Remembering the Rising part 3 – Who’s afraid of 1916?

easter 1There 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.

Easter 3

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?

Easter 2

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Remembering the Rising part 2 – the 1916 Proclamation

1916-ProclamationThe central reference point of the Easter Rising, of its commemoration and for understanding its meaning is the Proclamation read outside the GPO by Patrick Pearse.  Copies of the Proclamation and the national flag have been distributed to schools by the Irish Army and it was read out by an officer of the Army at the celebrations in Dublin on Easter Sunday.

Acres of newsprint over the years and in this centenary have been devoted to the relevance of the Proclamation to contemporary society, usually framed around the question of whether its promises have been realised and usually answered in the negative.  This is almost universally the case among liberal commentators and by many on the Left.

The purpose is to damn the failures of the existing Irish State by the imprimatur of its venerated foundational certificate, restated and ratified by the first independent Dail (parliament) established by the revolutionary movement in January 1919.  What is invited is the completion of an original process more or less universally honoured and exalted by nationalist Ireland.

Examples abound so let’s take a fairly typical illustration from last week’s Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ in a column entitled “Those who came after Rising have failed Ireland’.

It starts off “The Rising did not fail. It was failed by those who came after it. For 100 years, the Irish people including up to two million who emigrated) have watched as governments, political parties and armed groups paid homage to 1916, while abandoning the Rising’s social, economic and political principles. . . we can only marvel at the widening gap between the Proclamation’s ideals and the sad state of modern Ireland”

“The Rising aimed to achieve independence, social and economic equality and cultural maturity for the Irish nation.  Selected events exemplify how these aims were washed away.”  The author then recalls such events as the failure to create a welfare state, the strong role in society of a censorious Catholic Church, state repression and the evils of sectarianism associated with partition.

The following week the President of Ireland spoke at a commemorative event at the trade union headquarters at Liberty Hall on the Republic James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army fought for:

“Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains the wellspring of inspiration for us as we seek to respond to the situation of too many  workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services.”

“Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular” followed the Rising while “their objective was to transform Ireland’s social, economic and cultural hierarchies.  But their radical ideas of redistribution were staunchly opposed by many nationalists . . .”

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The Proclamation was written by the radical nationalist Patrick Pearse with additions by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh and approved by the seven signatories made up of advanced nationalists and James Connolly, all of whom were to be shot by firing squad after the Rising.  It proclaimed an Irish Republic that was eventually to be recognised by its foe Great Britain over 30 years later in 1949.

It is short, exhortary, was not the subject of long deliberation by its writers or by those who signed it and is today held in regard in almost inverse proportion to its detailed examination, except perhaps by today’s Irish schoolchildren, for whom it has become a subject of study and updating.

The Proclamation is well entitled for this is what it is: a declaration of an independent Irish State – a Republic.  It is not a manifesto, not a political programme to any extent and hardly a strategy.  It is a certificate of a birth already taken place so that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, there is no date of Ireland’s independence because Ireland is already an ancient nation that itself, through its Provisional Government, “strikes for her freedom.”  It is therefore a declaration of war, symbolised in the centenary celebrations by the biggest public demonstration by the armed forces of the Irish State in its history, while sanctified in the normal hypocritical fashion by a sermon from the forces’ chaplain.

The thunderbolt that was the 1916 Rising gained its impact partly because there had been no substantial national rebellion for over 100 years, and while the proclamation speaks of an “old tradition of nationhood”, it is the newness of the events that was most striking but which is now, not unnaturally, largely unnoticed.  This novelty translated, or rather did not readily translate, into the language of the Proclamation.  The word for Republic chosen in Irish – ‘poblacht’ – was not in any of its variants current in the Irish language before 1916 – there was no direct translation for the word Republic.

When Eamon de Valera travelled to London in 1919 to negotiate a truce with the British he handed Lloyd George a document in Irish, which had an English translation, headed ‘Saorstat Eireann’ and Lloyd George asked for a literal translation, saying that ‘Saorstat’ did not strike the ear as Irish.   Eamon de Valera replied ‘Free State’. ‘Yes’ retorted Lloyd George ‘but what is the Irish word for Republic?’  While the Irish pondered the reply with some discomfort Lloyd George talked to his colleagues in Welsh and when de Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State, Lloyd George remarked that ‘Must we not admit that the Celts never were Republicans and have no native word for such an idea’.

The beginning of the Proclamation is modelled on the similar proclamation of Robert Emmet in 1803, in that other failed rebellion.  It is the nation itself which appeals to God’s authority and its people to declare its freedom while the Proclamation appeals to both ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in pointing to an equality of gender but only to the Irish – there is no wider international appeal for recognition or solidarity, although it thanks it “gallant allies”, Germany, and its American diaspora.

The nation’s independence is required because British rule is illegitimate not because it is oppressive; Ireland was therefore not being disloyal to the Empire because it had never been loyal, there were no grounds for loyalty in the first place.

The national freedom of the Irish people has been asserted ‘six times in the last three hundred years . . . in arms’, referring to 1641, 1689, 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867, although only the last four can really be said to involve claims to national freedom and on the last two occasions rebellion was effectively aborted.

In this strike for freedom the Proclamation ends by placing its faith in God and demanding that the people be ready to sacrifice themselves so that the Irish nation prove itself worthy of its destiny.  The people must prove themselves to the nation.

The fourth paragraph of the Proclamation is in effect the nationalist response to the threat to the unity of this nation posed by Unionism, particularly that centred in the North-East of the country. ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ Just as the Irish Volunteers were a response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, just as the gunrunning at Larne was emulated by the gun running at Howth and the failure to acquire German guns at Easter 1916, so the Proclamation here is the nationalist reply to the Ulster Covenant that signalled Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule.

This opposition rested on the view that “Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.”  The Unionists pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”

The Proclamation stated that “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The authors and signatories to the Proclamation had, and could not have had, any expectation that their appeal would have any material impact on Unionist opposition to Irish independence.  By 1916 the British had agreed partition with the Northern Unionists and the ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ signed in blood to oppose Home Rule for all of Ireland became a badge of honour for Unionism in six counties and a piece of hypocrisy for those Unionists in the rest of the island.  Soon the Northern unionists, or some of them, would not even be Irish.

In testament to the division created by partition and in unconscious repudiation of its centrality to the Proclamation’s signatories, the promise to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ has come to be understood as a commitment to some sort of social and economic equality  or even a commitment to children as such; the latter a response to the independent  Irish State’s history of privileging defence of the Catholic Church despite its abominable physical and sexual abuse of children.

The Proclamation states that the principle on which independence is based is ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ which itself is based on Pearse’s ‘The Sovereign People’ in which he states that:

“The right and privilege to make laws or to administer laws does not reside in any class within the nation; it resides in the whole nation, that is, in the whole people, and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people.  The right to the control of the material resources of the nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.”  For Pearse this is based on the teachings of the founder of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, who led the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen.

“To insist upon the sovereign control of the nation over all the property within the nation is not to disallow the right to private property.  It is for the nation to determine to what extent private property may be held by its members, and in what items of the nation’s material resources private property may be allowed.”

In the history of the Irish working class movement it is a Workers Republic that is the goal; power derives from the nature of the contending classes within society and all talk of the nation obscures the power of the capitalist class to determine the nature of society.  Private property, what the socialist tradition calls bourgeois property, is the basis of exploitation of the working class, and contrary to the implicit assumption of the President of Ireland, the Proclamation and the Rising made no claims to end exploitation and no claims to upset the hierarchies of class rule.

As a nationalist document the Proclamation upheld the view that the nation stands above classes, a view that always upholds private bourgeois property.  For socialists the material resources that are the content of property must be owned by that class which collectively through its cooperative labour creates and recreates these material resources. The Proclamation upheld the priority of the nation, where socialists uphold the priority of the working class to determine the nature of property relations.

Today, in fact since it was first written, the Proclamation has been interpreted for its meaning for the struggles of today.  This is as it should be.  What is not as it should be is to interpret the words of the Proclamation anachronistically and give of them a meaning that they did not have.  In trying thus to demonstrate the relevance of the Proclamation those doing so inadvertently subvert its true relevance.

When we remember those who fought in the Rising we should remember all who fought.  When we evoke the words of their Proclamation we should recall what those words meant to those who led down their lives fighting that they be given effect.

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