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.
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.