“To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection.”

Fintan O’Toole highlights the haphazard nature of commemoration by the Irish state (subs required) and its greater willingess to embrace those who sought change by violence than those who achieved it by parliamentary means, especially Daniel O’Connell.

O’Toole argues:

“It expresses in microcosm a great deal about the State’s ambivalent relationship to Irish history, about the way it has encoded, almost in its DNA, a distrust of non-violent change.”
An event which broke this pattern was Dev’s participation in the re-opening of O’Connell’s ancestral home and his speech praising O’Connell’s success by parliamentary means. The architect of the restoration project and the person who had persuaded Dev to attend asked him why the 1916 rebels had little time for O’Connell? De Valera replied:

“You must think, you must consider our feelings at that time. We firmly believed that the Irish people could only be ‘jolted’ from their lethargy and Irish freedom and liberty achieved by force of arms. How then could we promote the memory of the man who achieved so much by parliamentary means with no loss of life? To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection.”

However, the pattern seems to continue as this year the Irish state re-embraced the 1916 rebellion but has decided to virtually ignore attempts to commemorate the centenary of Michael Davitt death. Is Northern Nationalism’s hagiography of the hunger strikers rather than the founders of the Civil Rights Movement or the likes of John Hume repeating this pattern?

  • Garibaldy

    I find myself in agreement with James Connolly that O’Connell was not the Liberator but the Enslaver of his people because he was self-consciously one of the major factors in concreting the link between catholicism and nationalism, contributing immensely to the sectarianisation of Irish politics, and the division of the Irish people. Our old friend Henry Cooke was the other side of the same coin.

    Let’s not forget that O’Connell opposed the United Irishmen, and sold the 10 shilling freeholders who had made him so powerful down the river.

    None of this should be taken as a rejection of non-violence. It is a rejection of sectarian identity politics, which John Hume and the SDLP are equally guilty of, regardless of his sometimes exaggerated role in NICRA. I’d say though that to say that the hunger strikers enjoy a higher reputation than Hume is wrong.

    O’Connell was a deeply unpleasant individual, who deserves to be remembered only as a warning to others.

  • The Beach Tree

    Fair Deal

    2 points.

    1. More than anyone else O’Connell permenantly tied Irish Nationhood to Roman Catholicism. That was undoubtedly a backwards step.

    2. His great success was in religious liberation. He had practically no success on the issues around Irish nationhood, the parliamentary forefather of which is arguably Gratten. Indeed it is arguable that his interest was in change IN the System, rather than OF the System, which for nationalism, is not really the point.

    It is arguable that O’Connell led Irish Patriotism into an ethnic and religious direction it previously has not had. He made it easier to be catholic. He made it no easier to be Irish.

    3. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the events of 1916, it is indisputable that the roots of the modern independent irish state lie there – not with O’Connell.

    O’Connell’s connection to Irish independence is really not that terribly strong. To my eyes, he’s arguably more a hero of British History, than Irish, as the harbinger of that nation’s claim to religious tolerence.

  • PaddyReilly

    The problem is that Daniel O’Connell did not achieve ‘it’, whatever that may be, or Irish nationhood, or independence, by parliamentary means. He made a lot of speeches and was put in jail for his pains.

  • CS Parnell

    Of course, the really big one is Parnell. The land war did more to change Ireland than 1916/1922 and Home Rule could have delivered much more than either year as well.

    But then again, even 1916 is a myth in the sense that it was the conscription crisis and not 1916 which tipped Ireland into war. 1916 was even then a convenient myth for the rebels to grasp, but what destroyed consent to Ireland as part of the UK was the need for the British state to have people to fight the Germans.

    It’s a very Irish tale – asked to go to war we refuse and respond by going to war with each other.

    Incidentally, I do wish the Irish left would rethink Connelly. His politics were a disaster and his attack on O’Connell showed some brass neck given that he fatally tied the Irish labour Movement to both Catholicism and an inwardly focussed republicanism.

    Even when the Irish state broke free from republicanism – the ideology that meant our biggest export was impoverished people – too many on the left still offered up prayers to Saint Jimmy.

  • The Beach Tree

    CS Parnell

    Self praise is no recommendation! 😉

    What Home Rule could have delivered is certainly up for debate, but since Parnell was long gone before the 1911 Parliament crisis, it was never a realistic possibility for him.

    One probably has to factor in the institutional memory of the failed drive for Home Rule to understand the 1918 Sinn Fein victory.

    As for Connolly, his stand for ‘the working man’ and his seat for his execution probably had more effect than any number of risings.

    The final irony was that if Pearse was in any way accurate about ‘blood sacrifices’, it was the sacrifice of Connolly, rather than Pearse himself, that had the real effect.

  • Garibaldy


    I agree absolutely that the land war is the key delvelopment. In essence, 1916-22 was an adjustment of politics to the new political and social realities created by the land war. On that point, it has to be remembered that a large part of the reason for its success was the involvement of New Departure IRB figures like Davitt, and possibly Parnell himself, who wanted to make republicanism repsonsive to the needs of the people. They provided the organisation over much of the country for the land war to be effective. In that sense it was as much a triumph for them, if not more, than it was for the parliamentarians.

    As for Connolly, I think it’s wrong to say that he tied the labour movement to catholicism or an inward focussed ideology. His writings are clear on these points, and the Free State was run more by those who were the backbone of the Home Rule party than it was by those linked to Connolly or even Pearse, who himself was more radical than he’s often given credit for. The Irish labour movement was not subordinated under the catholic nationalist movement by Connolly. It was by those who failed to follow his radical vision for a secular socialist republic in the decades that followed.

  • hovetwo

    The whiff of cordite, whether it be around hunger strikers or those “out” in 1916, has always held an (unhealthy) appeal for people, but I thought the key observation in O’Toole’s piece was the way recollection has become a zero sum game – you either laud the pacifists or the revolutionaries “because statements about the past have to contain morals for the present” – I would have thought that was true across nationalism and unionism.

    Depressingly, violence and the threat of violence have yielded dividends. O’Connell was heeded in part because of the scale of his Monster Meetings. Carson was heeded in part because of the UVF. Parnell – and Davitt for that matter – were fully cognisant of the benefits of bringing Fenianism under their wing. Lloyd George rejected early offers of a ceasefire in the War of Independence, only agreeing the Treaty after the reign of terror that “had murder by the throat” had failed spectacularly. For years I thought that the terms offered under the Treaty were broadly similar to the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, suggesting that the violence of the War of Independence was futile – until I read Alvin Jackson’s excellent book on Home Rule in Northern Ireland, and Peter Hart’s book on Michael Collins.

    We have flagellated ourselves, rightly, about the morality of 1916, and yet….. this was an insurrection that had been preceded by fifty years of failed parliamentary agitation. We can – and should – dwell on the casualties and suffering that occurred, and yet more Irish people died in one attack on one day on the Western Front than in the whole of Easter Week. We have dwelt, rightly, on the fact that they had no democratic mandate, and yet they fought in uniform, eschewing the guerilla warfare that was supported by the first Dáil.

    The Irish Government has made strides to rehabilitate and commemorate those who died in the Great War. I just wish we could remember the past for the messy, complex reality it was then, and for the flawed actors who played their parts, often with courage and idealism, rather than trying to find someone to wear the white hat.

  • CS Parnell

    Beach Tree,

    Maybe if the hierarchy hadn’t stuffed him up, though, the HR issue might have been dealt with much earlier.

  • Garibaldy


    I can see the appealing parts of your approach for the people from Ireland who died in WWI. However, I really do feel that we cannot look at it from a local perspective. This was an evil war fought for the exploitation of the majority of humanity. No-one who supported its aims deserves to be remembered positively. That is the messy reality as I see it.

  • The Beach Tree

    CS Parnell

    Indeed. The Catholic Heirarchy originally empowered by…yep, you guessed it…O’Connell!

    But then PArnell was never by any stretch an O’Connellite, and more than anyone synthesised in himself the mixture of charm, constitution and cordite that has always been the most attractive – In Ireland we are wary of pure parliamentarians (Redmond), but also of pure soldiors (Brugha) – it is those who manage to look a little like both – Parnell, De Valera, Haughey – that in the end actually hold the most sway.

  • Fair Deal,

    It is rather disingenuous for you to claim that there is greater hagiography by Northern Nationalism per se of the hunger strikers rather than the founders of the Civil Rights Movement or the likes of John Hume. Can you show me any clear hagiography of the strikers apart from that displayed by the provisionals/ INLA?

    Indeed, only the other day I wrote a piece on the need for nationalists to follow in the footsteps of Parnell by using the mechanisms of constitutional politics to bring about the ultimate goal of a united Ireland:

    [a href=“http://elblogador.blogspot.com/2006/05/montenegrin-independence-and-irish.html”]El Blogador article on Irish Nationalism[/a]

  • fair_deal

    el matador

    Northern Nationalism is now dominated by the republican section of it and it is fully engaged in a process of hagiography. The other section of northern nationalism seems to have largely adopted a policy of silence about this process and offering no alternative narrative.

    I haven’t see any murals, posters, commemorative events, vigils, summer schools or lectures to the CR movement going on.

  • Apologies, the link didn’t work. Here it is again: El Blogador article on Irish Nationalism

  • Ho-hum, that link didn’t work either. Well, you get the point. It’s the thread entitled ‘Montenegrin Independence And Irish Nationalism’.

  • Rory

    Are you sure that that is a picture of Daniel O’Connell above? Looks suspiciously like Big Tom to me. That combover, man, no wonder we are in no hurry to promote him.

    O’Connell tied Ireland to Britain more firmly than before. Parnell died broken-hearted a failure and Home Rule languished ungranted. The physical force movement of the IRA brought about the (albeit limited) separtion from Britain and the establishment of a limited nation of sorts. So the violent men deserve the adulation. They got the job (at least part) done. Why should Ireland put those constitutional failures before the much more successful warriors? Britain does not hold up William Wilberforce or Robert Frost before Cromwell or Churchill.

  • hovetwo


    No fan of WWI myself, although Dan O’Brien of the Economist Intelligence Unit tried to contort it into a “just war” in contrast to 1916 in a recent article.

    Can’t agree with you on the local / global thing. Many marched to their deaths not just for / against Home Rule (a local concern) but also to defend small nations, having read xenophobic spin about German atrocities in Belgium etc. They may have been misguided but still worth remembering positively.

    I find it difficult to determine what the aims of WWI actually were. Two rival belligerent imperial blocs accidentally fall into total war because they activate military alliances. I think you can trace the contemporary Irish aversion to military alliances back to being sucked into WWI and the conscription crisis it triggered.

    The Beach Tree

    I think you’re spot on regarding the synthesis of charm, constitution and cordite.

  • Garibaldy


    On the local/global thing, I meant in terms of how we deal with the issue, where attitudes to those those who died in WWI are dictated by how we think it can serve contemporary local concerns, while ignoring the tragic global implications.

    Fair Deal,

    I think that in the stuff about the hunger strikers the provos are playing to their traditional base if you like, in the same way that the parties down below trundle out to Bodenstown. It doesn’t mean that much for their voters and supporters. I think it was for large parts of a generation of nationalists (though by no means the majority looking at the SDLP and PSF vote from the period once the actual strikes had passed) a defining moment. But these people are in their 40s now.

    I sincerely doubt that the majority of the new PSF voters actually care all that much about the hunger strikes as their so far distant, any more than they really care about Kilmichael. In terms of murals etc, there’s an issue of marking out turf in a way that the other sections of nationalism do not go for. It’s not that they’re happy about the black flags, ugly ‘H’ things or whatever, but it would cost them credibility to complain about them. So they’re being quiet.

    As Newt pointed out, the numbers involved in these things are actually small. The commemorations have more to do with sustaining PSF party organisation, which is in terms of numbers and activism though not votes clearly in decline, and self-image than setting any policy. After all, as has been pointed out by the Tree, Irish nationalism has often played the rebel while in reality being the very opposite.

  • Jo

    Given his brilliance at forging irrevocable links between Nationalism and Catholicism, its also ironic that the most potent force in that Nationalism in O’Connell’s century was a Protestant landowner.

    The to-all-intents “canonisation” of atheists involved in 1916 in recent times adds a somewhat savage twist that the most devout, more peaceful (and fertile!) Catholic leader is so eclipsed by violent men. Perhaps the most lasting O’Connellism is that true nationalists “outbreed” the opposition? Some certainly seem to pratice a lot by themselves… 🙂

  • Garibaldy


    You are right to point to Parnell, but only up to a point. After all, it was the catholic church’s power over nationalism that brought him crashing to his knees. And who were his main supporters at the end? The secular republicans who had helped raise him to his status in the first place through their role in the land league.

  • The Beach Tree


    Most of the men of 1916 were very far from being atheists. But they were avowedly ‘secularist’. It’s not the same thing.

    If your reference is to Parnell, The Irish Home Rule Party was an invention of the mainly protestant bourgoise – specifically of Isaac Butt. It did not arise from the masses who had supported emmancipation. So not really that ironic.

    As for the casual misandrony, Jo, the insult is no less juvenile for being dressed in adult euphemism.

  • Jo

    I forgot the legacy of humourless puritanical republicanism which would not realise the irony of refusing to use condoms in bombs because they were “immoral objects” or accept any light hearted comment from someone perceived as having no right to comment on Irish history because they are not demondstrably Nationalist.

  • The Beach Tree


    The problem wasn’t your politics, it was the childishness of the comment.

    You have shown elsewhere on this sight that you clearly lack a thick skin when your own politics or gender are mocked, or you think wrongly they are mocked.

    Kindly extend the courtesy.

  • Jo

    It was said of O’Connell that a stone thrown over the wall of orphanages and workhouses in his native county was almost certain to hit one of his illegitimate children. Two yrs ago, I met a woman, younger than me, with 6 children, more obviously on the way. She said to me in all apparent seriousness: “Thats done my bit for the Cause.”

    Truth is stranger than fiction.

    In deference to sensibilities, I decided not to use word “bastard” above in connection with a discussion on the Father of Irish Nationalism? 🙂

  • fair_deal

    “Most of the men of 1916 were very far from being atheists. But they were avowedly ‘secularist’.”

    How does saying the rosary, a religious practice of one faith, every half hour at the GPO fir with avowed secularism?

  • hovetwo

    “How does saying the rosary, a religious practice of one faith, every half hour at the GPO fit with avowed secularism?”

    Two possible explanations:

    1) There are no atheists in foxholes (although Collins and Connolly, among others, flirted with it).

    2) I guess the Protestant rebels didn’t join in – someone had to return fire while the lads were saying the rosary!

  • The Beach Tree

    Fair Deal

    To repeat:-

    “Most of the men of 1916 were very far from being atheists. But they were avowedly ‘secularist’. It’s not the same thing.“.

    “How does saying the rosary, a religious practice of one faith, every half hour at the GPO fit with avowed secularism?”

    Very easily. It was a voluntary act, not state proscribed. Or do you find religious observance itself unpalatable?

  • JD

    “The commemorations have more to do with sustaining PSF party organisation, which is in terms of numbers and activism though not votes clearly in decline, ”

    Garibaldy, what evidence do you have for this? or is this mere wishful thinking?

  • fair_deal

    Everyone is free to practice their religion in whaterver form but claiming avowed secularism while simultaneously enagaging in devout observation of one faith brings the first claim into doubt.

  • George

    what about the Protestant rebels who devoutly observed their faith?

    Did that bring their avowed secularism into doubt?

  • Dec

    When and where was avowed secularism claimed?

    The Easter Proclamation states:

    The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens…

    Presumably a Catholic saying a rosary free from hinderance is example of this.

  • GrassyNoel

    Not sure where this discussion is winding its way to, after barely one page, but I for one thought it was an excellent article and have thought for a long time that it’s ironic how O’Connell is barely mentioned anymore, because maybe he’s not seen as ‘glamorous’ enough. I suppose if you’re not a cinematic, ‘braveheart’ high-octane, action-packed revolutionary type, you’re not cool enought to be remembered in history anymore. But anytime I find myself getting a slagging for being a culchie in Dublin, I very quickly remind people that the main street in our capital city is named after a Kerryman. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Irish nationalism had stayed on the constitutional path laid down by the likes of O’Connell, we would be a hell of a lot closer to being a united Ireland now, and NI would be a very, very different place.

  • George

    Also Fair_deal,
    I believe you should inform us how many of the rebels were saying the Rosary. Was it a different one every half hour, taking shifts or what?

    Was it part of the rebellion or something that the more religious rebels felt they needed? I’m sure they were saying rosaries before they won’t over the top at the Somme. Doesn’t make WW1 any more or less secular a battle.

    Or have you just latched on to a single quote from a certain Mr. McCann with no other information on it?

  • hovetwo

    There is always going to be a tension between religious observance and secularism, at least at the margins – do you vote in favour of allowing civil liberties to others that you personally find morally wrong or distasteful?

    Still can’t get too excited about the rosary. Actually I never could – on the other hand my (generally positive) experience of the Charismatic Renewal movement in the 70s makes me shudder every time I see a tambourine.

    It’s undoubtedly true that many of the rebels of 1916 were devout Catholics. Others weren’t. Some were Protestant. Prayer during battle would not be the litmus test of secularism – or sectarianism – for me.

  • Rory

    Fair Deal might do well to remember that although church parades were mandatory in the British Army they were not so in the Irish Republican Army. While recruits to the BA swear an oath of loyalty to a monarch, who also happens to be head of the established church, IRA volunteers merely make a voluntary declaration of accepting a duty to serve the Irish republic.

    It is to the great credit of the volunteers at the GPO that, while they themselves were often devoutly Catholic, they were willing to fight and die for a cause that was attractive precisely because it was secular. The necessary divorce between state and religion was never lost on republicanism – witness France, the USA, Mexico, the USSR, the Spanish Republic. Monarchies on the other hand (one at least to which you seem in thrall) tend to like their subjects worship as they ar told.

  • fair_deal


    what about the Protestant rebels who devoutly observed their faith? Did that bring their avowed secularism into doubt?

    If they did then obviously yes.

    “Mr. McCann with no other information on it? ”

    Nice try, there was a photograph of the practice in the Sunday Times recently and the Irish Times site also mentions the rosary

    “At 3.30pm Pearse surrenders, and after garrison says rosary it leaves 16 Moore Street.”

  • Harry

    Your point seems to be barely concealed anti-catholicism fair_deal and little else.

  • fair_deal


    What parts of:
    “what about the Protestant rebels who devoutly observed their faith? Did that bring their avowed secularism into doubt? If they did then obviously yes.”
    “Everyone is free to practice their religion in whaterver form”
    do you not understand?

  • Garibaldy


    Look at the number of times PSF were able to put thousands of people on the street about 1995-8, when they had regular marches. When was the last time they did that? Or for their white line protests etc. The numbers just aren’t the same,
    and they’re doing less. Their youth wing has never really taken off to the extent that they were expecting, and I think that document that Jim Cusack blew out of all proportion made reference to recruitment issues, but I could be misremembering.

    What I’m saying is based mostly on my own observations though.