#Ireland2016: “The space in between those absolutes is where we flourish…”

A lot has been written this week about the Rising, but little really has the kind of personal and direct sense of sublimation that Maria Farrell great granddaughter of Eoin MacNeill, founder of the Irish Volunteers and the one who tried to call it off at the last minute – imparts in this great essay

I always felt slightly ashamed that ‘my guy’ was the one in glasses, the one who tried to make everyone act responsibly and stay at home. The one who wanted to avoid unnecessary casualties and who thought making the first strike was immoral. It never once occurred to me to think my ancestor was wrong. I wasn’t that sort of child. I would like to say that having a family history that parted company with official history made me distrustful of the latter. But I wasn’t even that kind of teenager. It just made me envious and defensive in a way I couldn’t admit, like someone whose football club are perennial losers but who could never imagine changing teams.

I don’t know when that feeling went away. It wasn’t reading the hagiography of my great-grandfather written by a relative in the 1980s. It wasn’t even studying history at a university where the revisionists – those who questioned and sometimes demolished the De Valera hold-overs of heroic nationalist myth – were in the ascendant. Perhaps it’s just being a factor of alive long enough; your sensibilities expand sufficiently to embrace ambivalence. You know there are no absolutes and you learn to distrust people who claim there are.

Only people who think about political violence in the abstract can cultivate any ethical equanimity about it. Take a long look at your child or partner or beloved friend, and ask yourself if an idea exists that matters more than they do. Of course it doesn’t.

She continues…

Pearse didn’t see out the world war or even the summer of 1916. He was already gloriously dead when Europe’s nationalist myths of bloody but noble death were trampled into the blood and mud of the Somme. His poet’s soul would not have survived contact with real war any more than most of ours’ would. I sometimes imagine him and the shell-shocked Septimus Smith from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sitting on the grass of a London park, listening out for the birds or the trees to whisper their godly truths of how things really work. I think they would have understood each other.

Violent deaths are not beautiful, or glorious. Bullets pierce eyes and buttocks and slice off little fingers. Bombs mean nails and screws and assorted shipyard confetti shredding through human flesh and embedding infection and debris deep in the bodies of survivors. There is nothing glorious about any of it. People don’t die gloriously for their beliefs. They die instantly or silently or crying out in pain.

The notion of tactically risible but symbolically meaningful blood sacrifice is one that angry and stymied young men have always embraced, not least this week in Brussels. There is nothing new about disenfranchised twenty-somethings appropriating the images and ideas of whatever religion they happen to grow up around to tart up the essentially adolescent idea that blood cleanses, especially the blood of others.

And finally, something incredibly useful for us to carry forward…

What we now call radicalisation is simply the age-old desire of the young to believe in purity; to believe in it so completely that it comes above human life. But purity does not exist. Humanity isn’t good enough at any single thing to make it more important than the irreplaceable consciousness of just one of us.

I am proud of my great grandfather because he put imperfect, venal, smelly, crumpled, day-to-day humanity ahead of inhuman ideals of blood sacrifice and the mere possibility of political and cultural perfection. The space in between those absolutes is where we flourish. It is where most of us live our imperfect but unique lives. MacNeill might have been a cannier politician that weekend. If he had, Ireland’s history would have been very different. But it is hard to see how he could have been a better man.

Well and truly said, Ms Farrell.

  • chrisjones2

    Amen to that

  • apollox

    Somebody should really tell her that her ancestor pulled out of the Rising after Casement’s shipment of arms was lost, i.e. because they wouldn’t be able to shed enough blood. Also that his false announcement that the Rising was off guaranteed that it could only ever be symbolic.

    Perhaps she has a few more years to go before she achieves ‘ambivalence’ and realises that Eoin MacNeill, founder of a paramilitary group set up to oppose the UVF in an imminent civil war, differed from the leaders of the Rising in strategy alone. He was perfectly willing to use the same means to achieve the same goal. He may not deserve to be demonised, but he certainly shouldn’t be canonised.

  • kensei

    Somewhat unfair to Pearse, who very much put is own life on the line in the most direct fashion and by the end of the week was fully acquainted with the horrors of war – the British shelled Dublin! – and who ordered an unconditional surrender in order to avoid further deaths. Pearse is a complex figure who characterisations of blood fetishings does no justice; even if he were, he was proved pretty right after, for good or ill.

    I have plenty of time for Eoin MacNeill, and even more for Bulmer Hobson, who unlike MacNeill was essentially disbarred from Irish Republicanism. Which was much the worse for it. The debates among the leaders of 1916 were essentially over timings and tactics as opposed to the broad principle. Eoin MacNeill would have went for rebellion had conscription been imposed or if the castle letter wasn’t suspected as a forgery. It is a bit rich then painting him as some sort of pacifist hero in comparison to Pearse.

    It is also not clearcut that what he did was emphatically the right thing to do; that it made him the better man. The countermanding order effectively doomed the Rising. Had the country rose on the Sunday, rather than Dublin on the Monday, there may have been a chance of success. As it is there was probably none, as much as other leaders might have believed it. The moral and ethnical balance of that is a tough one, if you accept the right to rebellion, as MacNeill undoubtedly did.

    Still he followed his conscience given the facts of the time. He can hardly be condemned in one breath while praising Tom Clarke or Pearse in another. But seriously spare me the moralizing.

  • Redstar

    Can never take this woman seriously. From hardline disident Republican, to establishment anti Republican in quicker than you can say ” nice fat salary”

  • mickfealty

    Who on earth are you talking about?

  • Tochais Siorai

    You didn’t think that was Maria Cahill, did you?

  • Zig70

    Mairead Farrell me thinks

  • Redstar

    Never ever post after having a drink………

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Apollox, if you are so concerned at the unnecessary shedding of blood in this period, I’d imagine you are as enraged as I am at the sentimental valorisation of the UVF’s initiatory role in they rush to arms and away from constitutionalism, and of Carson and Craig’s role as founders of “a paramilitary group” brought into being to resist by force the application of a proposed act of parliament. As Eoin McNeill himself so clearly stated the case, “The North Began….”

    I hold no truck with the dreary recourse to violence by either political camp, but can all too clearly see the a inevitability of the Irish Volunteers coming into being, in response to an attempt of the UVF to “trump” the (majority mandated) Third Home Rule Bill with the threat of armed insurrection by a minority. Such a threat was always going to be potentially “trumped” by the majority in Ireland, as in any situation where player with a poorer hand raises the odds in poker. And with the gun in play, sooner or later a trigger was going to be pulled.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Mick for posting a most important essay. It is a matter of looking to the actual human values in these things rather than simply providing the raw material which may be simplified into cat calls by those addicted to “Conflict Politics” which both nationalist and (“knee jerk reaction”) revisionist models will always provide.

  • mickfealty

    Aren’t you conjuring an unmeant comparison between MacNeill and the others by mentally inserting a final definite article that isn’t there Ken?

    It is also a (distracting) feature of discussions of these historical events that people like to go on to suggest what so and so would do if they hadn’t done what they’d done at Easter 1916. But as the poet says, “enough to know they dreamed and are dead.”

    Maria’s piece is a useful reminder of how life is lived and flourishes in the middle where human life is held above and beyond the purity of ideological difference. And that there are grave consequences to specific decisions made. A properly courageous Irish playwright could make a fine drama for the Abbey out of such raw materials.

    It also poses a rather different question for the future. What was 1916 and its paschal sacrifice for, and what has it become over time? Although the progenitor of the Volunteers (a term retained to this day by the various IRA’s) MacNeill is treated (perhaps quite properly) as an historical footnote.

    Our willingness to throw off such departures and the dilemmas they presented at the time, is a trick of the narrative light, and yet, particularly since the Belfast Agreement we have a broad consensus behind the pursuit of unity as the only legitimate means of uniting the people of the island.

    How stable that proves may depend on how willing we are to look at the events which led to partition and shape the modern Ireland we know, love and/or hate, and how – more importantly for me – we continue to respond (or not to respond) to them.

    One other thought. occurs: everything that has made the modern republic came at a remote time after that Easter: the Treaty, the day of actual independence, the end of the Civil Water the Constitution and the final declaration of independence, and the Belfast Agreement.

    How we look at those acts has to be conditioned by the imperfect nature of the journey their antecedents took. That journey, surely, has been much more closely aligned to the way Maria describes her ancestor’s too human priorities in such close proximity to war than those dead rebels dreamed?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Because of our fixation on politics (no surprise) Irish historiography is coming very late to l’Histoire des mentalités approach that has been so transformative in other areas of research such as women’s history:


    This is in essence how Maria is approaching the interpretation of her grandfather, to my mind. It is a most fertile corrective to those deep natural grooves cut into our inherited historiography by the persistence of conflict politics even in what passes for “peace time”.

  • Redstar

    Guilty of posting under the influence m’lud. Apologies for garbage contribution. Feel free to delete delete

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Feel free to rename your profile to ‘redface’.

  • mickfealty

    There but for the grace of God, go most of us… 😉

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    I often think that the glorification of ‘heroism’ and ‘heroes’, however we interpret it and to whomever we attribute the ‘virtue’, and however macho, act as some sort of after the event catharsis in life’s modest tedium because individual actions become definitive, powerful and seminal after they have changed something significant. This seems particularly pertinent to the Rising.
    Protagonists only become heroes if we choose to identify with them and the goal of martyrdom appeals after their self appointed inheritors seize their narrative. Those who carry out suicide bombings and other ‘terrorist’ incidents have always got one eye on the audience even if that audience isn’t fully appreciative at the time.
    The debate over whether Redmond’s course was right or quiescent or naïve or none of the above reveals that patient political doggedness does not have the same stature as a single, decisive coup and is less attractive because it is long term, indefinite, but also boringly legal: man versus superman for some and risk taking versus cautious temperance for others. If Redmond or MacNeill had been successful we’d be assessing events and individuals very differently.
    Although life contains dramas, they’re usually crises when we’re haplessly caught up in them. On the other hand, when the playwright performs the drama that he has written and he casts himself as the star attraction, then he’s the author and agent of his own destiny. In the Rising’s case the leaders had the good fortune of the state taking authorship of everything it chose to. Fortune favours the brave and both history and hero worship love its successful gamblers particularly when their narratives (and box office successes) are written into a national consciousness.
    And of course we’re reminded of Yeats’
    ‘Hearts with one purpose alone
    Through summer and winter seem
    Enchanted to a stone
    To trouble the living stream.’

  • kensei

    Nope. That MacNeil supported the principle of rebellion and would have done so under slightly different circumstances is not in the realm of speculation. It is fact that MacNeill okayed the Rising when he thought SF leaders were going to be arrested.

    While a reasonable chance of success is a precondition for a just war, pragmatism is not exactly elevated ground. And by pitting MacNeill against a straw Pearse, she is closing the space for discussion. The leaders of the Rising had a range of opinion on timings, tactics and politics that evolved and changed even up to the confusion of Easter Monday. Eoin MacNeill was at one end, certainly, but he within a spectrum and not out on a limb – it’s a disservice to him to suggest otherwise.

    Two final points. I disagree MacNeill is a footnote. His name is written very large every time this particular Easter story is told. And he was later a TD, an MP and a minister. Bulmer Hobson got relegated to footnote, so much so that I’d managed to not hear of him until I did a little more reading in the Easter Rising in the run up to the anniversary. That was an utter waste.

    Second, the world needs Kensei’s Law: the first person to quote Yeats when discussing 1916 loses the argument.

  • EWI_FreeStater

    I honestly don’t know why Maria Farrell has written such a whitewashed account amounting to deification of MacNeill. It ultimately does her ancestor no favours (nor does her demonisation of Pearse, in a caricature of the opinions of the comfortable, partitionist Dublin middle-class). MacNeill was regarded with justification by his contemporaries as having been honest and honourable, but still a very great fool. And not just to the I.R.B. (who planned and organised a rebellion under his very nose), but to the Redmondites who manipulated him with ease into creating a situation where Redmond could take over the Volunteers. His dithering during the Rising while his men fought and died, debating with Griffith whether or not to try to raise the country, also punctures certain neat narratives.

    From the Redmond papers:

    MS 15,263 /4 1917. Sept. A copy of a letter from Major Ivan H. Price to James O’Connor, Attorney General (1917, Sept. 22), giving an account of his conversation with Eoin MacNeill. Price concludes that this ‘unfortunate man concocted his version [of a story about an attempt at blackmailing MacNeill into giving evidence against John Dillon] for the purpose of getting the Irish Parliamentary Party to obtain his release’ and regrets that Redmond and Devlin ‘should be deceived by a rebel, who has not even now repented’.

    MS 15,182 /20 1914 […] Dillon adds ‘MacNeill is a most exasperating man to deal with’; (1914, May 28), on his opinion of MacNeill: ‘My interview … left me with the impression that he is extremely muddle-headed, not consciously inclined to make mischief, but hopelessly impractical and possessed with the idea that he ought to be trusted’

    MS 15,192 /4 1905-14. Correspondence with Alice Stopford Green. Green gives her opinion of Eoin MacNeill: ‘I have seldom seen a man more unfitted for action, less fit to lead others in a difficult crisis, and less wise in his judgment of men’

    Eoin MacNeill’s final legacy was the absolute catastrophe of the Boundary Commission, and hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics trapped in an apartheid Orange state for decades.

  • EWI_FreeStater

    “Although the progenitor of the Volunteers (a term retained to this day by the various IRA’s) ”

    Um, no. The term ‘volunteer’ was already in widespread contemporary use, not least by the Kaiser-armed UVF (where the ‘V’ comes from) and ultimately from the ‘Irish Volunteers’ of Grattan’s day.

    “One other thought occurs: everything that has made the modern republic came at a remote time after that Easter: the Treaty, the day of actual independence, the end of the Civil Water the Constitution and the final declaration of independence, and the Belfast Agreement.”

    A more realistic thought occurs: that twenty-six county independence inevitably flows from 1916. In the alternative universe, we’d have gotten Northern and Southern Home Rule Parliaments, but with the South now having spent decades bedevilled by the ‘Green Orangemen’, the mirror-image Catholic supremacists of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

  • EWI_FreeStater

    “Only people who think about political violence in the abstract can cultivate any ethical equanimity about it. Take a long look at your child or partner or beloved friend, and ask yourself if an idea exists that matters more than they do. Of course it doesn’t.”

    This would sound better if it didn’t come from the wife of a serving British Army officer. Or does Maria Farrell think that the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan etc. weren’t ‘political’?

  • Peter Doran

    There’d be a great deal more space for absolution across these islands if we were to loosen and free up our romance with the ‘absolute’. History as an act of consecration – or ‘false arrest’ of narratives – always risks sacrificing our own call to be subjects of our own history and transformative practice as we prefigure a future we never dared hope for.

  • mickfealty

    Of course, but I was speaking in terms of continuity.