Can we ever lay 1916 to rest?

Official Ireland’s well known discomfort over how to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising  has just been exposed over the prefiguring event, the funeral the previous year of the physical force Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa.  With the failure to consign this heritage to the past in advance,  it seems  possible that there will be a full blown struggle over the ownership and character of the republican tradition in an election year.  If not, it will not be for Sinn Fein’s want of trying.

Ireland’s perceived dilemmas have been aired in the pages of the Irish Times for the past year, with no end in sight. The funeral passed into legend because of the presence of (I think all) the signatories of the following year’s proclamation of the republic on the steps of the GPO, and the stirring speech of Padraig Pearse which probably sealed his leadership and his fate.

The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Official Ireland – the president, the taosieach, the  diplomatic corps,- the works – turned up at Glasnevin cemetery for the full dress state event. The notable absentee was Sinn Fein who staged their own elaborately heritage-dressed ceremony, with the added attraction of an oration by Gerry Adams ,wearing Pearse’s remodelled mantle.   

“Today almost a century later we have many, like O’Donovan Rossa, who spent years as political prisoners, or were on the run or were forced into exile. We remember also all those who suffered and died in the most recent conflict, including our patriot dead, some of whom are laid to rest in this cemetery.

“We have with us also many younger people who, thankfully, have not known directly the terrible reality of armed conflict in our country.

“Let us be very clear that the Peace Process and the political progress we have achieved were made possible because of the sacrifices of countless republicans over the generations. It is hugely positive and progressive that we today can pursue the complete unity and freedom of the Irish people, by peaceful means. And we are pursuing that cause.

“Today is a reminder, as the events of the Centenary of the Easter Rising in the coming months will be reminders, that the business of Pádraig Mac Piarais and James Connolly and Constance Markievicz and Bobby Sands and Máiréad Farrell is unfinished business.

“Some people in high places do not like to be reminded of that unfinished business. Mar a dúirt an Phiarsaigh: The fools. The fools. The fools.

You get the picture. Adams is here proclaiming  an active  fundamentalism that grates with modern Irish nationalism never mind unionism. But he would  say that Pearse was in a similar position in 1915-16, would he not?  Is he showing his age or does  he really  believe it plays?  Closer and ( I hope) dispassionate  observers will have opinions.

If official Ireland was affronted at his presumption, it kept its counsel.  It was left to Dr Marie Coleman  a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s to  point out the inconsistency of commemoration of this past with present aims. She sits on the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council/Heritage Lottery Fund Roundtable on marking anniversaries.

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising.

If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

If we are to take State-sponsored commemoration more as a reflection of a government’s immediate political concerns and aims than a mature reflection on the past, one would wonder what the recent O’Donovan Rossa commemoration events tell us about the current Government’s policy regarding Anglo-Irish relations in general and Northern Ireland in particular? Seen in the light of Sinn Féin’s alternative commemoration, the shadow of the forthcoming general election loomed large over the whole event.

Kevin Myers in the Sunday Times (£) took the familiar polemical line against the physical  force tradition which O’ Donovan  personified  and today’s Sinn Fein defends as an historic necessity,  just like the Rising.

On July 27, we also missed the 25th anniversary of the murder by the IRA of Sister Catherine Dunne, of Middletown Convent in Armagh. An accident, we were told. I’m sure O’Donovan Rossa would have understood. Patrick Pearse certainly would: “At the beginning we may kill the wrong people,” he mused. And not just at the beginning, it seems.

Sister Catherine was not the only Middletown woman to be murdered by the IRA. Shortly before we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Clerkenwell bombing we might also mark the 40th anniversary of the murder of single mother Margaret Hearst, a clerk at the UDR headquarters, who was shot dead by the IRA in her mobile home. One of the IRA bullets hit the bed of her three- year-old daughter. In a month’s time, we shall also be able to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Margaret’s father’s death. Ross Hearst was abducted and murdered while coming from church, allegedly because he was an “informer”. Yes, a lot a Protestant like him would have known about the IRA.

In contrast with Patrick Flood; 25 years ago Flood, an IRA man, was shot after seven weeks in IRA custody in south Armagh. Seven weeks — think about it. And then finished off by the nutting squad, possibly under Freddie Scappaticci, who, really, everyone can be proud of, because he was also a British agent.

Yes, I have very deliberately discriminated in my choice of victims, for they were all killed by the heirs of the tradition of O’Donovan Rossa, whom this state so honoured with a colour party from the Defence Forces last weekend.

The revisionist political line for the modern republic is laid out with more than usual frankness by the retired diplomat Dr Niall Holohan who has served  with the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Council and the North/South Ministerial Council.

One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that a heavy responsibility for the democratic failures and the intermittent strife on the island over the past 100 years must rest on the shoulders of those who instigated and launched the 1916 rebellion – partition and its associated ills being arguably the worst effect. Indeed there is now a wide acceptance that the political division of the island has been a significant contributory factor to the sectarianism and social repression that plagued our society for so long.

It is perhaps apt at this point to draw a comparison between the political evolution of Scotland and Ireland. While there are clearly many differences between Scottish and Irish nationalism, it is evident from the recent referendum and general election in Scotland that nationalist tendencies in these islands cannot be stifled even by lengthy delays, unprecedented prosperity or external threats. Just as is likely to be the case in Scotland before too long, I have no doubt independence would have eventually been achieved in Ireland – although precisely when and in what form it is impossible to say. Arguably, however, Ireland might be a better place today if it had taken Scotland’s less direct route to independence.

This is not to suggest the Easter Rising was insignificant or that its leaders were not motivated by the highest ideals or the desire to achieve the greatest good for the Irish people. Sadly, however, it also added to the deep divisions between nationalists and unionists which – at least in the case of Northern Ireland – remain unresolved.

The problem with the Holohan analysis is that it is essentially as nostalgic as Sinn Fein’s although on the side of peaceful evolution.  Nationalism fudges the issue of the GFA  as “ an accommodation not a settlement,” in Pat Doherty MP’s vivid phase. Peaceful unity requires nationalism to win the numbers’ game and that is an issue no one wants to discuss openly. It would be as well to begin. The  constitutional status quo seems to attract a bigger majority than the dwindling ranks of professing unionists, probably along the lines of ” we’re not going to go through all that again.” But no one can be sure it will survive continuing Assembly stasis  and the charge of “Tory austerity.”

The North is still a place apart although very different today from the era of the  post-1920 partition, perhaps even consensually apart while  it explores a new relationship. The past does not help us much here except  to deliver salutary warnings. The Northern conflict was a long and intimate one, the South’s was essentially a brief campaign to  remove  a thin unionist and British carapace by majority will after the votes were cast.  Apart from the odd upsurge over 1916, the South may yet wrap the past up in the balm of polite patriotism laced with indifference.  But a lurking danger  remains in the North, which is that  the longer partition persists albeit under GFA conditions, the more attractive will again become the physical force tradition in the minds of yet another militant minority.  Our common problem is to find the compelling counterattraction to the weight of history beyond mere exhaustion.  Might it emerge as 2016 unfolds?


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  • Kevin Breslin

    Could we leave the Great Wars to rest? or the Holocaust to rest? or the Titanic to rest? or The Seige, or the Battle of the Boyne, or the Somme, or Nazi Germany or the Battle of Bannockburn, or the Cold War, or Waterloo, or the Famine, or the Napoleanic Wars … Nope.

    May as well ban History and Archaeology as subjects if that’s the case.

    St Patrick’s Day, man’s long dead … dido Christmas, Easter, or anniversary dates … forgotten or not, it’s impossible to have any eyes on the future with a foot in the past.

    Birthdays they can go too.

    Why even stop there?

    Libraries, antiquated science, engineering, mathematics, technological breakthroughs from the 1990’s backwards … come on if we never remembered the stuff now, it wasn’t worth remembering in the first place. Why revise anything, improvise everything.

    Terabytes of Computer memory, that’s just an excuse to clutter! Do we really need to download repeats and replay old video games?

    I mean heritage events are not to everybody’s taste so that alone is an excuse to ban them in public spaces and leave them to museums, assuming there they are even safe enough.

    Hope that pretty much reflects the sort of reaction to laying to rest i.e. “forgetting the past” comments that may be sparked from this thread.

    Particularly in a conservative place like Ireland.

    The conservation of heritage is one of the main attractions to this island, North and South.

  • murdockp

    Lets get the remembrance accurate at least.
    It is not the big Wolfetone’s singalong the Belfast republicans would have you believe, as ever the facts are far more complex. I would love to read a historic piece for Slugger’s more esteemed writers highlighting the 1916 events that should be remembered and putting the rising in context as there was a hell of a lot going on at the time.

  • Redstar2014

    It sure is both complex and very interesting to see how it’s portrayed.

    We had FG amongst others last week eulogising the actions O Donovan Rossa- I take it they know it was he who first promoted bombing the British mainland

    Oh for revisionists……..

  • chrisjones2

    Now now…..the children need their stories

  • Brian Walker

    I’m all for the conservation of heritage but not for it’s re-living, The Great Wars etc have little affect on political behaviour today. That’s the difference

  • Brian Walker

    murdoch, There’s lashings of of it already – books by Walsh, Ferriter, McGarrry, Foster, Fanning, Townshend,Coogan to name but a recent few. And follow the contemporary debate in the archives of the Irish Times..But memory will never be quite “accurate.”.

  • Barneyt

    Memories will always remain fresh on this island whilst the core issues continue in their current unresolved state. The quest for a united Ireland is not an unreasonable one. It is the methods that are used that can cause concern and outrage.

    Its unlikely that any true mainstream republican movement will “actually” re-live the events of 99 years ago, but it would be completely consistent of them to spark a revolution of words and reawakening.

    They would in my view be failing as democratically signed up republicans if they did not try to orchestrate something and use the past significant events coupled with their anniversary to bring the non-resolved issues Ireland has, to the fore.

    Partition is still an open sore for many. The fact that FG hold power is another reason that many regard the current government as unfit to hold a 100 year anniversary celebration and therefore take responsibility for giving it, in their minds, true representation.

    If you have four legs, wag a tail and bark, then be a dog.

  • Turgon

    I have no time for militant Irish republicanism neither that of Adams nor that of Pearce but from a republican analysis the quote from Maccauley seems most apt “A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.”

    From a unionist perspective it is the ultimate stab in the back and demonstration of republican opportunism, murderousness and dishonesty.

    As such it is the central part of the foundation myth of the RoI and plays a significant place in the foundation of myth of NI (though with opposite analyses).

    Brain above suggesting that the Great War has little affect (sic) on current behaviour is also not at all accurate. The out workings of the Great War and before are all too obvious in former Yugoslavia, inform many in the Middle East’s analysis not just of the Arab Israeli conflict but also of the position of Turkey (the Armenian massacres).

  • Brian Walker

    Re the effect of WW1, I meant on British politics. It’s always possible to find roots if you look for them hard enough but the all-Ireland identification with different versions of the past take some beating. Unfinished business for nationalists and the threat of it for unionists and so forth. It becomes a neurosis which can partly be explained by circumstances if overindulged beyond the point of experience. It is surely self evident that the two traditions in clashing mode do not make for social well being. The foreign examples you quote make the point. But modern Ireland seems more at ease with itself as time goes on.. NI will take more time but only if its people want to. The basic conditions are more favourable than they were..

  • Brian Walker

    Try The tiger who came to tea and the rest of my happy granddaughter’s reading list..

  • Nevin

    “Official Ireland – the president, the taosieach, the diplomatic corps,- the works – turned up at Glasnevin cemetery for the full dress state event. The notable absentee was Sinn Fein”

    Martin McGuinness [44m], Gerry Adams [49m] and Mary Lou McDonald [49m] appear in the RTE footage of the State Commemoration. – [added] as well as in the BBC link at the top of the thread.

  • kensei

    I’d say that the annual poppy ritual demonstrates WW1 still impacts British political attitudes. Even if you were to accept that that is minor the shadow of Churchill still colours British politics. The welfare state as is also in part an outcome of the world wars. And that isn’t without digging very deeply.

    The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

  • Turgon

    It has been argued that the defying point of British foreign policy for the last 50 years has been and still is Suez.

  • Nevin

    ” the all-Ireland identification with different versions of the past take some beating … It is surely self evident that the two traditions in clashing mode do not make for social well being”

    Brian, your labeling is very confusing. It’s hardly surprising that all-Ireland groups should have a different version of the past whether they be Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein or dissident republicans. The commemoration of the Irish Civil War will be much more difficult for these groups than the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa or the 1916 Easter Rising. The various unionist groups aren’t part of the ‘all-Ireland’ brand so I don’t know what you mean by ‘two traditions in clashing mode’.

  • Séamus

    Holohan’s article was dissected by several respondents, including Dr Marie Coleman:

    “I hope that Mr Holohan will avail of this opportunity to educate himself on what actually happened, as no amount of wishful thinking will change the reality of these events or create a fantasy past that he and others would prefer to have been the outcome of the political upheaval experienced on this island 100 years ago.”

  • Brian Walker

    Seamus, well maybe. I don’t think she’s clinched her point. Holohan is referring to the actual passage of arms in 1916 which brought physical force into existence as a viable strategy, once operational lessons were learned.This is what he is entitled to regret even if he can be challenged over whether the Rising saw the opening shots in all all-Ireland civil war. He is not alone in thinking that Townshend plays with the idea.

    Moreover the Sinn Fein of a century ago were great at imagining the shape of a new state, to prod it towards existence before it actually happened. Imagining a counterfactual is not pointless, as it offers an alternative which actually existed but was not in the end followed. It does not deny the reality of what actually happened but allows us to resist a deterministic approach to history and the future alike, – i.e. the claim that a particular course of events was inevitable.

  • Brian Walker

    Oh alright Nevin.. sloppy of me but my main point remains. I should hire you as my proof reader..

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m afraid have to agree …. “The terrible reality of armed conflict in our country” ……. Given that republicans have to bear primary responsibility for both armed conflicts in our country during the 20th century perhaps the centenary celebrations in the year 2021 will provide Mr Adams with the opportunity to explain what what these two conflicts were about.

  • tmitch57

    “Memories will always remain fresh on this island whilst the core issues continue in their current unresolved state.”

    Funny, I thought the GFA/St. Andrew’s Agreement had resolved the issues by forcing the Republican Movement to recognize the reality of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

    “Partition is still an open sore for many.”

    And for many others a 25-year terrorist campaign to enforce a view of geography as destiny over the wishes of the majority is also an open sore.

    “If you have four legs, wag a tail and bark, then be a dog.”

    Far be it from me to argue if you insist on comparing republicans to dogs.

  • Davros64

    Clearly you don’t know much about Irish republicanism then…

    And an open sore doesn’t have to be resolved by violence, even if it is to appease a gerry mandered majority.

  • Davros64

    Given ‘the other side’ are still fixated by an event a mere 325 years ago, by that measure republicans are relatively progressive in comparison!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    An event of 325 years ago that is most inaccurately “remembered”. Sometimes I feel that such selective remembering by groups of people echoes the general process by which individuals develop neurotic responses to their personal past. The actual need is for full, clear and honest appraisal of our collective deep memory rather than its becoming suppressed, festering memory. More “real” analysed history, rather than simply “forget the past.”

  • John Collins

    Well Brian, as you well know, the Loyalists were the first people to bring in arms, including 20,000 rifles, in that period. Now they were hardly bringing in those to shoot grouse.
    As regards the 1916 Rising not achieving its aims, what war does? WW1 was fought ‘to end all wars’, WW2 was entered by GB because Poland was invaded, was Poland free at wars end?. The USA War of Independence was fought to achieve the principles of the French Revolution and with their assistance. I would think that the black population of America would feel that was achieved

  • Barneyt

    One of the things I try to do is put myself is someone elses position to help understand their thinking. The point I am making here is that there should be no surprise if Sinn Fein and other republicans take ownership, not only of 1916 (whether involved or not) and its 100 celebration. Hence, there should be no shock.

    Equally I would have expected the UVF to attach to WWI celebrations, even though as an organisation, they were not involved. Their members surely were, but the UVF as it was then was not.

    So, this is my point. Its not a shocker that SF might get involved and try to become custodians of the 2016 event. I would expect SF to bypass this as much as I would have expected the UVF in its current form to sail past the 2014 events.

    Its a “Do what it says on the tin” approach.

  • Barneyt

    I know quite a bit about republicanism, both domestically (in its skewed form) and internationally. I am not a pacifist. I look at the early 20th century very differently to the later part of that century. I believe we may have progressed more towards peace and an all-ireland solution had republicanism steered clear of violence or at least ensured it was a pure military campaign. It was not however, and I don’t endorse what the British authorities, IRA, UVF, collaborators did at all.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Really? Greece has just asked Germany, its EU and NATO ally for war repetitions.

    What you really want to happen is to deny that Easter 1916 happened, yet you’d probably be among the first to critize neutral Ireland for centuries of forgetting about World War 2.

    Did “denying Easter 1916” really stop any of the vices created in a new Northern Ireland state? Did people really think they could dream away militant Irish republicanism or loyalism simply by begging people to forget about history?

    Militant Irish republicanism had a lot more than 1916 to fall back upon.

    Ultimately at the heart of the letting go movement is a narcisstic need to vindicate one’s own personal version of history, even if it means ignoring newspapers, eyewitnesses and scientific evidence to do so.

    I’ve no issue with people praising or criticising 1916, but denying it for the sake of searching for eternal comfort is not going to work. Eventually people will nitpick the parts of history that they find uncomfortable until they realise that the real casual factor of the discomfort was their own desire for discomfort.

    If Easter 1916 was a meaningless event to someone, THEY could let go of it, without asking others to. So what motivates people to hold onto 1916 even when they want others to let go of it? Do they believe they can influence 1916 worshippers to give them a modern political problem to fixate upon?

    Surely the real question is why don’t you let go of 1916 and be the change you want to see?

    I don’t think of any situation where I need people to let go of their history or heritage to be able to work for them.

    I don’t need to go let go of 1916, I don’t think Irish republican violence simply came from a history book, and I don’t idee fixe on politically strawmen arguements about what Sinn Féin or PUP voters or politicians or anyone else think about their own histories

    When I, an Irish nationalist applied to do a job in Sandy Row, my first thought were not “see that William of Orange Mural that replaced the loyalist mural, that’s going to alienate me and I won’t be able to work in cloud computing project because you lot are intolerant of my more liberal attitudes”.

    No, I try to understand people from a different heritage because I’m liberal not despite the fact. My first thoughts were finally I can get a job opportunity and be close to my friends in Belfast, I hate unemployment. I’d be called a progressive relatively speaking but the truth is I really didn’t have to let go of anything, merely challenge my own stigmas and prejudices.

  • puffen

    It certainly set the seal, for subservience to the White House, and interference of Irish America in our affairs, still the demise of the dollar may change that.

  • Reader

    The USA war of Independence was before the French revolution, and was assisted by the French Monarchy.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah, but the Revisionists themselves have generated a school of revisionism of the Revisionist stance in its turn. And most of those who would be labeled revisionists are vociferous in claiming they the label is an inaccurate description of their work.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Easter Risers weren’t members of Griffith’s party, but if we are in the business of criticising the use of violence for political means then we need to ask why the Irish public martyred the risers and used their democratic rights to back the old Sinn Féin party, rather than ask why a “grubby rebellion” to use Jim Allister’s words came from some nowhere extraterrestrial fantasy dimension to upset so many Apple carts.

    Agitational politics was not just a republican thing

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Kevin for an excellent analysis of what the real problem is. People externalise their bias onto things without agency, such as history, in an effort to avoid facing what their selective memories may lead them to.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Easter Risers didn’t fight their fellow Irish in the Northern unionist population, they fought their fellow Irish in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Was it not Pearce who said he’d rather see a gun in the hand of an Orangeman than any Irishman unarmed? I’d prefer a more peaceful Ireland but sandwiched between two world wars, the world was saying “Might is Right” and political movements on all sides had paramilitary wings.

    And let’s be fair, Segregation of the faiths and traditions was not simply down to those who had guns.

    To blame Irish republican militancy on 1916 is not some novel new peace loving narrative, but historical reductionism. Historical recreationism seems to be touted as the only reason why Irish people were willing to kill for their self determination.

    Did James Connolly take up arms in 1916 simply to emulate or imitate the Fenians and Young Irelanders?

    Who’d think that historical revisionism about the Crusades and Spanish Inquisitions were the only way of tackling ISIS the Insane Socalled Islamic State?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I wouldn’t say that all unionists don’t have an “all-Ireland” brand just because they don’t want a unitary state.

    Many by choice would say they have an Irish identity, and some that could be argued was undermined by the Proclamation Republic, the Saorstat, and the Southern Irish/Irish Republic state. Others still might admire the republican ideals but still be a unionist.

    The use of Irish Republic rather than Ireland (official name) or Republic of Ireland certainly protests the rival claim of all-Ireland brand and a self determination of what the term Ireland means to them.

    Brand all-Ireland could mean a cultural nation or a love of the island rather than a buy in to the political ideas around separation or national independence in the manner it’s been carried out.

    I would be sure that for example Trevor Ringland sees an all-Ireland brand he’d identify with, as well as Northern Irish brands, British brands and dare I say it British Isles/Home nations brands as well.

    This effectively was what the three stranded arrangement in the GFA were all about.

  • Nevin

    Thanks, Kevin, I may have added to the confusion by using Brian’s labelling! Constitutionally, nationalist parties identify with the island of Ireland whereas unionist parties identify with the United Kingdom. There are indeed varieties of Irishness and Britishness as well as combinations of the two.

  • Barneyt

    Then you have the difference between nationalist and republican. Lets not forget republicanism in Ireland was first incubated in England. I think we should use multiple terms British Nationalist, Irish Nationalist, Irish Republican and Unionist…..but what about poor old British republicans – I expect they are hidden or at least very quiet breed.

  • Virginia

    “freedom of the Irish people,” to choose the United Kingdom. Thank you 😉

  • Gingray

    The Irish people choose to be free of the UK – this democratic choice was ignored to partition the island, and only deliver a free state to the south.

  • John Collins

    Yes but it did lead to a republic none the less, when most European countries had monarchs and it was probably a very bad move on the part of the French Royalty to support it, as it could be said it did actually inspire, at least to some extent, the French Revolution. I take your very salient point but of course those who started the FR could not have envisaged the slaughter that took place in France in the later years of the Eighteenth Century.

  • John Collins

    We entered the UK due to a vote of MPs in 1801, dubiously achieved I might add. So we had the right to vote ourselves in and the right to vote ourselves out.

  • John Collins

    Am I right to say the Suez Crisis took place in 1956 so maybe you mean almost sixty years , and not the last fifty