1916 is still worth a fret or two

I’ve just finished reading my latest foray into an absorbing subject, Ruth Dudley Edwards’s magnificent The Seven, her biographical account of the main leaders of the Easter Rising, guardedly but critically reviewed by the  historian and Irish Times columnist Diarmaid Ferriter here. While Ruth may be dismissed by some as the arch revisionist, no reader can deny her command of  biographical  detail ( much of it her own research, some of it owing to many others who have written about the Rising) and  her success in capturing the appeal of the cause whether you’re susceptible to it or not.

She contributed an article based on the book to this week’s Sunday Times in which she plunges into contemporary lessons. She  also took part in a discussion on the Rising on BBC Radio 4’as Start the Week last Monday with Fintan O’Toole .The panel agreed that at the time, – and looking back  today- only 15 executions seemed a restrained response from the British point of view at  the height of WW1. (On the other hand, someone pointed out  that Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was sentenced to life and died in prison).  But to the Catholic nationalist sensibility of the time, martyrs were bound  to be created – and the wound- be  martyrs knew it and planned for it.

Clarke, Pearse, Connolly and the others were a varied bunch with a range of visions that more or less coalesced  in the climax of the Rising. They were all fanatics of a kind,  dogmatic oddballs for the most part, but not fanatic about everything and certainly not monsters.  Only Clarke, the main moving force and the arch conspirator might be called a terrorist. He was caught in 1883 the during the London Fenian dynamite campaign which claimed only the lives of perpetrators and spend 18 years in prison. All of them put on uniforms and got themselves shot, knowing that  the uniform would not win them recognition as surrendered belligerents and prisoners of war.  In a sense then they had a better case than the contemporary IRA hunger strikers.

The vision of the prelapsarian  Romantic Ireland all of them even the  Marxist Connolly fell in love with seems  cloying to even irreconcilables today, as outmoded as ideals of Empire on the other side.   It has an innocence about it which is so  utterly absent  today. And yet the allure of the “ terrible beauty” remains.

The lessons for today? Ruth is unsparing along lines familar in Slugger :

At present Sinn Fein is waging a propaganda war to have some of its best-known heroes, including the hunger strikers who killed themselves in 1981, most notably Bobby Sands, put on the same pedestal as the seven signatories. Former leaders of the Provisional IRA routinely condemn violence committed since then by various other IRAs (the Continuity, Real and now the New IRA), but as one of those keeping the flame alive said of the Provisionals to a journalist: “If we are wrong now, then they were wrong for all them years: and if we are right now then they are wrong.”

In logic the same applies to the men of 1916. If they were right to start a revolution because they wanted to, why can their successors as men of violence not expect to see the same legitimacy conferred on them?

Was force necessary achieve independence? Among senior politicians only John Bruton says not. Historians like Ronan Fanning and John D Murphy disagree with him and Ruth Dudley Edwards.  Murphy like the good historian he is, warns of the pitfalls of placing  the past at the service of a political present  in the official commemoration.

… the role of Oglaigh na hEireann in these ceremonies and in distributing flags and proclamation copies to schools, is quite properly being used to point up the legitimacy of this Republic, something about which Sinn Fein is noticeably ambivalent. In all of this, it should be recognised that local communities are enthusiastically in favour of centenary celebrations in their areas and that they are not unduly concerned about the warts of their native sons. Finally, it would appear that the government, supported by historians, has shrugged off John Bruton’s fallacious historical speculation: there is no evidence that Home Rule would have led peacefully to national independence. The imperial government was determined to preserve the integrity of the United Kingdom at all costs, and was physically forced to alter its mindset only by the militant nationalist resurgence from 1916 onwards.

All states need their foundation myths which almost by definition involve distortion. Who  today can believe that Britannia  rules the waves, or cares  today about those Marseilles marchers who quickly vanished from the historical record, or the dawns’s early light one day in 1812? But I wonder about Murphy’s  dogmatic assertion. Leave aside that forming the first Dail in January 1919 and launching the independence war  guaranteed the fact of partition. How could even a  feeble Home Rule southern Irish parliament have been denied more powers, if the  people had voted for them?


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London