Who fears to speak of 1916?

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Platform, Volume 23

Parade GPO

It is fairly certain that when those charged with developing a programme of commemoration for the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ first met it was the question of how to remember Easter 1916 that caused the most worry. It is unlikely that anyone thought that commemorating the Dublin Lockout would lead to a surge in trade union membership or a wave of sympathetic strikes. But in the build-up to 2016 there is a real sense, among the political establishment at least, that, in one historian’s words, we are ‘entering dangerous territory’. Much of the discussion about how the events should be remembered seems predicated on the idea that too much commemoration, let alone (God forbid) celebration, could lead directly to a popular revival of militant armed republicanism. This is partly a result of a misreading of how the 50th anniversary events in 1966 resonated north of the border. It also reflects a curious pessimism about the ability of post-Agreement Northern Ireland to withstand debates about an event that took place 100 years ago. This sense of fear seems to have inspired the vaguely ridiculous attempts to ‘brand’ Easter 2016 as some sort of tourist marketing opportunity. The fearful approach encourages the bland, as the assumption seems to be that too much politics will frighten people off. This is ironic, since central to the current idea of commemoration is the very politically driven view that it must reflect the existence of ‘two traditions’ in Ireland and our ‘shared history’ with Britain.

This approach, however, actually patronises the people who lived on this island 100 years ago and who were, after all, prepared to fight over their real and deeply held political beliefs. It is an idea embedded in the politics of commemorative trade-off, whereby nationalists get to celebrate Easter Week, unionists to remember the Somme, and politicians, historians and civil servants congratulate each other on their ‘maturity’. The issues that deeply divided Irish people a century ago are simplified or glossed over and the role of Britain virtually ignored. That Ireland and Britain share a history is a historical fact, but they did not share an equal history: only one was conquered by the other and only one became a global empire. Ultimately, and allowing for all the complexities and nuances that British rule in Ireland involved, in the last resort the Crown depended on force to hold this country. Attempting to commemorate 1916 and avoiding mentioning this lest it give offence will ultimately satisfy nobody. This is part of the reason that much of the energy, enthusiasm and innovation in the run-up to 2016 will come from ‘unofficial’ local community groups and history societies rather than from government.

These groups also face a challenge, however. On the 75th anniversary of the Rising in 1991, governmental inaction (not to mention shame and embarrassment) was countered by the efforts of initiatives from those such as the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of 1916’ organisation. The wider political atmosphere in 2016 is radically different. Aside from a vocal minority who criticise the rebellion as unnecessary, the majority of the political establishment (and undoubtedly the majority of the public) is in favour of commemoration. The taoiseach, after all, has declared himself a ‘1916 man’. Considerable resources will be devoted to the official events, large numbers of people will take part in them, and some worthwhile and overdue projects (such as the expansion of Military Archives) will hopefully come to fruition.

Those of us who have problems with the official approach should not adopt a defensive attitude towards critiques of the rebellion itself. A reappraisal of how Easter Week fits into how we view republicanism and the way in which this state gained independence is overdue. Why is the Rising given far greater prominence than the general strike against conscription of 1918 or that year’s general election? Both of them involved far more people and undermined British rule in ways that the Rising did not. Yet nothing, not even any engagement of the War of Independence, has attained anything like the glamour and romanticism of Easter Week.

There are those who will immediately label criticism of the Rising as ‘revisionist’. But there were no shortage of iconoclasts among the revolutionary generation. Kathleen Clarke could suggest that Patrick Pearse knew as much about commanding as her pet dog, and Michael Collins would remember the Rising as having an air of ‘Greek tragedy’ about it. It is actually possible to agree with the principle of armed resistance to British rule without thinking that the Rising was the only way to go about it. The Easter Rising was the product of a conspiracy; most ordinary people could not take part, even if they had wanted to. In contrast, the plans for popular mobilisation and guerilla war developed by Bulmer Hobson were far closer to the tactics that in 1919–21 actually broke Britain’s will to remain in southern Ireland; but Hobson, because he opposed the Rising, is largely ignored.

It would be useful, too, if we could avoid trying to place the men and women of the Rising in the ranks of whatever cause we espouse in 2016. If it is valid to oppose austerity or defend neutrality, then we should not have to enlist Pearse and Connolly to make it more legitimate. Indeed, I would have more confidence in those who proclaim that they know exactly where ‘Connolly would have stood today’ if they showed any signs of understanding what he actually stood for in 1916. The Proclamation’s lines about ‘gallant allies in Europe’, for example, are often casually dismissed as unimportant. Yet the Rising was taking place because it had been guaranteed aid from Britain’s enemies; and in return for that aid, Imperial Germany (or the ‘race at the head of Christian civilization’, as Connolly put it) would surely have wanted favours in return. The Rising’s leaders were pragmatic enough to know this.

We might also actually start to discuss what the Proclamation meant, instead of seeing it as a sacred document offering us ready-made solutions to our contemporary ills. Seven men wrote the Proclamation. It was never discussed by the IRB, the Volunteers, the Citizen Army or any other group, and the first that most of those who took part in the Rising knew about it was when it was presented to them on Easter Monday. The Proclamation is in many ways a progressive document (particularly in how it includes women as part of the nation) but it is less radical than a previous declaration of a republic, the IRB Proclamation of 1867. That manifesto promised a republic with ‘absolute liberty of conscience, and the complete separation of Church and State’. This reflected a secular ethos that was often absent among republicans of the 1916 era, many of whom embraced Catholicism as part of their national identity. This is surely relevant to the type of society that developed after independence. Irish republican ideology was not static. The Fenian James Stephens could assert that ‘were England a republic battling for human freedom (and) Ireland leagued with despots

. . . I should, unhesitatingly, take up arms against my native land’. Yet during the Lockout Seán Mac Diarmada would worry about the ‘bad unnational’ influence that support from British trade unionists was having on Dublin’s workers and hoped that Jim Larkin’s followers would learn ‘not to place their faith in the English working man anymore than in the English lord’.

We often hear how the ideals of those who fought in 1916 were betrayed. But were they really? What do we know about the views of most of those who were ‘out’ in Easter Week? The majority of them were not poets or playwrights and left no manifestos outlining the type of society they envisaged. Significant numbers of those who took part in the Rising later supported either Cumann na nGaedheal or Fianna Fáil in independent Ireland. The two men who shaped the Free State in its first decades, W.T. Cosgrave and Eamon de Valera, were both 1916 veterans. Is it really credible to claim that all these people betrayed what they fought for? Certainly a minority of veterans thought so, but examining what the rank and file of the Rising believed in 1916 and why they took up arms might provide different answers. Finding out who they were and where they came from could also enlighten us as to what they perceived ‘the Republic’ to mean. We may not agree with the Ireland that emerged after 1921 but we should not use the 1916 rebels as vessels into which to pour our own dreams.

Brian Hanley is the author of The IRA: a documentary history 1916–2005.

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