1916 Legacy: Ireland paved the way for small nations

As we approach Easter weekend and the major commemorative gatherings across Ireland that have been organised to remember the events of 100 years ago, there continues to be many television programmes and newspaper column inches dedicated to the topic, reflecting the keen interest in the issue across the country and beyond. One particular programme that’s caught my eye has been the Insurrection mini-series being rerun by RTE, featuring one of Ireland’s greatest actors, Ray McAnally. Originally broadcast in 1966, it set out to portray how the events of the week would have been presented had television existed at the time.

Of course, there are many contrasting interpretations of the events of Easter 1916, and some of those have been outlined on Slugger in the past few days (here and here.)

In The Irish News yesterday, Brian Feeney was in sparkling form, confronting what he termed “The Easter Rising tide of historical nonsense”:

There’s a lot of balderdash talked in the last couple of weeks about the Easter Rising being ‘undemocratic’. So it was as people today view democracy.

However that doesn’t mean the existing government in Ireland was democratic. It wasn’t, not in our terms today, that is.

It is utterly ridiculous and a childish, unhistorical cardinal error to project the values of the twenty-first century backwards onto the early years of the nineteenth century.

In Ireland in 1916 women didn’t have the vote and they, as always, were the majority of the population.

A lot of men didn’t have the vote either. It’s no good saying, ‘ah but people in 1916 thought they were living in a democracy’. No they didn’t.

The suffragettes who were protesting and campaigning didn’t. Republicans didn’t. Furthermore the nationalists who’d been denied Home Rule by a seditious conspiracy led by the Conservative party using Ulster Unionists as their armed wing felt it necessary to arm in turn to try to insist on the authority of the British parliament being enforced. Fat chance.

Ronan Fanning, Emeritus Professor of History at UCD has demonstrated conclusively in his recent books, especially Fatal Path, that there was no prospect of Britain granting Irish independence before, and certainly not after, the First World War.

The Rising set the train in motion because the British responded as they always did when ‘a mutiny resulted’ because they ‘knew the native mind’ and had the Maxim gun.

Curiously, people who condemn the Rising as ‘undemocratic’ never explain where Britain gained its democratic mandate to govern Ireland. Surely not the Act of Union?

Curiously they never condemn the American War of Independence strongly objected to by American loyalists. As Fanning asked, did the American bicentenary in 1976 conceal the revolt against the British or did the French bicentenary in 1989 deny the bloodshed of the French Revolution? That’s the way it was in days of empire.

For my part, I had an article in today’s Belfast Telegraph examining the significance of 1916 in an Irish and international context, some of which I have pasted below.

One of the most significant legacies of the Irish revolution was how it inspired other struggles worldwide and also led to the demise of the age of empire.

The struggle of the Irish rebels was a genuine one in defence of a small nation at a time when those who governed empires were cynically using the slogan of fighting to defend small nations as a cloak to wage war in pursuit of their imperial interests (the treatment meted out at Amritsar in 1919 and in Iraq in 1920 betrayed the cruel lie behind the rhetoric which helped motivate many to make the fateful decision to enrol and perish at the Somme and in other battlefields).

Edward Said noted that the Irish struggle triggered by 1916 was to become a “model of 20th century wars of liberation”. The significance of an oppressed European nation rising up against an imperial power was noted by Lenin and inspired others including Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh.

Today, the Rising allows Irish people to reflect upon the history of the independent Irish State, how it has developed and evolved, including when set against the vision and expectations of those who devised the Proclamation and who died in 1916.

In this Irish people are doing nothing different to what the French do on Bastille Day and the Americans on the Fourth of July each year.

But as well as being the pivotal moment giving rise to the foundation of the southern State, the Rising also serves to remind northern nationalists of our place in the Irish nation: the Republic proclaimed in Easter 1916 was one of 32 counties, not 26.

In that sense commemorating the Rising serves to reassure northern nationalists of the validity of our aspiration and place within the Ireland of 2016, with the Good Friday Agreement providing a framework to pursue constitutional change.

In Northern Ireland we are grappling with the reality of competing narratives over our history. It is entirely wrong to suggest that nationalists and republicans are involved in “rewriting history”, as such a charge erroneously implies that a uniform interpretation of history was ever agreed and is now being rewritten.

In truth, what we are seeing today is that a shared and increasingly equal Northern Irish society has allowed for the articulation of a non-unionist narrative in the public space in a manner that simply was not previously possible. This is a good thing for Northern Irish society.

The Rising struck a blow against the idea of empire and imperialism, beginning a pattern repeated across the British Empire as the 20th century progressed.

Ireland paved the way for small nations 100 years ago – and for that we should be rightly proud.

Read the whole thing here.