1916: commemorations north and south

Mary McAleese has entered a robust defence of the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, though she notes that with anniversary of the Somme having a 90th anniversary there is “the potential to be a pivotal year for peace and reconciliation, to be a time of shared pride for the divided grandchildren of those who died, whether at Messines or in Kilmainham”. Mark Brennock reports on the main themes. Speech below.President Mary McAleese:

HOW GLAD I AM that I was not the mother of adult children in January 1916. Would my 20-year-old son and his friends be among the tens of thousands in British uniform heading for the Somme, or would they be among the few, training in secret with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or with the Irish Volunteers?

Would I, like so many mothers, bury my son this fateful year in some army’s uniform, in a formidably unequal country where I have no vote or voice, where many young men are destined to be cannon fodder, and women widows? How many times did those men and women wonder what the world would be like in the longer run as a result of the outworking of the chaos around them, this context we struggle to comprehend these years later?

I am grateful that I and my children live in the longer run; for while we could speculate endlessly about what life might be like if the Rising had not happened, or if the Great War had not been fought, we who live in these times know and inhabit the world that revealed itself because they happened.

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. It’s a fighting world where war is glorified and death in uniform seen as the ultimate act of nobility, at least for one’s own side.

And on the 24th of April, 1916, it was Easter Monday in Dublin, the second city of the extensive British empire which long included among its captured dominions the four provinces of Ireland. At four minutes past noon, from the steps of Dublin’s General Post Office, the president of the provisional government, Patrick Pearse, read the Proclamation of Independence.

The bald facts are well known and reasonably non-contentious. Their analysis and interpretation have been both continuous and controversial ever since. Even after 90 years, a discussion such as we are embarked upon here is likely to provoke someone. But in a free and peaceful democracy, where complex things get figured out through public debate, that is as it should be.

With each passing year, post-Rising Ireland reveals itself, and we who are of this strong independent and high-achieving Ireland would do well to ponder the extent to which today’s freedoms, values, ambitions and success rest on that perilous and militarily doomed undertaking of nine decades ago, and on the words of that Proclamation.

Clearly its fundamental idea was freedom, or in the words of the Proclamation, “the right of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland”. But it was also a very radical assertion of the kind of republic a liberated Ireland should become: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. . .”

It spoke of a parliament “representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”- this at a time when Westminster was still refusing to concede the vote to women on the basis that to do so would be to give in to terrorism.

To our 21st-century ears these words seem a good fit for our modern democracy. Yet 90 years ago, even 40 years ago, they seemed hopelessly naive, and their long-term intellectual power was destined to be overlooked, as interest was focused on the emotionally charged political power of the Rising and the renewed nationalist fervour it evoked.

In the longer term the apparent naivety of the words of the Proclamation has filled out into a widely shared political philosophy of equality and social inclusion in tune with the contemporary spirit of democracy, human rights, equality and anti-

confessionalism. Read now in the light of the liberation of women, the development of social partnership, the focus on rights and equality, the ending of the special position of the Catholic Church, to mention but a few, we see a much more coherent, and wider-reaching, intellectual event than may have previously been noted.

The kind of Ireland the heroes of the Rising aspired to was based on an inclusivity that, famously, would “cherish all the children of the nation equally – oblivious of the differences which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”.

That culture of inclusion is manifestly a strong contemporary impulse working its way today through relationships with the North, with unionists, with the newcomers to our shores, with our marginalised, and with our own increasing diversity.

For many years the social agenda of the Rising represented an unrealisable aspiration, until now that is, when our prosperity has created a real opportunity for ending poverty and promoting true equality of opportunity for our people and when those idealistic words have started to become a lived reality and a determined ambition.

There is a tendency for powerful and pitiless elites to dismiss with damning labels those who oppose them. That was probably the source of the accusation that 1916 was an exclusive and sectarian enterprise. It was never that, though ironically it was an accurate description of what the Rising opposed.

In 1916, Ireland was a small nation attempting to gain its independence from one of Europe’s many powerful empires.

In the 19th century an English radical described the occupation of India as a system of “outdoor relief” for the younger sons of the upper classes. The administration of Ireland was not very different, being carried on as a process of continuous conversation around the fire in the Kildare Street Club by past pupils of public schools. It was no way to run a country, even without the glass ceiling for Catholics.

Internationally, in 1916, Planet Earth was a world of violent conflicts and armies. It was a world where countries operated on the principle that the strong would do what they wished and the weak would endure what they must. There were few, if any, sophisticated mechanisms for resolving territorial conflicts. Diplomacy existed to regulate conflict, not to resolve it.

It was in that context that the leaders of the Rising saw their investment in the assertion of Ireland’s nationhood. They were not attempting to establish an isolated and segregated territory of “ourselves alone”, as the phrase “sinn féin” is so often mistranslated, but a free country in which we ourselves could take responsibility for our own destiny, a country that could stand up for itself, have its own distinct perspective, pull itself up by its bootstraps, and be counted with respect among the free nations of Europe and the world.

A Google search for the phrase “narrow nationalism” produces about 28,000 results. It is almost as though some people cannot use the word “nationalism” without qualifying it by the word “narrow”. But that does not make it correct.

I have a strong impression that to its enemies, both in Ireland and abroad, Irish nationalism looked like a version of the imperialism it opposed, a sort of “imperialism lite” through which Ireland would attempt to be what the great European powers were – the domination of one cultural and ethnic tradition over others.It is easy to see how they might have fallen into that mistaken view, but mistaken they were.

Irish nationalism, from the start, was a multilateral enterprise, attempting to escape the dominance of a single class and, in our case a largely foreign class, into a wider world.

Those who think of Irish nationalists as narrow miss, for example, the membership many of them had of a universal church which brought them into contact with a vastly wider segment of the world than that open to even the most travelled imperial English gentleman.

Many of the leaders had experience of the Americas, and in particular of north America with its vibrant attachment to liberty and democracy. Others of them were active participants in the international working-class movements of their day. Whatever you might think of those involvements, they were universalist and global rather than constricted and blinkered.

To the revolutionaries, the Rising looked as if it represented a commitment to membership of the wider world. For too long they had chafed at the narrow focus of a unilateral empire which acted as it saw fit and resented having to pay any attention to the needs of others.

In 1973 a free Irish Republic would show by joining the European Union that membership of a union was never our problem, but rather involuntary membership of a union in which we had no say.

Those who are surprised by Ireland’s enthusiasm for the European Union, and think of it as a repudiation of our struggle for independence, fail to see Ireland’s historic engagement with the European Continent and the Americas.

Arguably Ireland’s involvement in the British Commonwealth up to the Dominion Conference of 1929 represents an attempt to promote Ireland’s involvement with the wider world even as it negotiated further independence from Britain.

Eamon de Valera’s support for the League of Nations, our later commitment to the United Nations and our long pursuit of membership of the Common Market are all of a piece with our earlier engagements with Europe and the world which were so often frustrated by our proximity to a strong imperial power – a power which feared our autonomy, and whose global imperialism ironically was experienced as narrowing and restrictive to those who lived under it.

We now can see that promoting the European ideal dovetails perfectly with the ideals of the men and women of 1916.

Paradoxically in the longer run, 1916 arguably set in motion a calming of old conflicts with new concepts and confidence which, as they mature and take shape, stand us in good stead today.

Our relationship with Britain, despite the huge toll of the Troubles, has changed utterly. In this, the year of the 90th anniversary of the Rising, the Irish and British governments, co-equal sovereign colleagues in Europe, are now working side by side as mutually respectful partners, helping to develop a stable and peaceful future in Northern Ireland based on the Good Friday agreement.

That agreement asserts equal rights and equal opportunities for all Northern Ireland’s citizens. It ends for ever one of the Rising’s most difficult legacies, the question of how the people of this island look at partition.

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom is accepted overwhelmingly by the electorate North and South. That position can only be changed by the electorate of Northern Ireland expressing its view exclusively through the ballot-box.

The future could not be clearer. Both unionists and nationalists have everything to gain from treating each other with exemplary courtesy and generosity, for each has a vision for the future to sell, and a coming generation, more educated than any before, freer from conflict than any before, more democratised and globalised than any before, will have choices to make, and those choices will be theirs.

This year, the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, and of the Somme, has the potential to be a pivotal year for peace and reconciliation, to be a time of shared pride for the divided grandchildren of those who died, whether at Messines or in Kilmainham.

The climate has changed dramatically since last September’s historic announcement of IRA decommissioning. As that new reality sinks in, the people of Northern Ireland will see the massive potential for their future, and that of their children, that is theirs for the taking.

Casting my mind forward to 90 years from now, I have no way of knowing what the longer term may hold, but I do know the past we are determined to escape from and I know the ambitions we have for that longer term.

To paraphrase the Proclamation, we are resolved to “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole island”. We want to consign inequality and poverty to history. We want to live in peace. We want to be comfortable with, and accommodating of, diversity. We want to become the best friends, neighbours and partners we can be to the citizens of Northern Ireland.

In the hearts of those who took part in the Rising, in what was then an undivided Ireland, was an unshakeable belief that, whatever our personal political or religious perspectives, there was huge potential for an Ireland in which loyalist, republican, unionist, nationalist, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, agnostic pulled together to build a shared future, owned by one and all.

That’s a longer term to conjure with but, for now, reflecting back on the sacrifices of the heroes of 1916 and the gallingly unjust world that was their context, I look at my own context and its threads of connection to theirs.

I am humbled, excited and grateful to live in one of the world’s most respected, admired and successful democracies, a country with an identifiably distinctive voice in Europe and in the world, an Irish republic, a sovereign independent state, to use the words of the Proclamation. We are where freedom has brought us.

A tough journey but more than vindicated by our contemporary context. Like every nation that had to wrench its freedom from the reluctant grip of empire, we have our idealistic and heroic founding fathers and mothers, our Davids to their Goliaths.

That small band who proclaimed the Rising inhabited a sea of death, an unspeakable time of the most profligate worldwide waste of human life. Yet their deaths rise far above the clamour – their voices insistent still.

Enjoy the conference and the rows it will surely rise.

  • Bretagne

    “This year, the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, and of the Somme, has the potential to be a pivotal year for peace and reconciliation, to be a time of shared pride for the divided grandchildren of those who died, whether at Messines or in Kilmainham”

    If only – but it should be – I hope the government in the South translates this into action with a commemoration of equal standing for those that died on both enterprises for the centenary – I am getting confident that it will.

  • Richard Dowling

    Does anyone else feel as if they are being co-opted and
    conscripted to support an agenda which feeds the sly, slick
    nationalist narrative being peddled by Fianna Fail, as a litmus
    test of our Irish heritage, identity and birthright?

  • Stephen

    The worry about the President’s comments if the pretence that nationalism was inclusive. It was not. Yeats was correct in identifying the narrowness of those running the new state. If the North was a ‘cold house for Catholics’the South was no less so for Protestants and unionists. The internationalism was no more than a search for support and alliance to maintain the position of the new state.

    And today? It is true that Ireland is opening up. But is it still not a country with a narrow elite in charge? There can never be satisfactory empirical evidence, but I would suggest that the British elite is much more open and permeable now than the elite in Dublin.

  • me

    Those who think of Irish nationalists as narrow miss, for example, the membership many of them had of a universal church which brought them into contact with a vastly wider segment of the world than that open to even the most travelled imperial English gentleman.

    Ya boo sucks to the English, (who to give them their due at least had an interesting Republic) . The Easter Rising and its aftermath was just a dirty sectarian little war which led to DeV’s Catholic state for a Catholic nation. I’m not saying these people are Nazis, just run of the mill, (and the field) nationalists who burnt the prods out. McAleese is another Irish president looking her fourth green field – which aint for sale.

  • Acer

    The president does not address the main issue. The Rising was planned and carried out by a minuscule secretive group, consulting nobody but themselves. She describes Pearse as “president of the provisional government”. No competent authority had given him that title. They had no mandate whatsoever. They caused directly the deaths of some 400 people. The personal qualities and aspirations of the leaders are irrelevant. Whatever about their commitment to democracy in the proclamation, their action was utterly undemocratic.

  • Bretagne

    Stephen :-
    ” I would suggest that the British elite is much more open and permeable now than the elite in Dublin”

    Coming from a Southern Protestant family – at least we were not precluded from being Head of State – as Catholics are in the UK – I have never felt the South as a Cold House for Protestants in my lifetime.

    Every country has a narrow elite in poistions of power. Incidently, my family was also republican – protestants were small in number in the South – but the influence was and is larger than numbers.

    The Home Rule movement was inclusive – what followed was less so – it is not those that followed that are being commemorated.

  • Russell

    “If only – but it should be – I hope the government in the South translates this into action with a commemoration of equal standing for those that died on both enterprises for the centenary – I am getting confident that it will.”

    The British could best commemorate WW1 by apologising for the millions of deaths they were responsible by entering a war caused by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. As yes…the good old days of empire where the killing of one of the political elite was deemed to merit the murders of millions of plebeians. The Irish should pay no homage to those idiotic enough to fight for the evil empire of Britian, or for those Irish people who did so at a time when their own nation was at war with said evil empire.

  • Mike P.

    Acer:

    “Whatever about their commitment to democracy in the proclamation, their action was utterly undemocratic.”

    I assume you haven’t heard of John Locke. Implying that armed revolt is undemocratic simpy has no factual or philosophical basis.

  • Russell

    Partition was also “utterly undemocratic” since it was forced upon the people of Ireland against their democratically will and under the threat of violence, but Acer seems curiously to be unconcerned about that aspect. Indeed, the statelet of Northern Ireland was gerrymandered into existence to give the Protestants an in-built majority. There are many cases of undemocratic states in existence but none as obvious as the north.

    And let’s not mention the ignoble history of the north’s undemocratic electoral and franchise laws whereby the voting franchise in local government elections was restricted to householders, thereby gerrymandering minority unionist controlled councils, and the one-ward system operating in some provincial towns which frequently resulted in a minority having no representation at all.

    Ah yes…the north and “democracy.”

  • Henry94

    The people of Ireland weren’t consulted about the Act of Union either. And they voted time and time again for Home Rule without getting it.

    The Republic, proclaimed in 1916, was endorsed by the people at the first available opportunity which was the 1918 general election.

    It is essential that the state which emerged from the rising recognises and celebrates its own foundation.

    Participation is not compulsory.

  • Bretagne

    Russell –

    “The Irish should pay no homage to those idiotic enough to fight for the evil empire of Britian, or for those Irish people who did so at a time when their own nation was at war with said evil empire.”

    I think it pretty safe to assume that had you been born circa 1890 – you or a brother or sister would have been branded as idiotic.

  • Brian Boru

    “The worry about the President’s comments if the pretence that nationalism was inclusive. It was not. Yeats was correct in identifying the narrowness of those running the new state. If the North was a ‘cold house for Catholics’the South was no less so for Protestants and unionists. The internationalism was no more than a search for support and alliance to maintain the position of the new state.”

    I don’t think it can be called a ‘cold house for Protestants’ in the same way as the North was one for Catholics. Irish ministers were not inciting their public to turf Protestants out of their jobs unlike Brookeborough (“I recommend those who are Loyalist not to employ Roman Catholics 95% of whom are disloyal”) who sakced all the Catholics on his Coalbooke estate as an example to others, nor were they banning Protestants from membership of their parties. Catholics were actually prohibited I understand from joining the UUP for a long time, and the party was institutionally linked until 2 or 3 years ago to the Orange Order, an exclusively Protestant organisation. There was no parallel to this in the South. The only sense in which I would agree on the South being a ‘cold house’ is the fact that we had a lot of overtly Catholic social-teaching enshrined in our laws, including the bans on divorced (repealed 1995), contraception (repealed 1985), homosexuality (repealed 1994), and a reference to the “special place” of the Catholic church in our constitution (repeated 1972). The first Finance Minister was a Lisburn Presbyterian called Ernest Blythe, and a number of former Unionist/ Protestant families including the Dockrells have played noted parts in political parties including Fine Gael. Ivan Yates was Agriculture Minister from late 94-mid-97 and is Church of Ireland. We have had 2 Protestant Presidents also.

    “And today? It is true that Ireland is opening up. But is it still not a country with a narrow elite in charge? There can never be satisfactory empirical evidence, but I would suggest that the British elite is much more open and permeable now than the elite in Dublin.”

    On the contrary, there can be nothing more symptomatic of a narrow elite than requiring your Head of State to be a Protestant, unelected, and descendents of William the Conqueror. State-religions are incredibly outdated.

  • Cynic

    And the timing of this message has less to do with celebration / remembrance of both events and more to do with ‘progressing peace’ on the island of Ireland. A worthy objective, but please, let’s see it for what it is.

  • Martin

    Russell, although the assasination of Franz Ferdinand was indeed the trigger for the First World War, Britain actually declared war to protect the neutrality of Belgium, which she was treaty bound to do, nearly two months after that event. As a result of the assasination Austria had threatened Serbia, which was allied with France, as Austria was with Germany, which led to Germany invading France via Belgium, hence the declaration of war by Britain. A case of sticking up for the small countries of Europe – something Ireland spectacularly failed to do in the 1939-45 unpleasantness. Clearly Irish Nationalism wasn’t quite broad enough then to assist the vast majority of Europe’s nations fight a barbarian regime 24 years after the events she eulogises.

  • Russell

    “A case of sticking up for the small countries of Europe – something Ireland spectacularly failed to do in the 1939-45 unpleasantness. ” – Martin

    When did an empirical entity such as British Empire begin to respect and defend the rights of small countries, O Revisionist One? It specialises in invading small countries for the purposes of extracting the recourses and wealth of them; and when they bled those dry, they turned the people into commodities and sold them into slavery for the last bit of profit to be extracted. By 1921 the British Empire had invaded enough small countries to cover 14.7 million square miles and to control 570 million people (then a quarter of the world’s population). It butchered ten of millions in its ruthless pursuit of “empire for empire’s sake.” In terms of evil – if one is to quantify it by the numbers murdered – then the evil of the evil empire of Britain greatly exceeds the evil empire of Germany. The famines caused by British rule in India alone left hundred of millions of people dead. Ireland, to its credit, has never invaded another country.

  • Russell

    The one good outcome of ww2 (ww1 was just a redundant bloodbath) was that it terminated the empirical might of two competing evil empires in the murderous enterprise of territory-grapping: Britain and Germany. The clash of empires was inescapable. The two negative geopolitical outcomes were that it created the new empirical empires of the Soviet Union (now defunct) and of Pax Americana (very much in the unstoppable ascendancy). The reason why Pax American will dictate the new world order is simply because it has no competition that is capable of challenging it for global supremacy. Britain, once great through its mastery of evil, is now no more than a puppet ally of its new master.

  • George

    Martin,
    James Connolly on “small nations”:

    “Irish soldiers in the English Army are fighting in Flanders to win for Belgium, we are told, all those things which the British Empire, now as in the past, denies to Ireland.

    There is not a Belgian patriot who would not prefer to see his country devastated by war a hundred times rather than accept as a settlement for Belgium what Redmond and Devlin have accepted for Ireland. Have we Irish been fashioned in meaner clay than the Belgians?

    There is not a pacifist in England who would wish to end the war without Belgium being restored to full possession of all those national rights and powers which Ireland does not possess, and which the Home Rule Bill denies to her. But these same pacifists never mention Ireland when discussing or suggesting terms of settlement.

    Why should they? Belgium is fighting for her independence, but Irishmen are fighting for the Empire that denies Ireland every right that Belgians think worth fighting for.

    And yet Belgium as a nation is, so to speak, but a creation of yesterday – an artificial product of the schemes of statesmen. Whereas, the frontiers of Ireland, the ineffaceable marks of the separate existence of Ireland, are as old as Europe itself, the handiwork of the Almighty, not of politicians. And as the marks of Ireland–s separate nationality were not made by politicians so they cannot be unmade by them.

    As the separate individual is to the family, so the separate nation is to humanity. The perfect family is that which best draws out the inner powers of the individual, the most perfect world is that in which the separate existence of nations is held most sacred.

    There can be no perfect Europe in which Ireland is denied even the least of its national rights; there can be no worthy Ireland whose children brook tamely such denial. If such denial has been accepted by soulless slaves of politicians then it must be repudiated by Irish men and women whose souls are still their own.

    The peaceful progress of the future requires the possession by Ireland of all the national rights now denied to her.

    Only in such possession can the workers of Ireland see stability and security for the fruits of their toil and organization. A destiny not of our fashioning has chosen this generation as the one called upon for the supreme act of self-sacrifice.”

  • Martin

    George, I understand this point of view, your point has a lot of merit, I was simply responding to the false assertion that WW1 was simply a result of Franz Ferdinand and to use the example of WW2 to prove that the “narrowness” of Irish Nationalism cannot see the bigger picture beyond these Islands.

    Clearly much of what you and Russell say regarding the less than wholesome nature of the British Empire has merit also, but a failure to support Holland, Belgium, France, Poland, Greece, Checzoslovakia, Norway…basically every small country in Europe…simply shows that Irish nationalism was too “narrow” (to coin a phrase) in the period of the Second World War to see beyond its own historical dispute with Britain.

    De Valera’s ostentatious condolences for the death of Hitler prove that point – he was as much giving the finger to the millions who suffered in Occupied Europe as a whole as he was to Churchill. He probably only intended the latter but it is symptomatic of the narrowness of his worldview that he did not see that in this one Ireland backed the wrong horse. There is still a lot of bitterness in certain parts of Europe about that.

    Anyway, all I was alluding to was that Irish nationalism was too narrow, as is Russell’s thinking it seems, to recognise any reality between a perceived clash of “good” and “evil” bewteen these Islands. The problems of the world, even the continent, at large during the Second World War were secondary to such thinking which goes to the narrowness of the Nationalist mindset at the time – and indeed it seems from Russell’s rant today as well.

    Sure there is an awful lot of bad in British history which I recognise but participation in both world wars, like the Napoleonic before, is part of the good. I make no excuses for Imperialistic adventuresperiod between about 1500 and 1919 but, as a Brit, I must accept the bad and the good in our history. I can feel the shame of Drogheda and the Hunger but also feel pride in the Battle of Britain and the Common Law. Equally Ireland can feel pride in those of 1916 but must also take responsibility for its shameful stance of moral equivalence in WW2.

    I will accept some of what you say about the Empire, although a famine is hardly the same as deliberate industrial slaughter like the gas chambers, that it was an odious enterprise. However post-independence most former colonies (including India and post-Aparteid South Africa) adopted our system of government and maintain friendly relations with us in the form of the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth games and the like. I accept that the Empire was a very bad thing but one can hardly see the states conquered by Germany joining such a “Club” after liberation.

    My Grandfather, who lost his entire family to the Germans in World War 2, was extremely grateful to Britain for what it did in the Second World War and settled here afterwards. He was from a small newly indepenent country like Ireland, Poland, and would he certainly take issue with what you say, at least in respect of the WW2 period. Sure, he would say, Britain could have done a lot more for Poland, particularly after the war when Roosevelt basically sold them to Stalin, but at least it did what it could. Ireland just settled into the old comforts of “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.

  • Richard Dowling

    Much is being made of Irish identity, freedom, etc. But, most of
    you cannot even bring yourselves to sign your own names to
    these scribbles. Why is that?

  • Brian Boru

    “Russell, although the assasination of Franz Ferdinand was indeed the trigger for the First World War, Britain actually declared war to protect the neutrality of Belgium, which she was treaty bound to do, nearly two months after that event. As a result of the assasination Austria had threatened Serbia, which was allied with France, as Austria was with Germany, which led to Germany invading France via Belgium, hence the declaration of war by Britain. A case of sticking up for the small countries of Europe – something Ireland spectacularly failed to do in the 1939-45 unpleasantness. Clearly Irish Nationalism wasn’t quite broad enough then to assist the vast majority of Europe’s nations fight a barbarian regime 24 years after the events she eulogises.”

    Britain and France could have stopped Hitler in his tracks had they acted against the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the flouting of Versailles’ Treaty arms-controls, the annexation of Austria and had they not colluded in Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia at Munich.

    Ireland’s contribution to WW2 cannot simply be measured by the official stance on it. You have to look also at the 65,000 Southern Irish people who joined the British army and fought in that war, together with the Irish Government’s biased approach of releasing Allied spies/soldiers and interning Axis ones, and passing weather reports to the Allies (important in deciding D-Day).

    And on the Jewish Holocaust, I would say that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  • George

    Martin,
    in 2006 looking back at WW2 what you say is absolutely true in hindsight. But looking at it at the time, there was a some sense in the position taken.

    The only way Ireland could have joined the war and have any hope of defending itself from German invasion was to invite the Allies and, more specifically, the British Army back in. I don’t see how that could have happened peacefully or usefully for the war effort.

    I would be the same as defencless Lithuania or Poland letting an unreconstructed Red Army back in en masse to fight Al Qaeda in 2005 with a vague promise that they would leave again. They wouldn’t be too keen.

    There was no use in Britain having a defenceless ally to her west so benign neutrality in favour of the Allies was the only other option. More people from the south served in its army to fight Hitler than from the North so the Irish people did play their part.

    Irish attitudes were narrow at the time but I don’t see how they could have been anything else. The country was a defenceless infant and thought like one.

    It is only now when every, man, woman and child who was alive when the democratic wishes of the Irish nation were ignored and the tens of thousands of Irish died in the British Army to defend Belgian freedom and win Irish Home Rule (which was never given) are dead and buried that Ireland as a nation is beginning to trust Britain in any way, shape or form. The pain and resentment runs deep but is fading.

    That is the point from which we must start. We have a clean slate. Virtually every person in Ireland today was born in a free and independent state. Nobody in the Republic knows what life was like under British rule (we only have Northern Ireland to go on and that is an abberation).

    If Britain wants to list times it has felt let down by Ireland I’m sure Ireland can reciprocate in spades.

    However, I sense a new beginning between our two nations, we have been through too much together to ignore our common past and our futures are equally entwined.

  • Martin

    George, I agree with nearly everything you say but you kind of spoil it with your parting shot –

    “If Britain wants to list times it has felt let down by Ireland I’m sure Ireland can reciprocate in spades. “

    I have absolutely no doubt that this is true. If WW2 was a spat between Britain and Germany alone no-one with half a brain cell can have had any problem with Ireland staying out. It is not Britain being let down by Ireland that was the issue – it was Europe as a whole. Diplomatic if not military support for Britain would have been enough. If Germany had been invaded by Germany Ireland was stuffed with or without neutrality. Neutrality didn’t help the Netherlands or the Scandanavian countries. Even getting involved after 1941 (when the knowledge of the death camps was becoming known) and insisting only Allied troops who were not British or Commonwealth, if any, like Americans, Polish or Free French, came to Ireland would have been a start.

    Basically, if identity can be measured on narrow genetic grounds, what am trying to say is that it is the Slavic part of me which has more right to feel let down by Ireland than the Anglo-Saxon one.

  • Martin

    Sorry, I meant of course “Britain had been invaded by Germany” rather than the odd prospect of Germany invading itself!

  • Kim Philby

    Martin

    It is not Britain being let down by Ireland that was the issue – it was Europe as a whole.

    When war was declared the vast majority of European states did exactly what Ireland did and declared their neutrality. Of course that didn’t stop the Nazis invading them but at the time it looked like the right move.

    We can all see in hindsight what the right thing to do was. But in hindsight Irish independence was the best thing that ever happened to the country (look at the Scotland discussion) so all the more reason to celebrate 1916.

  • Cynic

    Was Britain the only European country to have overseas colonies (“empire”)? Surely the need to remain competitive in a burgeoning Europe meant you either joined the world wide land grab or, having started it, kept up with competitors. Britain had to be ambitious, being a relatively small island nation lacking (and still lacks) physical resources. Yes, unacceptable things happened but anyone who had ancestors involved can hardly be held responsible or feel remorse on their behalf. Better to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

  • Brian Boru

    “Was Britain the only European country to have overseas colonies (“empire”)? Surely the need to remain competitive in a burgeoning Europe meant you either joined the world wide land grab or, having started it, kept up with competitors. Britain had to be ambitious, being a relatively small island nation lacking (and still lacks) physical resources. Yes, unacceptable things happened but anyone who had ancestors involved can hardly be held responsible or feel remorse on their behalf. Better to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

    Why was Germany’s annexation of Belgium (the reason given here for Britain’s involvement in WW1) any worse than Britain’s annexation of 25% of the world’s landmass?

  • Martin

    Kim,

    We can all see in hindsight what the right thing to do was. But in hindsight Irish independence was the best thing that ever happened to the country (look at the Scotland discussion) so all the more reason to celebrate 1916.

    Absolutely, I agree with that statement 100% and think the Scots have really difficult issues to overcome in the future, do they let go of the English apron strings and strike out for a more prosperous future, which (if Ireland is a guide) may take several generations or does it do what they try and have the “best of both worlds” as they are at the moment.

    I have no problem with commemoration of 1916 at all however the Irish wish to do so and, frankly, I generally had no problem with the thrust of the President’s speech either. what I do take issue, however, with her explicit downplaying of the “narrowness” of Irish nationalism at the time when, as WW2 showed, it was actually a pretty single issue, narrow worldview (and, arguably, single faith) movement. The fact that Irleand has built on those narrow foundations to build it’s present outward looking success thanks to 1916 deserves celebrating.

  • Martin

    Brian,

    Why was Germany’s annexation of Belgium (the reason given here for Britain’s involvement in WW1) any worse than Britain’s annexation of 25% of the world’s landmass?

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting this. I’m certainly not. The argument has moved on to events some years later.

  • George

    Martin,
    I don’t know of any country in Europe which feels let down by Ireland and WW2. Certainly none of the East Europeans here have ever mentioned it and nobody else I have met from any country.

    Can you name any country which has spoken out negatively about Ireland’s role in the conflict?

    The only ones to have ever brought it up are the British so that is why I don’t understand why you feel my statement spoils anything. Britain taking the high moral ground with Ireland won’t help the delicate healing process of the last 80 years.

    But if the Polish or any other government has said something I’m willing to stand corrected.

  • Martin

    My Grandfather used to mention it in passing before he passed away – his part of Poland is actually in the Ukraine now and I admittedly I doubt it is something that animates bar room discussion in those parts. I am unaware of any protest at a governmental level – my statement is anecdotal and based largely based upon him and upon a full blown row between a supporter of Irish Neutrality and a particularly exorcised Dutchman at an Oxford Union debate.

    Indeed whenever, in my younger, more radical days, I used to make any even vague comment about Irish Republicanism in a positive way my Grandfather used to hammer his walking stick on the ground in his inimitable manner screaming “where were they on D-Day. Where were they at Anzio?”. As a Pole, albeit resident in the UK, I think he counts.

    I am aware, however, that De Valera’s little stunt on 2 May 1945 got the Yanks’ goat so much they pressed to keep you out of the UN – so it’s not just a British thing.

    To wrap up, I think the narrowness of thinking and inability to “think out of the box” of Irish nationalism at that time is best summed up by the American Ambassador, David Grey, who recounted that he once asked de Valera what he would do if German paratroopers ‘liberated’ Derry. Grey recounts that de Valera was silent for a time and then replied “I don’t know”. His thought processes clearly hadn’t reached that far.

  • George

    Martin,
    so basically no country has ever spoken out about Ireland’s role, not even the United States, which might have been pissed off with Dev’s stunt but not with his country’s role in the war. There is a big difference.

    I think if your dad had served in the British Army he would have seen there were Irish people losing their lives on D-day as many of the 44,000 volunteers from the Irish Republic did see action.

    My uncle served in the RAF (got no further than Scotland mind although his best friend died in front of him when a plane which was being repaired fell on him)

    On liberating Derry, what do you think Dev should have said? He would declare war on Germany? After all Derry was “officially” under occupation by the British.

  • me

    On liberating Derry, what do you think Dev should have said? He would declare war on Germany? After all Derry was “officially” under occupation by the British.

    How about – “thats shockin hi” – of course even Irish Republicans will have to reluctantly help the Brits, there is a differance between that lot and the evil of the Nastys who are occupying eastern europe.
    Hitler couldn’t have taken Londonderry anyway – No Surrender!

  • Martin

    George, I never said that any country had spoken up about Ireland’s role in the war officially or otherwise, I simply said that some people in Europe were not too happy about it, which I was entitled to do based on my own experience. As a matter of fact I don’t think any country has ever made any official bones about Switzerland or Sweden’s neutrality either but plenty were unhappy about it. I have heard people from the mainland of Europe express dissatisfaction with that. For example, Norwegians can get very unhappy about their neutral Scandanavian brothers the Swedes supplying steel to Germany, but I am pretty sure the Norgegian government, on the basis of diplomacy, has ever made an explicit point of the issue.

    I have no idea what de Valera should have said in answer to the US Ambassador. But anyone who is head of government of a European country during the Nazi era surely should have had a policy in the event the not wholly unforseeable possiblity of Nazi attack on a neighbouring territory, espeically one that your nation claims as your own. Surely he should have had some sort of policy to deal with that, even if just to reply to the Ambassador “we would have thanked the Germans and asked them to hand it over to us as soon as possible” – which is frankly what he probably would have done. His lack of policy was sympotomatic of the fact he couldn’t envision the actions of any state actor outside Britain and Ireland, which, before this thread goes completely OT, goes to his narrowness of vision which was the original point of my post. Ireland may not be narrow minded now, but, in the context of world events, its leaders in the first half of the 20th century certainly were.

    Anyway, given my Dad was never in the Army and was born in 1945, it would have been a bit hard for him to have been at D-Day.

  • hovetwo

    “His lack of policy was sympotomatic of the fact he couldn’t envision the actions of any state actor outside Britain and Ireland, which, before this thread goes completely OT, goes to his narrowness of vision which was the original point of my post.”

    Hmmm – this would be the same De Valera who was President of the Assembly of the League of Nations in 1938? A master of realpolitik, and a far more complex and brilliant character than he is usually made out to be.

    Not that I disagree with the contention that the Republic was a narrow-minded Catholic state in the 30s and 40s, although if anything, DeValera was one of the moderates – there is certainly evidence that he resisted pressure for a more “Catholic” constitution in 1937.

    I can’t help feeling it was morally wrong not to join the fight against facism, but it is also immoral to condemn your people to a remorseless blitzkrieg when you have no means of defending them – which is why the other small nations tried to remain neutral. Irish neutrality probably helped the Allied war effort more in practical terms than formal participation could have done – this was certainly the view of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    For me, the greater shame is that more Jewish refugees were not allowed refuge in Ireland before the war started. The holocaust hadn’t begun, but everyone knew about kristallnacht.

  • Mickhall

    Some great contributions here, just some quick points, I feel Devs ability to keep Ireland neutral and un-invaded during WW2 was his finest hour and it took great skill for the reasons George has alluded to. The Radio broadcast De Valera made on May 17th 1945 [I think that was the date] in reply to something Churchill said in his victors speech at the end of the WW2 covers much of the ground posters have been discussing here.. Incidentally I feel it is one of the very best speeches an Irishman/woman has ever given.

    As to WW1 it was a totally unnecessary and useless slaughter and those responsible let loose the germ which made Europe the charnel house it became for the 30 years that followed the outbreak of WW1.

    On WW1 I feel the Marxists have got it about right. I find it tragic we seem to be returning to the days when major nations went to war for plunder, while dressing their criminality up with garbage about defending small nations, democracy, etc. The politicians like Bush and Blair who have emulated their forbears in this behavior seem to have little understanding of the problems they are building up for future generations.

  • Tadhgin

    It is worth remembering that mary McAleese’s point was that much of the apparent naivity of the rising represent something that we could all sign up for today, and that it took place in a context where great powers had no compunction about using force to achieve their ends.

    She is performing her job as President of Ireland; akin to what Gordon Brown is aiming to do for Britishness. The point is not the detail of her story’s historical accuracy (superior to Gordon Brown’s at any rate).

    As for WWI being fought in the interests of small countries, tell that to the native inhabitants of the Belgian Congo!