From Irish Political Review: February 2006

Report: Conference at UCC on 1916
January 27-28th 2006
1916 Versus Whig History

The Long Revolution—the 1916 Rising in Context set out to explore the circumstances in which the Easter Rising took place, in the year that will mark its 90th anniversary. These same circumstances have been the source of much contention in recent years. To sum up arguments many of you will already be familiar with: according to 'revisionists' 1916 was variously a criminal act, undemocratic, sectarian, led by a fanatical madman who had no 'mandate' from the people, caused untold carnage and misery in the heart of Dublin and was roundly denounced on all sides at the time. Not much of an event to be celebrating then, you would think. Indeed perhaps it would be even better to try and erase it from our memory as if it were some kind of Irish holocaust (though the Germans, on the contrary, are never let forget their misdeeds). Revisionists have even attempted to exploit this link, trying to find ways to tie those whose political ancestry lay in the events of 1916 with Nazi Germany. This has led to IRA man Sean Russell being 'outed' as a Nazi, though it seems he was nothing of the kind and was simply glad to get help from whatever quarter; a bit on the same level of logic as arguing that the IRA who accepted guns from Colonel Gaddafi were Muslim extremists. For all their 'constitutional pacifism', most revisionists generally let themselves down badly when it comes to discourse on the role of the Irish in the British military over two world wars: for here and without the least sense of irony they find true heroism, bravery, selflessness, ideals and so on ad nauseam.

I have explored this phenomenon of modern Irish cultural life in a previous article and shown that it springs from at least two fonts—the need of the Irish political establishment since 1969 to undermine real or supposed popular support for the IRA; and the resurgence of old southern unionism as exemplified by the Reform Movement. The mainstream media has generally reflected this view, hardly surprising when one considers the fear under which it operated over the last 30 years or so. Section 31 and Conor Cruise O'Brien let the media understand in no uncertain terms the consequences, should they dare to challenge the official 'consensus'. Some papers, notably the Irish Times, represented the unionist voice in any case and were hardly sympathetic to the republican tradition. Mindful of such a context I went to University College Cork expecting to encounter variations of these themes.

The Aula Maxima, the main hall, was packed to capacity. For once everyone was in their seat prior to the start of the event, as demanded by State protocol. As President McAleese strode up to the podium to loud applause, one legacy of 1916 was already evident: during the whole event security was very low-key. True, we had had to submit our names prior to the event for a Garda check, but on the day itself I could have counted the number of Gardaí about the place on the fingers of one hand and had fingers left over. Indeed, after speaking, the President found time to meet and shake hands with a few members of the audience on her way out. I found myself reflecting that the head of the State founded on the events of 1916 was able to meet its citizens at such close quarters and be in no danger of being shot except by camera. I couldn't help but compare her situation to that of George Bush and Tony Blair—whose countries boast such a long tradition of exporting 'democracy' and 'freedom' around the world (having such a surfeit of it at home apparently). So beloved are they, that whole cities are virtually closed down on their arrival, becoming armed fortresses, and with thousands of police and secret service to keep them as far as possible from their adoring fans. Where did we go wrong in Ireland, I wondered?

I was mindful of the furore that erupted when the President commented that some people in Northern Ireland had taught their children to hate Catholics, and settled down to hear some insipid speech designed to say nothing and please everyone, as is the wont of politicians the world over. Therefore it is with complete sincerity I can say that the President's speech caught me totally off-guard. She began by putting the Rising in its historical context of jingoism—the whole world it seemed, had gone to war and militarism was glorified in all quarters. I have long held this opinion myself, but had become used to the revisionist mantra that republicans had cornered the market in glorified violence, and that what was going on in British ranks at the Somme etc. was altogether of a different calibre. My ears pricked up. Other revisionist assertions, such as the Rising not being a democratic event, were put in further context when the President reminded us that, whereas the 1916 Proclamation at least accepted "the suffrages of all her men and women", Westminster was "still refusing to concede women the vote on the basis that to do so would be to give in to terrorism"! It appears that the Rebels may have had a better grasp of the fundamentals of democracy than the revisionists give them credit for.

However this needs some qualification—on Day Two of the Conference the issue of women in the independence movement was given further coverage. Gerry White and Dr. Brendan O'Shea (authors of Baptised In Blood—The Formation Of The Cork Brigade Of The Irish Volunteers) noted how the Irish Volunteer manifesto included women by simply stating that "there will also be work for women to do", and added that this generally was supposed to consist of traditional roles such as nursing, tailoring and so on. Likewise, Rosemary Cullen Owens (UCD) noted that women found themselves dealing with almost as much chauvinism in the Republican movement as with the political establishment (all Irish MPs were against women's suffrage around the time of the Rising). Their media organ The Irish Citizen caustically commented that maybe even Republicans needed educating in this matter. Yet, from 1918 onwards, all political parties courted women's votes. Posters of the Irish Parliamentary Party excluding women from meetings began to disappear from this date onwards. The main clawing back of women's rights came about under the Free State. In acrimonious Dáil debates there were attempts to bar women from jury service, typical of the ways in which the Free State tried to clip women's wings. Nonetheless, the Proclamation remained an important step forward in women's rights even before the self-proclaimed cradle of modern democracy at Westminster was able to contemplate the step.

President McAleese also argued that the Rising was not sectarian, thus countering some revisionist claims that republicans intended to set up a Catholic-dominated state and persecute their Protestant neighbours. Dr.Owen McGee (UCD) threw some further light on the matter on Day Two by explaining how the Catholic nationalist followers of political parties, such as Redmond's, were vigorously opposed to the IRB on the assumption that it was anti-Catholic and that it would attempt a separation of Church and State such as was being conducted in republican France. These Irish Parliamentary Party supporters and the like were not too concerned whether their state gained Home Rule under a monarch or not as long as its Catholic character remained intact. It would seem from this that Protestant unionists had less to fear from republican revolutionaries than Catholic constitutional nationalists. The 1916 Proclamation set out to guarantee religious tolerance and liberty for all the nation's citizens.

Following on the President's introductory speech, Professor Keith Jeffrey (Queen's University, Belfast) introduced the issue of Irishmen serving in British forces. He also spoke of how commemorations of World War dead might be a potential common meeting ground for unionist and nationalist. I spoke briefly to him afterwards and asked him if we are to celebrate a common heritage, why are monuments to IRA men like Tom Barry and Dan Breen not erected in the UK. These men after all were British up to 1922 according to history and are therefore as clearly a part of Britain's past as they are of ours. Moreover they were—or at least believed they were, depending on your view—fighting for the same causes we are told their Irish brethren in British uniform struggled for: the freedom of small nations, liberation from tyranny and so on. He concurred the point had some validity but added he could see that there might be opposition to it over unionist sensibilities and among people who had had relations in the security forces.

A slightly smaller audience was in attendance on Day Two. It seemed reasonable to assume that some of the audience present the day before had come at least as much for the purpose of seeing the President as for hearing the talks. The first speaker of the day—Dr. Jérôme aan de Wiel (University of Rheims)—set the 1916 Rising in a wider, European context. He reminded us that Ireland had long being a strategic lever in inter-European relations stretching back through the Armada, the French Revolution and so on. Revisionists make much of the IRB-German connection as a betrayal, but Dr. aan de Wiel reminded us that the loyalist UVF guns brought ashore at Larne had been acquired from the Steyr factory in Austria-Hungary, Germany's main ally. In the early years of the 20th century the Germans found themselves being encircled by a series of Treaties between Britain, France and Russia. During the First World War the German High Command considered the value of exploiting internal tensions within the UK—i.e. Irish nationalism. In spite of the failure of the Rising, at least it convinced the German High Command that the republican movement was serious, and a second round of help was planned for early 1917. This was the so-called 'Sinn Fein' conspiracy. 'Room 40'—British wartime intelligence HQ—knew all about these plans as well as the fact they'd been cancelled. However they chose to use the plot as a reason to arrest as many republicans as possible. From my point of view, quite possibly the most explosive piece of information all day was the revelation that the British had obtained at least 3 German code books early on in the war (one of which was apparently hauled up in the nets of a British trawler!) and used this as a basis to set up Room 40, a wartime intelligence HQ. Thus British leaders knew well in advance of all the plans for the Rising, including the date for which it was set. Despite this they allowed it to go ahead in order to draw the Republican leadership out in the open and decapitate them. This directly contradicts claims that the IRB alone were responsible for the carnage in Dublin. (Though a related question is trying to establish who exactly killed the 300+ civilians who died during the week—presumably some were killed by British forces also.) Indeed, Casement had offered to try and stop the Rising after his capture, but his offer was turned down by the British authorities. As to the suggestion that Room 40 didn't act on the Rising in order to avoid alerting the Germans to the code breaking, aan de Wiel noted the case of the Zimmerman Telegram where Britain intervened with no loss of life. The British were confident they would be able to beat the Irish easily and so the loss of civilian life was an acceptable risk factored in.

Dealing with legal circumstances, The Hon. Justice Adrian Hardiman (a Supreme Court Judge) concluded that the executions had been legal under DORA. The Rising had been dealt with under two parallel legal systems: martial law with courts martial, and civil law under DORA. The approach was contradictory and confused however. The politicians wanted to impose martial law mainly as a PR exercise, to show they were getting tough on Republicans, while the military took their brief seriously. Gen.Maxwell tried to operate DORA as much like martial law as possible. W.B Wiley was given the position of King's Counsel and a free hand in framing the charges to be brought. In the event, the formula he designed covered "…taking part in an armed rebellion, making war on the King…" all of which implied the rebels were at war and therefore deserved POW status; and "…acting in a manner prejudicial to DORA / aiding the enemy…", which last sentence proved to be crucial, as it allowed for the death penalty. Many of the rebels condemned themselves out of their own mouths be reference to "help from our allies in Europe [i.e. Germany]". Those who did mount a legal challenge were often able to beat the charges against them. Presumably many of those who did not, did so because they refused to recognise the court in which they were being tried. As time progressed, the authorities tried to switch the focus from the rebels' belligerent status and to try them for specific civil crimes, such as murder (which could not be tried in a court martial) in order to 'criminalise' the Rising. Gen.Maxwell's main shortcoming in conducting the trials, according to Hardiman, was to hold them in camera and thus give the impression that, as the papers of the day began to record, the rebels were "shot in cold blood".

Dr.Brian Murphy OSB (Glenstal Abbey) rounded off the day with a talk on censorship and propaganda, centring on a mysterious figure named Maj. Ivon Price. Unfortunately, due to a late start on the second day, and changes in the order speakers appeared, Brian was unable to finish his talk and had to summarize much material. I only caught a tantalizing glimpse of this Maj. Price, who seems to have been central to the British Government's attempts to direct public opinion in the aftermath of the Rising. Maj. Price brought to my mind a more recent incarnation—Colin Wallace—head of a sort of British forces misinformation centre during the Northern Troubles. Interestingly, Price later claimed that Britain lost as many as 50,000 army recruits due to Nationalist propaganda. His comments are central to understanding the British mindset that regarded the War as the priority and the Easter Rising as a sideshow. It would also help explain, as emerged during Gerry White and Brendan O'Shea's talk, why the British authorities would arrest a volunteer armed with a revolver and ammunition and yet only charge him with seditious writings! Brian explained how censorship operated on three levels—suppression and censorship of the press; acts against individuals, such as when Sheehy-Skeffington was arrested under DORA for sedition (read: pacifism); and censorship of the mail / postal service. I see all of this having particular resonance today, both here (as with Section 31), and in Britain in how opposition to the war in Iraq is dealt with. Due to time constraints Brian was obliged to finish ahead of his talk and I look forward to hearing more at the launch of his book on the same topic next April in Cork. This concluded a most enjoyable and interesting weekend, and I came away feeling I had learned something and filled many important gaps in my own understanding of the events.

Given the conference title—of putting 1916 in historical context—it is worth putting commemorations in present day context. There have been many who have questioned the Taoiseach's wisdom in re-instating the Easter Parade and who have suggested alternative dates for a national commemoration, ranging from November 13th (formation of Irish Volunteers) to the inauguration of the Irish Republic in 1948 . The main thrust seems to be to play down the significance of the Rising. It has to be said that, whatever the merits of the other dates, the Rising did mark the start of the modern struggle for independence. Home Rule would have granted Ireland a 'caretaker' parliament in Dublin, but the Proclamation set its sights on the higher goal of Irish sovereignty—the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies. Under Home Rule, control would have had to be fettered, with Britain dictating foreign policy in particular. This has particular resonance today when, for example, Britain has given its backing to George Bush's illegal war on Iraq (against the wishes of a sizeable part of the British population, but that's another story).

Contiguous to objections to holding Easter 1916 commemorations has been an attempt from some quarters to downsize all celebrations of our War of Independence. Reasons advanced for this tend to variously include: burying the divisions of the past, not wishing to commemorate fighting and killing, assuming that all things republican equate with a hatred of all things English and wanting to avoid embarrassment with our English friends , not wanting parallels to be drawn between that period and the Northern Troubles and so on. By way of example, Peter Levy has argued that it is time to call a halt to 'the IRA commemorations' such as those at Kilmicheal, Beál na mBláth and so on. His rationale was that such occasions are simply an excuse for 'republican craw-thumping', keeping the civil war alive and a free opportunity for politicians to score political points. He writes, "the problem with Kilmichael and other commemorations like it is that no other views save those of the zealots are allowed". Precisely the same justification can be given for maintaining the commemorations. Revisionist views have wide currency in the media and as we have seen have unofficial mainstream political sanction as a tool in undermining support for republican ideology in this republic. Commemorations are an opportunity for another voice and view to be heard, a republican one that is much in the minority these days. Sometimes it seems it is the revisionists who wish no other voice to be heard, and who would rather the struggle for Irish independence was forgotten about completely. In fact, Peter Levy goes on to write that "if you want to do a republican war dance, you could buy a Wolfe Tones' CD and do it in the privacy of your own home" (where you need not upset anyone with your wayward views, presumably).

Interestingly, this is also precisely the argument atheists and agnostics often seem to make about religion when they want to banish it first from the public sphere as a step to banishing it altogether: fine for the privacy of your own home, but it should not intrude in public life where it might have some impact. This denies the nature of mankind as social animals whose society is a creation springing from the negotiation of the public coming together of privately held beliefs in the first instance. It is equally important to remember that where a vacuum is created in social identity by the disappearance of traditional principles, it is inevitable that others will move in to take their place. For those such as the Reform Movement this is precisely the intended effect. For those with a more global perspective, old nationalisms must be broken down before a new one-world order can be created. Seen from a global rather than parochial perspective, far from being 'narrow', nationalism can allow for the existence of a plurality of voices. The critics of 'republican' history seem to overlook that it is only a strong whisper alongside the much louder shout of what Desmond Fennell has called "The Whig Interpretation of history". In sum, Fennell argues Whig history marries social Darwinism to a colonial version of the past where WASP society and history are seen as evolving through phases to its present position as the pinnacle of civilization. The anomaly of having two of the worst wars in history occur around the peak of this progress is explained by "suggesting that in the twentieth century it was discovered that the great advances of Good in European history had not entirely eliminated Evil… but happily, in the two great wars of the century those Europeans [term includes Americans, as overseas Europe] …who had profited morally by the great advances were victorious over Europeans who had not". Thus "Auschwitz and Belsen were evil, Hiroshima and Dresden were good. So the standard history was saved". Put simply, it is reminiscent of Nicole Kidman in the movie The Others. When her children ask whether their father is fighting on the side of the 'goodies' or the 'baddies' in the war, she answers "your father fought on the side of the English, so on the side of the goodies".

Whig history is being harnessed to work today as perhaps never before. It is hardly a coincidence that the last few years have seen a wave of large-scale World War commemorations. The very historical Trafalgar was recently celebrated also, and no word of protest came from the quarters where 'narrow nationalism' (for what was it that sent countries to war in both wars if not a generous measure of nationalism in the first instance?) and violence for political ends are so usually and roundly denounced. The most obvious explanation is that such commemorations are viewed as so self-evidently natural that no justification is needed: 'of course, why wouldn't they celebrate? Are they not the goodies?' Without wishing to imply any prejudice to the individual men and women who fought as combatants (my own grandfather among them), it is difficult not to perceive the commemorations as something of a massive PR exercise. It is difficult to take seriously sentiments such as 'never again' when genocides have been allowed to happen (and even facilitated, as in Kurdistan under Saddam) by the very countries that claim to be the peak of moral civilization. Instead of laying wreaths on the tomb of the unknown soldier a much more effective way of demonstrating respect for the soldiers of your army is not to send them as cannon fodder into unpopular illegal wars for political and financial gain—so the rich can get richer, and the powerful more powerful .

Commemorations of 1916 and the War of Independence in such a world order should not only be continued but also encouraged. They serve above all as a reminder that Whig history is not so straightforward and the 'goodies' not so good. One purpose of recalling both World Wars (especially World War 2) is to show that Britain and the USA are the great moral champions of the world—altruistically fighting the Hun and the Nazi. We are invited to perceive the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else this colonial adventure may yet take them, as part of the same continuum. If 1916 and War of Independence commemorations are allowed to disappear, Britain, for one, will no longer have to reconcile Whig history with how it unleashed the Black and Tans on Ireland, how the Irish Volunteers—supposed to be a national army for Home Rule Ireland—became just another wing of the British army under Redmond, and how they refused to recognise democratic principle and self-determination until practically forced to do so at gunpoint.

Editorial Note: Prof. Jeffrey's lame answer to the question about establishing memorials to Tom Barry and others in Britain was interesting. If Unionists and the relatives of people killed fighting Irish independence have a veto in Britain, why should Nationalists and the relatives of those who died in the Independence Wars not have the same privilege in Ireland? It is hard to escape the conclusion that the exercise is intended to affront the national lobby and to 're-educate' the Irish about Britain and its wars. The whole remembrance/commemoration exercise is for Britain a preparation for further war, as Eamon Dyas has shown in his pamphlet on the British Legion, while in Ireland these ceremonies are really a form of thanksgiving—and perhaps a subtle warning—more than anything else.

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