‘Was 1916 worth it?

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Platform, Volume 23

Recent public critiques of the Irish revolutionary tradition have been recurring rather than new, and have always been bound up with questions of how Irish history ‘ought’ to be remembered.

John Gordon Swift MacNeill MP—in a long tradition of moderate nationalists who did not support militancy actively but nevertheless celebrated it in the past. (Vanity Fair, 13 March 1902

John Gordon Swift MacNeill MP—in a long tradition of moderate nationalists who did not support militancy actively but nevertheless celebrated it in the past. (Vanity Fair, 13 March 1902

Works such as John Regan’s recent Myth and the Irish state (2014) have shed new light on Ireland’s ‘history wars’ since the outbreak of the Troubles, and the felt need not only to knock Pearse off his pedestal but also to formulate a comprehensive critical answer to the ‘myth of 1916’. Broadly speaking, this answer emphasises the history of the Irish parliamentary tradition and its successes, the non-violent nationalist as against the militant separatist. Indeed, just over 40 years ago Brian Farrell and other scholars sought to return this tradition to its proper place. The authors of The Irish parliamentary tradition (1973) made clear their intent to ‘offer a corrective to the selective and uncritical “nationalist” interpretation’ of Irish history, pivoting on ‘militant uprisings in successive generations against “seven hundred years” of British oppression’. No good historian could complain about being forced to consider 1916 with a colder eye, and doing so has thoroughly enriched Irish historiography. Nevertheless, there is a problem in a one-sided and in many respects quite misconceived narrative of modern Irish history that regards the Rising as a kind of aberration, advanced by prominent Irish public figures, that will inevitably affect how that history is remembered during the coming years.

One of the most salient points made in The Irish parliamentary tradition concerned the sharp distinction that had been made between separatists and the constitutionalists (to the detriment of the latter). Exponents of the nationalist interpretation had marginalised the role of parliamentary politics in the separatist tradition and the careers of its leading personalities. There is a similar process at work today, as some exponents of the parliamentary tradition seek to portray a distinction between the followers of Redmond and those of Pearse to the detriment of the latter. Yet The Irish parliamentary tradition made it quite clear that the boundaries of the two camps often overlapped, and that these were more than just occasional tactical acts of convenience.

The mainstream appeal of the Irish parliamentary tradition during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded on a popular and at least implicit regard for nationalist political violence, and often Anglophobia, not fundamentally different from that espoused by separatists. On the other hand, exponents of physical force could and did find legitimacy through tacking themselves towards the parliamentary tradition, with varying degrees of sincerity. In a discussion of historiography and its relation to history, it is interesting to note the rhetoric employed in narratives of Irish history produced from within the highest ranks of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).

John Gordon Swift MacNeill (1849–1926)—Anglican Irish nationalist, Home Rule MP (1887–1918) and legal scholar who taught Tim Healy, John Redmond and Willie Redmond—in his works The Irish parliament: what it was, and what it did (1885) and Constitutional and parliamentary history of Ireland since the Union (1917) argued a convincing historical case for Irish legislative autonomy. He was unsparing in his condemnation of the illegitimate means by which English and British governments first neutralised the Irish parliament and then abolished it. Though not disputing that the Irish parliament of 1689 was a ‘constitutional nullity’, he approvingly cited Thomas Davis’s celebratory judgement of this ‘Patriot Parliament’. He pointed out that the Bill of Rights had never been extended to Ireland, and notes with frankness that Irish parliamentary reform had only been possible thanks to the ‘extra-constitutional’ pressure supplied by the Irish Volunteers. Indeed, Swift MacNeill criticised the Volunteers for failing to do enough to guarantee Irish parliamentary independence and to advance reform. Their premature retirement had ‘rendered the Union possible’. He found the charge that the British government had deliberately incited and provoked the 1798 Rebellion in order to force the abolition of the Irish parliament ‘unquestionable’. He referred to the Union as a ‘monster’ and an ‘engine of English domination’, ‘floated into the temple of the British Constitution on the blood of Irishmen’.

It is significant that the Constitutional and parliamentary history of Ireland was first published in 1917, after the event that had seemed to destroy the progress painstakingly built by the Home Rule movement over the preceding decades and not long before ‘republican’ Sinn Féin would decimate the IPP in the 1918 election. But it may also be remembered that IPP reactions to the Rising, even at the highest level, were sometimes ambivalent. John Dillon, successor to Redmond, notably criticised the British government’s response to the Rising after the surrender, and went further in insisting that the insurrectionists had fought ‘a clean fight’.

Was this remark an emotional response, or did it reflect a deeper attitude to political violence that went back to the beginnings of the Home Rule movement? Michael Wheatley’s Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland, 1910–1916 (2005) demonstrated how different, conflicting and contradictory kinds of nationalist political language existed within the IPP’s ‘grassroots’. In his local study, he found that ‘Redmondite’ rhetoric of conciliatory, contented, exemplarily moderate, pro-imperial autonomy was accepted by only a minority ‘on the ground’, where different rhetoric was the norm. More popular were romantic appeals to the centuries-old ‘cause’, struggled for as often as not with weapons rather than words. This, and of course Anglophobia, as ‘un-Redmondite’ as it was, characterised popular nationalist rhetoric among the masses of the IPP membership.

Swift MacNeill’s interesting history, synthesising a legal-historical case for Irish autonomy with a straightforward condemnation of British rule, was in fact part of a longer tradition whereby moderate nationalists who did not support militancy actively celebrated it in the past, and thereby helped to perpetuate an opinion of violence as legitimate at least in principle. By 1910 many IPP MPs were former Fenians, and A.M. Sullivan, a notable later nineteenth-century Home Ruler and author of an extremely popular narrative history, The story of Ireland (1883), stands as a good example of the willingness of moderate nationalists to embrace ‘the hillside men’ as part of their own history. The intellectual and ideological influences of Arthur Griffith and those like him ran the gamut from Grattan and Mitchel through to Sullivan and Lecky. Pearse may have utterly denounced the parliamentary tradition, but he was prepared to make at least a ‘partial exception’ when it came to Parnell.

It is undoubtedly correct to emphasise the importance of a wholesale rejection of Britishness and British norms for revolutionary nationalists. But this is only a part of the story, and just as the revolutionaries could never escape the influences of the preceding generation, neither ‘camp’ of nationalism could insulate itself from the influences of the other. More than this, just as militants were prepared at times to claim the benefits of associations with more moderate influences, the constitutionalist moderates sank their roots in a culture in which violence against the British state long had popular currency. Claims for a separation between the parliamentary and militant traditions sometimes seem to plead for a ‘Whiggish’ view of Irish history that may become increasingly outmoded as more and more archival material on the motivations and outlooks of the revolutionary generation is revealed.

Shane Nagle was recently awarded a Ph.D on ‘Historical narratives and European nationalisms: Germany and Ireland in comparison’ from Royal Holloway, University of London.


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