Every July 4th Americans celebrate their independence. Tools are downed, friends and families gather, and across 50 states and my own taxed yet unrepresented district, the skies are painted with an assortment of red flairs imported from China. I’m assured that the value of viewing this spectacle from my roof deck on D.C.’s Connecticut Avenue is worth the transatlantic airfare.
Ten days later Paris’ Montparnasse neighbourhood baths under a brief sea of light and fire, a show replicated in miniature but no less enthusiastically across countless French villages and town squares, all briefly united in celebration of how their greatest asset, their shared national identity the values and ideals it embodies, was forged in a rebellion that reached its symbolic zenith on the grounds of the Bastille Saint-Antoin prison.
Ireland has no comparable national celebrations of this nature. Not yet.
Undeterred, various Irish groups – some official, some anything but, none large – will congress this weekend to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916, an aborted, vaguely ludicrous, and ultimately catastrophic (especially for today’s northern nationalists) attempt to replace London-based rule in Ireland with a new island-based national parliament -and to hell with any Irish that preferred the status quo. Where the Irish rebellion lacked the popular support or storming success of their French forerunners, they did share some prison drama of historical significance.
The gaol-centered events that created such contrasting fortunes for today’s unified France and partitioned Ireland are not unrelated to the details that shaped both dramas in real time.
The birth of France’s liberty is timed, in part, at least symbolically, to the moment Bastille Prison’s then Military Governor, Bernard-Jordan de Launay, made a catastrophic miscalculation. In a futile attempt to calm the passions of the baying Parisian crowd, de Launay revealed to their representatives that his canons were in fact unloaded; his level-headed restraint only encouraged the mob’s confidence further and the Ancien Régime’s last Bastille Governor’s head was soon resting on a spike.
In fairness, what was the man to do? De Launay’s misjudgment surely hastened rather than caused his own demise since no alternative decision that could have altered the broader historical trajectory and terror unfolding all around him.
By contrast events in Kilmainhaim in Dublin 127 years later were much less inevitable and unavoidable. There’s a strong argument that General Maxwell’s confirmation of the death sentences handed down to 15 of the originally 90 condemned Irish rebels was much more historically significant than anything the rebels achieved or represented themselves. Had Maxwell opted for a touch of de Launay’s restraint, he may have ended a small rebellion instead of igniting a much larger one.
Whether one considers Ireland’s soon-to-follow War of Independence, its amputation, the entrenchment of ancient sectarian divides and suspicions, its civil war, the creation of a paranoid and repressive Orange State, and the disastrous economic policies that kept the newly Free State free of prosperity for most of the rest of the twentieth century, a good return on the Easter Rising or not, one thing is hard to dispute: After 1916, far from a united and liberated nation, Ireland spent most of the last century collapsed in on itself.
Despite official talk to the contrary, Ireland is more divided – borders tend to have that effect – than it was in 1916. Where modern America and France can date their births to 1776 and 1789 respectively, the sad truth is that Ireland suffered a death of sorts in 1921. Partition was a tragedy and national disgrace, directly attributed to the immediate consequences of the 1916 Easter Rising. Irish Nationalism has largely wasted the intervening decades treating this death as reversible, as though the project of the Rising is simply comatose and in need of resuscitation. This is not true and this approach will never work.
There are many reasons to imagine why a new Ireland, at peace with itself, its past and its neighbour could at some point emerge as an independent state designed to reflect and benefit all its people. But such a vision requires more than politics, policy and statecraft; this is the work of nation-building.
Bastille Day and July 4th represent national holidays – this is obvious to anyone surveying the post-political, jovial and mass participatory character of both festivals. Claims that 1916 ushered in a movement towards a comparable national liberation cannot be sustained by citing a few annual party political speeches at Bowdenstown.
Ireland’s best days should lay ahead but they will not be carved from the ashes of a failed and divisive rebellion that was smothered almost a century ago.