Tuesday 27 September 2016

A band of amateurs, poets and romantics. We owe them so much

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

James Connolly
James Connolly

One thing we do know is that there were never so many dying to die. Today, 100 years on, hundreds of thousands of the citizens of the country the revolutionaries died and helped found pay homage to the fallen.

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All around us, the debate rages.

Were those who died for Ireland in 1916 a bunch of hapless lunatics and romantics who were certain that whatever did they did God was on their side?

Or were the executed a band of brave men who loved their country and foresaw that the giving up of their lives was the only way to free Ireland? These are the questions that have come up time and again.

Yes, there was religion involved and it must have been some consolation to those who lost their lives that there was a bed in heaven awaiting them.

To compare those who were executed or killed in action to the murderous fanatics who blew up innocent people in Brussels last week is grossly unfair but there was a sense among those who took part that their quest would end in death. There's a difference between the devout and the fanatic. The 1916 fight was up-front and brave. No one can question the courage of the men who died and the women who fought alongside. They fought fair. For the most part. There are no black and whites anywhere in this story or in any other story from the backtracks of history.

The O'Rahilly - who was always a personal hero of mine - dressed up in a specially tailored and somewhat stylish uniform. He was against the rising not so much on any conscientious grounds but because of the timing and the lack of organisation. But he showed up.

The O'Rahilly, who was married with children, charged a British machine gun post and died on a street in Dublin. He knew the organisation of the rising was a shambles. But he was still there to support his comrades, even though he knew he faced certain death. According to Yeats, his words were: "Because I helped to wind the clock, I come to hear it strike."

And who could not but admire the courage of James Connolly, who died strapped to his chair? Or weep at the love letters of Joseph Mary Plunkett?

Good men they were, but not perfect men. There was a terrible exploitation of children by the rebels. Schoolkids were being trained for war. They were far too young to make up their own minds. This deliberate targeting of children was a form of abuse. There's no other way of looking at it. Flawed heroes? Yes. There's a difference between child soldiers and toy soldiers. Until the days after the executions, the rebels didn't even have a majority even within the rebels. Most of the rebel forces didn't want an open battle. There was total confusion on the day. If mobile phones were around in 1916, the rising would probably not have taken place.

The truth is, 1916 was an amateur day out organised, for the most part, by poets and romantics.

Innocent civilians lost their lives and the British didn't have a monopoly on atrocity.

Red is usually given as the colour of revolution but most conflicts are grey. The rebels' cause, though, was a just one. We were an invaded country. Taken over by a foreign power who used and abused us for nearly 800 years.

There are many who say we would have won independence anyway when the war was over. I disagree. Look at Scotland. In the end, they voted to stay within the union. But that vote took place in 2015 - a long way from 1916. There would have been some compromises from the British if the rising had not taken place but we would have been a spancelled nation, unable to force our own march to self-determination.

And there were the unionists. And still there are the unionists. What were we going to do with them? The facts are that until relatively recent times, the British buttressed a sectarian state in the North of Ireland. We didn't even have 'one man, one vote'. And you're telling me they would have given us our freedom voluntarily and quickly?

Sir John Maxwell, who ordered the executions of our patriots, is often described as the accidental father of Irish freedom. The current British view , and again we speak in generalities, is that Maxwell was a maverick who had people shot without the permission of Lord Asquith, the prime minister. This recent spin and propaganda is no more than a one hundred year-old cover-up.

Asquith and his government knew well what was going on. Asquith came to Ireland and stopped the executions but by then all of the signatories to the proclamation had been shot anyway.

I welcome the friendly relations between Ireland and Britain. They are a testimony to the peace process, the courage and foresight of the politicians involved and the people of both nations that we all get on so well together. It is my belief then that we would not have achieved the formation of 26 counties without the fighting in 1916.

So, did the patriots die in vain? No. Britain is no longer a colonial power and by and large is well disposed towards us as a people and a nation.

So by now we would have had our present status quo but we would have been kept waiting and waiting. Many people who are alive today would not have grown up in the free and independent state that is The Republic of Ireland but for the Rising of 1916.

The deaths of the patriots brought home to the defeated and subjugated Irish people that we were worthy of our freedom. What seems to have been forgotten is that 1916 was only 70 years after the famine. The memories of genocide were dormant until 1916. And those who fought and died made Ireland a nation once again. So today we praise the fallen who marched us on the pathway to freedom.

For me, it was the bravery of the way they died, more than their living, that entitles the lost leaders to the commemorative honours of the nation they helped found on this Easter Monday of 2016.

Irish Independent

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