There is a view of the world and its history that what matters most is not what it is or what it has been but how it is perceived and understood; first having recognised that the two are not the same. There is a different view that the world may be misconceived and misunderstood but its true reality matters more and ‘will out’. The misconceptions are themselves part of the real world and are themselves a reflection of it and often contain a grain or more of truth, while still being wrong.
We can thus learn and appreciate the Easter Rising in 1916 by looking at how it is variously understood.
In the January 15 copy of ‘The Irish News’ the Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness states:
“The Rising wasn’t simply a rebellion against British rule. It was an insurrection against injustice, oppression and inequality. It was a social as well as a political and national revolution.”
We have seen in the previous post that the Proclamation did not rail against imperial oppression and injustice but condemned British rule as illegitimate. Its claims for equality were limited and were made in relation to the particular context of foreign fostered religious division. The Proclamation does indeed talk of welfare and freedom and of the common good but it is the nation’s welfare and national freedom that is extoled and the common good is for the people to sacrifice themselves for. And even if these clear meanings are ignored there is no statement as to how any different sort of freedom, welfare or the common good can be defined and its promise made good.
The Proclamation is a nationalist declaration and did not and could not explain how it could deliver any promises that its readers may mistakenly or otherwise have read into it. A century of national liberation struggles across the world against British and other colonial powers, often inspired by the Easter Rising, have failed to demonstrate how the most radical understandings of such promises, such as those stated by McGuinness, can be made good by any sort of nationalism.
But perhaps McGuinness is claiming that the words of the Proclamation do not matter, it is the reality of the Rising that is important, although I doubt he would make such a claim. So perhaps he is saying that there is more to the Rising than the Proclamation that the Proclamation did not announce.
So the Rising was indeed a political revolution and a national one in so far as its aims were concerned although, by deliberate design, not national in scope – there was to be no Rising in Ulster. However it was not a social revolution; it certainly didn’t pretend to be a socialist revolution. We know what one of them might look like because we saw one the year after in 1917. And it wasn’t a social revolution of the land question. If anyone deserves credit for the revolution in the transfer of land ownership from largely alien landlords to native tenant farmers it is the British who must stand first in line. It must be said that in this they were helped by the massive loss caused by the famine for which they should also stand first in line, and were subject to agrarian agitation to force them.
So even in three very short sentences that are easily passed over as received wisdom the understanding of Martin McGuinness is inaccurate, just as 100 years ago the British and many others were wrong to see the Easter Rising as a Sinn Fein rebellion. Sinn Fein had nothing to do with it and the party was led by a man who was not in favour of a Republic.
Does it matter that McGuinness’s understanding is so wrong? Such misconceptions have been legion. The embers of the Rising were still warm before it was widely condemned as a ‘German plot’, all the better to damn it as a disloyal stab in the back in the middle of a real war. The fiftieth anniversary celebrations have been blamed by Unionists for sparking ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, absolving the demands of Ian Paisley that the Tricolour be removed from the Falls Road for the trouble that erupted there in 1966, and later unionist attempts to attack demonstrations for civil rights for the eruption of violence in 1968 and 1969.
So yes, getting history wrong does matter because it will not explain why the Troubles broke out in the North of Ireland and it doesn’t explain why the 1916 Rising failed to achieve a truly national revolution never mind a social revolution. If we dispense with incorrect explanations of the world and its history we are much better placed to seek better ones and in doing so better able to understand what is happening today.
For many what has happened during the centenary celebrations today is an “Irish capitalist class . . overcome with embarrassment and revulsion, forced to commemorate something they despise”, according to one left wing leaflet handed out at a meeting in Belfast a few weeks ago.
For another left wing author “the notion that Enda Kenny owes his position as Taoiseach to republican guerrillas who stormed the GPO is, to put it mildly, deeply unsettling. The political elite is therefore approaching the centenary commemorations of the rising with profoundly ambivalent feelings and not a little trepidation”.
Two other authors have written a short book, ‘Who’s afraid of the Easter Rising? 1919 – 2016’. They note the opposition to the Rising from those who think Ireland could have won its independence without the violence unleashed in 1916 and who therefore condemn it for the example it set to later generations of violent republicans. They also characterise the attitude of the Irish Government to the commemoration of the Rising as one of “bad faith. They talk in doublespeak and clichés. Their energy is not directed at genuinely exploring or celebrating the legacy of the Rising but rather in controlling it.” In this desire for control however they are hardly alone.
“This political class is embarrassed by 1916 but most are afraid to say so publically, hence they practice the politics of ambiguity and dishonest historical revisionism as a way of avoiding the truth and real debate.”
But if the Irish establishment has been variously “uncomfortable”, embarrassed”, “afraid” and “nervous” they hid it well during the commemoration and scored a significant success, all the more significant depending on how much they were exposed to the emotions attributed to them by some left wing authors.
Far from ambiguity they presented a coherent narrative – we commemorate those gallant men and women who gave us our freedom today, a freedom expressed by the existence and independence of the Irish State which put its back bone on display through the military parade of its armed forces. This is the State to which we owe loyalty and we celebrate the foundational act of that state – the Easter 1916 Rising. No one among the broadest ranks of Irish nationalism seeks to attack the institutions of this State, not even ‘dissident’ republicanism centred the North.
The celebrations were therefore a celebration not only of the Rising but of the legitimacy of the State and its institutions. The highlighting of descendants of the 1916 rebels and later revolutionary heroes in the parade of today’s Armed Forces on Easter Sunday and the reading out of the Proclamation by an officer of the Irish Army was a coherent message that there is only one legitimate Óglaigh na hÉireann. Loyalty to the state is mandated by the sacrifice of the men and women of 1916 whose creation it is.
And is this not at least partly true? And if it is not by any means the whole story are we not then into more ambiguous territory and far from a simple story of misappropriation of a risen people by an elite? Or, recalling our first post on remembering 1916; were Cosgrave, Collins and de Valera etc. not part of this risen people or, recalling the second post, did the Proclamation not address itself to national freedom and not any wider set of promises?
It is not that the Irish establishment finds nothing in the history of the Rising that it finds objectionable. Who does not? But among the emotions listed above there has also been indifference in the past, in commemorating the Rising and, for example, in maintaining and giving access to the historical records upon which its story can more truthfully be told. In 1971 Garrett Fitzgerald stated that “this country will look very odd indeed in international eyes if Britain continues to release information about Irish matters before we do – as has already happened. We will have to stop being afraid of our own history.” His view reversed the previous Fianna Fail view of the late 1960s that access to state papers could result in “injury . . . to national unity and harmony.” Taoiseach Jack Lynch said that even if the British opened papers the Irish Government would not because it “might well stir domestic controversies that best lie buried.”
In any case attempts to emulate the rebellious attitude of 1916 will not depend on seeking to emulate the Volunteers of 1916 but will come from the nature of the oppression and exploitation faced today and more importantly by the goals and strategies that channel this rebelliousness. This is what makes the release of historical state papers possible – the historical controversies they relate to are relevant but will not of themselves stir struggle today and are not amenable to a simple repetition of rebellion – what for, by whom, with what objectives and for what alternative?
We are called upon to commemorate those who fought in 1916 and to remember the Proclamation of the Republic they fought for, but on what grounds are we called upon to remember? Who is asking us to commemorate and do we celebrate the same thing if we do? Does this now matter, for will there now be any future anniversary with such resonance?
Back to part 2
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