to fight on.
The ruins of O'Connell Street, looking across the bridge from Westmorlan street.
British rule over Ireland in the decades before independence was not particularly bad, save the government sanctioned policy during the 1919-21 war of burning the properties of suspected sympathisers which led to the destruction of thousands of homes. The decades since Parnell's land reforms led to a dramatic improvement in the standard of living among Catholics. However, before the time of Parnell (1880s) and particularly before the time of O'Connell (1840s), British rule of Ireland was utterly tyrannical. And I don't simply mean that in the modern day militant republican sense of the word in which everyone opposed to their agenda is a tyrant. I mean that British rule over Ireland, prior to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 was Nazi like, where evictions, mass hangings and deliberately inflicted starvation was policy when it came to confronting unrest in Ireland. This was the situation that existed for centuries. This quite naturally left a legacy of nationalist sentiment in Ireland. This sentiment manifested itself in the military uprisings and political revolutions of 1916-1921. When I read the works of revisionist historians like Kevin Myers, their ultimate point always seems to be that they simply wished that this nationalist sentiment didn't exist. Well it does exist because the Irish are humans and like all humans we are tribal and we dislike being dominated by our neighbours. Would we be better of if there had been no rising? I don't know, perhaps! How important is identity, pride and culture?
Patrick Pearse was the Chairman of the Provisional Government, set up during the Rising and the first man to be executed in its aftermath.
In my view the British lost the right to rule Ireland, even if things had begun to improve. It is important to point out that a Home Rule Bill which would have enable limited self government in Ireland was passed in 1914, despite a mutiny by the British Army who were reluctant to enforce it and an uprising by northern loyalists who imported 100,000 rifles from Germany to resist Home rule. The outbreak of World War One postponed the enactment of the bill and it was at this stage that the Irish Republican Brotherhood said no, no thanks. After centuries of brutal oppression and decades of excruciatingly slow and painful reforms the men and women who planned the 1916 Rising made it clear that we do not want limited self government because we are not British, we are Irish and we want our national independence. The Irish, like all people anywhere, like the people of the Arab World today, were entitled to fight for their freedom. Total independence from Britain was a perfectly legitimate aspiration and it is right today that it remain a source of national pride.
The intense fires on O'Connel street could be seen from 30 miles away.
What of the dissidents who have so recently committed murder and have threatened to disrupt the Royal Wedding and the upcoming visit of the Queen. Should we disconnect ourselves with the Rising for their sakes. No, because the abuse and misinterpretation of the Rising by dissidents is their problem, not ours. Look at it this way. The BNP in Britain, a racist organisation that condones violence against immigrants, constantly invoke images of the Second World War such as the spitfire or Winston Churchill as a source of British national pride. It's not the second World War that's the problem, it's the BNP. Urging the mainstream to change to discourage extremists is about as logical as saying that we should confront organised crime by preventing people from becoming rich and therefore eliminating greed.
The back of the GPO, as seen from Henry Street.
I would also like to make the point that as a scholar of the Rising I can confidently argue that the men and women of 1916 would disapprove of the dissident campaign. The 1916 Rising was planned by the IRB, an organisation that would endorse the Anglo Irish Treaty in 1922. While you can never know what a dead man might have said or done it is very telling that the organisation principally responsible for the Rising would later endorse a settlement that was less then a republic. The free State Army and Government (1922-37) contained many 1916 veterans. According to modern dissident thinking these men were traitors. Ok so what about the 1916 veterans that opposed the treaty like De Valera or Sean Lemass. The vast majority of these eventually entered constitutional politics with Fianna Fail between 1927 and 1932 so I guess these lads were traitors too, or so Republican Sinn Fein would have us believe. James Connolly of the citizen Army likewise, as a socialist he was fiercely anti sectarian and would no doubt disapproved of extreme nationalism. I am actually only aware of one 1916 veteran that continually rejected the democratic process and that was Sean Russell, who ended up in Nazi Germany (where he died) so the Real, Continuity and any other IRA can associate themselves with him all they want.
The GPO, after the Rising.
But most importantly, we must examine republican thinking on the issue of continuing the struggle. Dissident republicans in my view find their inspiration not in the rising but in a little known or understood event that occurred in December 1938. At a meeting in Dublin, seven surviving TD's from the second Dail (August 1921 until 8 June 1922) made a declaration that power had never been properly transferred from the second to the third Dail (when the Anglo Irish Treaty established the Free State and disestablished the underground Republic) and that the second Dail was still in existence. These highly irresponsible seven individuals signed a document which claimed to transfer the authority of the Dail over to the Army Council of the IRA which in theory provided the IRA with the legitimate authority to carry on the armed struggle. It was this act which has enabled militant republicans for decades to claim, however absurdly that they were and are the legitimate army of the Irish state. This act served as inspiration for all sorts of republican violence for decades to come. The men who launched the S-Plan campaign bombing Britain in the 1940's would draw legitimacy from this as would the men behind the border campaign in the 1950's, the Official IRA in the 60's, the Provisional IRA in the 70's,80's and 90's as well as the Real and Continuity IRA today. It is lazy minded revisionism to blame the rising or its celebration for todays violence. And in truth, most who do so, and I'm looking at you Mr Myers do so because they have always rejected nationalist Ireland, and for one simple reason, because they are unionists. Yes, I said it, most people are familiar with the concept of an Ulster Unionist but there is such a thing as an Irish unionist, and Mr Myers is such a man as are most of his like minded revisionists. And that's fine, Ireland is a free nation where you can be whatever you want but I intend to continue to defend the right of the increasingly sheepish majority to enthusiastically celebrate and commemorate the 1916 Rising. Roll on 2016.