Every year there is a tussle amongst Republicans of all shades for the title deeds of Wolf Tone’s Republican ideal. It centres on commemoration ceremonies at his graveside in a quiet (derelict?) Protestant churchyard in Bodenstown. Senator Martin Mansergh with his historian’s scalpel had a very precise take on the physical force tradition (subs needed) in the Irish Times last Saturday. He cuts to the point when Presbyterian inspired Republicanism fell away from its Belfast based, merchant class origins:
The United Irishmen wanted legitimately to form a secular Irish Republic on the model of revolutionary America and France. French aid was two-edged. Stirring up fears of Orange extermination backfired disastrously in Wexford; 30,000 died amidst brutal carnage.
The experience inhibited open rebellion for 100 years. Political agitation and constitutional methods, the only options left, made slow but steady progress in the 19th century, though small armed affrays, like Emmet’s rebellion in 1803, by Young Ireland in 1848, and the Fenians in 1867, had lasting resonance. From Fintan Lalor on, there was a determination not just to undo the Union, but the conquest.
He notes that seven men invited William of Orange to take the throne from James, and seven men signed the Easter Proclamation which set Irish independence in train. Big events have small origins.
He goes on to argue however that the period from 1916 to independence was the last time the physical force tradition could be argued to have been justified.
Sinn Féin points out that terrible and indefensible things happened in the War of Independence. The difference lies in the overall legitimacy of that earlier struggle. Southern Protestants, like American loyalists in the early 1780s, and European settlers in colonial Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, lost out, and there are many sad and some tragic stories. Yet, when the dust settled, and despite depleted numbers, a substantial proportion of the agricultural, business wealth and professional employment post-independence remained in Protestant hands.
Since 1922-1923 an indigenous democratic constitutional tradition has been consolidated. Most republicans associated with 1916, including the Pearse family and Countess Markievicz, gave their support to de Valera’s participation in the State. It is wrong to attempt to validate an exclusive or dominant identity between 1916 and the Provisional IRA, where the connection to the State is much stronger.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty