How Pearse, Clarke and Co wrote wrongs into Ireland's history
Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30
Easter 1916 represented a lurch to the right in Irish politics. It visited much suffering on subsequent generations of the Irish people. Though not quite jihad, it was a holy disaster. The Proclamation itself, which announced the re-birth of Ireland, is replete with contradictions, evasions and silences. In its many delusions are to be found the seeds of political, communal and sectarian strife in 20th century Irish society. Ireland may be a land of heroes, from Cúchulainn to Pearse and Connolly, but it is worth pondering the words of the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht: "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes."
For generations of republican militarists, as distinct from the democratic republicans who form the bulk of the Irish people, the Easter Proclamation served to legitimise a resort to arms. The major example of this was the quarter-century Provisional IRA 'war', but the various dissident IRAs of today are part of the same tradition. But surely the Proclamation is a sacred document to which all must give allegiance? I was first introduced to it in my two-teacher national school in Tipperary many years ago and certainly thought so for much of my life. My problem was I hadn't taken the trouble to read the text carefully.
Take one of the Proclamation's opening passages: "Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army … she strikes in full confidence of victory."
"She", of course, is Ireland, feminised for emotional effect. But the IRB did not authorise the rebellion. The Irish Volunteers did not authorise the rebellion. And the ICA was only a tiny force within the nationalist and labour movements. Tom Clarke and Patrick Pearse effectively hoodwinked the two major bodies and catapulted some of the members into armed rebellion.
The Proclamation skirts over the awkward facts that the Rising violated the IRB's own constitution and did not have the support of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers. The people of inner-city Dublin, no more than the people of Ireland, were not even consulted, though Dublin civilians would soon find themselves caught in the crossfire, suffering heavier casualties than the insurgents.
A rebellion without a popular mandate, once sacralised in terms of faith and fatherland, became a convenient precedent for later armed factions who knew better than the common people.
A part of the text that has received little critical attention illustrates the arrogance and sense of entitlement that characterised the leaders of 1916: "The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman."
So, every inhabitant of the island of Ireland was now conscripted into a militant Irish nation, without so much as a by your leave. Ironically, after the Rising, Sinn Fein made huge political capital out of objecting to the extension of conscription to Ireland.
An implication, which gradually dawned, is that those who refused such allegiance could be seen as traitors to the Republic. There is the making of assassination and civil war in these words. Not many years later, republican ideologues would parse and execute the meanings attaching to 'allegiance', 'Republic' and the legacy of Easter 1916. Henceforth, politically- motivated killing in Ireland would have God and Easter 1916 on its side.
The banner "We serve neither King nor Kaiser" stretched across the front of Liberty Hall. Yet the Proclamation to which James Connolly gave his signature spoke of "our gallant allies" in Europe. That these "gallant allies" had committed a series of atrocities in their occupation of Belgium and that the Balkans and Anatolia were theatres for civilian massacre seem not to have weighed heavily on the leaders. There is little doubt about the savagery of German repression against civilians, right at the beginning of the war. Had German troops invaded Ireland, as the 1916 leaders intended… it is not a pleasant thought.
The elephant in the room is the lack of any real attention to the quarter of the population of the island that was Irish unionist. The poverty of understanding of Irish and Ulster unionism is betrayed in the simple-minded formula of "differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which has divided a minority from the majority in the past".
The problem of unionism was more complicated and far more deeply entrenched than that. The wishful thinking of the insurgents - that is, those who bothered to think about the question of ethnic division - helped make the partition of the island all the more likely.
Much more could be said, but it is worth dwelling on the moment of doubt at the very end of the Proclamation: "In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called."
But maybe the people might not prove themselves worthy, as so often in the past? The subtext may be the abortive risings of 1803, 1848 and 1867 when the people just weren't prepared to turn up on the day, rather like a fancied hurling team in Croke Park on All-Ireland day. That's the people for you. They may not be into the business of sacrificing themselves for the dreams or eccentricities of others.
One thing is certain. The jingoistic sentiment of the time, emanating from Europe but well represented in Easter 1916, and the subsequent privileging of the 'gun, the drum and the flag' above social concerns and individual liberties effectively crowded out other political and class-based concerns.
Liam Kennedy is Professor of History, Queen's University, Belfast. This article is based on his book, 'Unhappy The Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, The Irish?' (Merrion Press, Dublin, 2015).