Editorial from Irish Political Review, February 2006
The 1916 Tug Of War
The Irish Government is not yet ready to declare that the State which it governs is not fit to exist, that it should never have been established, and that its founding act was an atrocity that should be condemned rather than celebrated. And the opinion-formers are shocked—as they have a right to be. They have over the years been preparing the way for a great repudiation of 1916, and this has been in line with the way the state has been evolving. But now the Government has repudiated that repudiation, in the form of a Presidential Address at the opening of a historians' conference at Cork University. (We carry a report of that Conference on another page.)
The way history teaching and academic research have been shaped during the past generation could only have been done with the backing of the State. And the logical culmination of that line of development would have been to add the Easter Rising to the Nazi death camps for unconditional denunciation on Holocaust Day. It has for many years been the dominant view, expressed in a number of major papers, that the Rising was the prototype event of European fascism, and rejection of this view is put on a par with Holocaust denial. See, for example, the Irishman's Diary column in the Irish Times, written by an English Tory who is in many ways the real editor of the paper, or the views pioneered in the Independent by Ruth Dudley Edwards—who has found it necessary to issue an official statement that, though adopted into the English Establishment, she is not a member of MI5.
On February 5th Edwards praised the Independent for its bravery in publishing the views of dissenters and heretics with regard to 1916. Alas this heresy has long since been orthodoxy. And Edwards was never one to take up positions that damaged her career prospects as a writer.
In praising the Independent she neglected to do it full justice. James Connolly was wounded in the Rising. The British military authorities had to prop him up for shooting. They knew that the right thing to do was to give him time to recover so that he could stand up by himself before the firing squad. But the Independent was anxious lest the killings should stop before Connolly was dealt with. It reproved the authorities for their excessive deference to military etiquette. So Connolly was strapped into a chair for shooting.
The Irish Times, too, has only reverted to its original view of the matter. In 1916 it demanded that the malignant growth, which had manifested itself in the Rising, should be ruthlessly be cut out of the body politic by the surgeon's knife. But its advice was not taken. Most of the rebels were not killed. Less than three years later they won the General Election, fought a war in support of their electoral victory, and forced the Empire into a compromise. The Irish Times then had to live with a state whose existence it deplored. It had to compromise in order to survive, in hope of better times to come. But it was only biding its time. It is a real element of continuity in the life of the society, representing the same interest now that it did then—drawing in its horns or darting them out as circumstances made expedient.
These media people have reason to be angered by the government's sudden change of tack. They are the media and literary Establishment of the State, carrying out the intentions of the state, even when criticising it. And the Government has now changed tack for what they see as the worst of reasons: to conciliate the substantial body of Republican sentiment that still remains in the society at large, and that was fuelling the resurgence of Provo Sinn Fein. The State is making a feint in the direction of Sinn Fein in order to curb Sinn Fein. This may be justified as an electoral necessity and a kind of evil inoculation against evil—but it is rightly judged to be unprincipled, and to be destructive of the ideological reorientation which the state itself has been fostering for a generation or more.
It all goes back to 1969-70, when the state aggravated the internal disturbances of the North by its rhetoric and gestures, and set certain things in motion, which it then backed away from after a confrontation with the British Government. It became politically bankrupt vis a vis the North in the Spring of 1970. In place of a policy towards the North, it set about indoctrinating the populace of the South with a new history intended to diminish popular concern with the North. And it became a dogma that the eruption in the North was caused by the history that was taught in schoolbooks, rather than the live history—in the form of actual political and social circumstances—in which over a third of the population of 'the Northern Ireland state' lived.
A few years ago (Easter 2001) there was a discussion of 1916 on RTE by R.D. Edwards, Mitchel McLaughlin, Brian Lenihan and Padraic Yeats, chaired by Olivia O'Leary (who double-jobs between RTE and BBC).
Edwards: "It was a group of conspirators in a democracy who took it upon themselves to decide that a revolution was necessary despite it not being the will of the people. It was entirely anti-democratic. The mantle of these people was stolen by De Valera who had Mrs. Pearse by his side. It was stolen by the Republicans in the Civil War. Fianna Fail then owned the Pearses and owned 1916, until very thoughtlessly the IRA insisted on snatching it back. And so the Provos owned Pearse and Connolly all through the 70s and 80s until, as Danny Morrison said in that programme the other night, Pearse was a very useful person to the Provos when they were making war, not so useful when they were trying to make peace. So now the Real IRA have him. And this will go on, and on, and on until we get rid of—deal with that tradition in Irish history." (It is puzzling why she says "stolen". By her own account, Pearse started the devilment and DeV etc. continued it.)
Edwards' view of 1916 is that it was the work of a conspiracy of troublemakers who had no agreement among themselves about the purpose for which they were making trouble. Tom Clarke, in many ways the organiser, only wanted revenge for his imprisonment as a Fenian. Connolly was a good man fallen among scoundrels. He was a sensible socialist and would not have been there at all, only that he was driven to despair by the failure of the workers of Europe to prevent the war. The real evil genius of the affair, whose purpose was to achieve a spectacular martyrdom, was Patrick Pearse.
Edwards has a real soft spot for Connolly as a kind of harmless Social Democrat, led astray by despair and bad company. She managed to ignore most of what he did, even while writing a biography of him, in order to preserve him as a counter to Pearse.
Her scheme was rather spoiled by Brian Lenihan and by Mitchel McLaughlin. Asked who from 1916 particularly influenced them, Lenihan said it was Pearse, and he never read Connolly until very much later. McLaughlin said he had been greatly influenced by Connolly in his teens.
McLaughlin of course is a Provo. And Lenihan, a Fianna Failer, condemned the Provos and said they had nothing to do with 1916.
We can confirm (having been there) that Connolly was the man in Belfast and Derry in 1969-70. We published a pamphlet in the early 70s, controverting Connolly's views on the North. It never crossed our minds to deal with Pearse. It would have been a waste of time in a live political situation to deal with a figure whose influence was nowhere in evidence. No doubt he was invoked later in defensive polemics. (As for Danny Morrison's remark, we thought at the time that he was preparing for an accommodation with revisionist culture within the working of the Good Friday Agreement. The subversion of the Agreement by the resurgence of raw Unionism stopped what might have been an interesting development.)
The Provo development in the North arose out of a concrete form of oppression, not out of frustrated idealism. Ideals were adopted in the struggle against the oppression. Pearse was perhaps more relevant to those who were trying to uphold 1916 ideals in the South. It was Connolly who resonated in the North.
The scoundrels who stole Pearse's mantle, and implemented something of the 1916 Proclamation in the 26 Counties, left the 6 Counties behind. Brian Lenihan, while condemning what the minority did in the North, did not say what they should have done—deprived as they were of democratic outlets more than had ever been the case in the South since the mid-19th century. Ruth Dudley Edwards is likewise coy on that subject. Neither of them cared to see the reality of the situation. But the de facto policy of all parties and Establishment tendencies in the Republic has been that the Northern Catholic community should find a way of entering Limbo. (Though there is now an agitation to abolish Limbo.)
Lenihan had difficulty coping with Edwards' assertion that Ireland was a democracy in 1916. Others are now finding a similar difficulty in coping with the revisionist volte face on 1916, as expressed by the President's statement. It is therefore a bare statement, made for a short-term electoral purpose, without an infrastructure of official thought to sustain it. And the President's misleading remarks about the Great War, as well as the choice of most of the speakers at the Conference, leave ample room for doubt that there is a serious intention to rebuild that infrastructure.
"The President's description of the international situation in 1916 was as follows:
April 1916, and the world is as big a mess as it is possible to imagine. The ancient monarchies, Austria, Russia and Germany, which plunged Europe into war, are on the brink of violent destruction. China is slipping into civil war. On the western front, Verdun is taking a dreadful toll and, in the east, Britain is only weeks away from its worst defeat in history" (Irish Times report).
Britain is exonerated of responsibility for the war. The views of the two thoughtful internationalists of 1916, Connolly and Casement, that Britain manipulated European conflicts for the purpose of getting the opportunity to destroy Germany, are discarded. This is in keeping with Senator Mansergh's attitude of rejecting them without refuting them. And it is best, if one must reject them, not to try to refute them. Both Connolly and Casement were well informed, and they reasoned well.
If something like their view of the Great War had been stated by the President we would believe that the Government was seriously intent on following through on its rehabilitation of the Easter Rising. But, if the bottom line is that nothing must be said which conflicts with the British propaganda about its Great War, then forget it.
As to the detail of the statement: the "ancient monarchy" of Germany was all of 46 years old in 1916 and was as democratic as Britain, and rather more so. The Austrian monarchy had been renewed after the loss of the German Confederation in 1866 and had become the Dual Monarchy which inspired Arthur Griffith, Hungary and Austria both being independent under it. And it was on the way to becoming a Triple of Monarchy of Hungarians, Austrians and Slavs. In China, Japan was expanding its Empire as Britain's ally. We cannot imagine what it was in the East that is described as Britain's worst defeat in history. Japan was defending the British Empire in the Far East while expanding its own. And, in the Middle East, Britain was invading Mesopotamia for the first time, and it had got the Sharif of Mecca to proclaim a Jihad as its ally.
Perhaps the President's speech writer had the next World War in mind, and the fall of Singapore to Japan. After the Great War Britain was given an ultimatum by the USA to break off its alliance with Japan or else face America as a rival. It did so, and lost its Far Eastern Empire to Japan in 1941-2. It would be quite understandable if the speech writer did confuse the two Wars. Britain never does anything but good deeds in the world, and the mind, having difficulty in keeping so many deeds of goodness distinct from one another, will naturally tend to roll them together as one great scroll of benevolence.
The 1916 Tug Of War.
McDowell Must Go.
After The War: What Happens To The Soldiers.
The Enigma Machine & The Theorem That Won
World War 2.
Will The Real IMC Stand Up?
IMC Lies About IRA Decommissioning.
Shorts from the Long Fellow
A Revealing Book.
An Cor Tuathail: Lament Of The Champions by
Tómas Ó Flannghaile.
1916 Versus Whig History.
Long Kesh, The New "National" Stadium:
A Practial Proposal?
European United Left Fighting For
ERabbitte On 1916: Words, Words, Words.
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