Towards a Unionist Rememberance of the 1916 Insurrection

Reading David McCann making the case at the beginning of this year for unionists not to shut out the event commonly known as the Easter rising (although equally thought provoking is Gladys Ganiel’s take on the religious spin involved in such nomenclature), what strikes me here is we have an attack, during the Great War, that while successfully repelled on our home soil changed attitudes irrevocably and touched many lives on both sides.

It is only right that fellow unionists acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice on the part of both ordinary Dubliners and professional security forces in ensuring this localised rebellion did not become something more serious in a global war that might still have went either way.

While there is a necessity in unionist participation it is also I believe too casual to promote ‘Easter Rising|The Somme’ as either side of this year’s commemorative coin. It is a common trait in Irish republican rhetoric to melt concepts down into a simplistic analysis that demands a certain superficial level of equality. This naturally suits the narrative advocated by themselves.

Thus we read David warning of a ‘hierarchy of commemorations’ similar to the ‘hierarchy of victims’ and might even be extended to a ‘hierarchy of football teams’ as some complained about last week.

These do not stand up to reality; there is still nothing concrete planned for the Republic’s football team in their own capital city nevermind what BCC is expecting up here despite the apparent clamour, the less said about treating self-described ‘combatants’ as victims the better and we run into similar problems when attempting to splice together a relatively small 6 day disturbance involving a thousand or so separatist rebels and a huge battle in a series of huge battles involving hundreds of thousands of men from all corners of the world against a common foe.

In a way the DUP’s Nigel Kells with his topline on this is correct – the two are ultimately incomparable in both scale and setting; it risks swapping historical accuracy for political fantasy (or journalistic expediency). But it does not follow that we should therefore ignore one completely in favour of the other. To do so would be historical luddism and a disservice to those who fell defending our realm on home turf.

On one level there is the idea that in the absence of unionist input Irish nationalists – of whatever shade – are given free rein to define how the event is remembered. In the Irish Republic, tricolours and proclamations have already made their way into schools, delivered by the hand of an Irish Defence Force soldier.

Take a second to imagine the notion of a similar action here during the centenary year of the UVF. It’s still a struggle for historians to adequately define the meaning of various aspects of Irish history – not least something as complicated as the 1916 period – so god knows what a 5 year old kid is meant to make of it. But by placing it front and centre in their primary schools, the southern state has largely made up their mind for them.

On an historical level, the attack is important as it is the scene for likely the only pitched battle between Irish loyalist volunteer militia and Republicans during the 3rd Home Rule bill period.

The old Loyal Dublin Volunteers, setup with the express purpose of civil defence in the event of Home Rule being passed had come and gone with the advent of WWI. The LDV dispersed variously into the pals battalions, whether in Dublin or northwards to the 36th though many of those who were unable to serve at the front joined a little known organisation calling themselves the Irish Volunteer Training Corps.

This outfit was modelled on the VTCs raised in the mainland rather than against any specific political threat, though like the LDV before it was a purely civilian invention having never received formal recognition by the War Office.

Here then was another Irish volunteer militia raised for the Imperial interest. 120 men of this Irish VTC seen action against the rebels in and around Beggar’s Bush Barracks with 5 killed – including the president of the IRFU – and 7 wounded.

One kilometre to the north west of these volunteers, the cadets of the Dublin University Officer Training Corps set about the defence of Trinity College. Occupying sniper positions at the front of the college they are surely the only officer training corps who seen action in the United Kingdom defending their own university.

On the subject of the key protagonists themselves, the UUP’s Jeff Dudgeon has already written extensively on one, Roger Casement, including touching on his important failure to raise an army destined for Ireland from Irish POW’s captured by the Germans. Casement sought a brigade to foment rebellion. 50 Irish troops were convinced to join him further underlining the complete lack of mandate which the rebellion had in the eyes of the Irish people at the time.

As an aside, reading a learned Ulster Unionist review works on Irish Republicans delivers a fascinating insight into the deeply polarising nature of Irish history (even by the standards of historians!). None of this is something to be taken lightly, and perhaps means an attempt at populist commemoration in anything like what the Republic’s government are engaging in is doomed to failure from the start. However it is an election year after all…

To conclude then the bravery of both the Dublin volunteers and the security forces who repelled the insurgent force is the real comparison for unionists when looking at the domestic situation in 1916 Ireland. In helping to protect what might be characterised as the Imperial achilles heel at the time, the unquestioning devotion of this segment of a civilian population in defending their way of life deserves recognition.

If for no other reason than the benefit of the 5 year old kid whose Great Great Grandparent happened not to fight for a rebel proclamation, but instead did so from inside the barracks at Beggar’s Bush and the halls of Trinity College in defence of the United Kingdom.

Low churchman and unreformed culchie living, working in leafy south Belfast.