Saturday 22 October 2016

Eve of an election, edge of the 1916 centenary

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

We are on the eve of a General Election and halfway through the first month of the 1916 centenary. Do we have special hopes for this special year 2016?

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My hunch is that our hopes are mostly personal: loving, being loved, making a living, birth and death.

But we are not blind to the public sphere. Indeed I detect a tension in the body politic, as if we were troops waiting to go over the top.

We need not worry too much about the result of the General Election. The Coalition is buying it.

Most of the promises will have to be broken. Those that are kept will have to be paid for by the public after the posters are taken down.

Barack Obama's patchy record in office should cause Irish politicians to reflect on the limitations of politics - and politicians.

Rather than roaring about its record, it behoves the Coalition to go before the people with what the Book of Common Prayer calls a "humble and contrite heart".

Obama is not naturally humble. History has thrust humility on him.

Last week, in his final State of the Union speech, he said his biggest failure was not creating some common purpose between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Even so, he let himself off too lightly, as his references to his heroes, Lincoln and Roosevelt, reminded us.

Lincoln and Roosevelt were legends because, with great reluctance and then with equal resolution, they faced the fact that slavers and fascists have to be fought to a finish.

Obama did not face up to the slavers and fascists of the Middle East.

He was spinning about Congress being his biggest failure.

His real failure was his precipitate withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2009, just as the sacrifice of American troops had succeeded in stabilising the Iraq body politic.

This premature withdrawal, prompted by Obama's passion for popularity with liberals like himself, fatally weakened the Iraqi government and left the door open for Isil's deadly campaign.

Enda Kenny should take note: without a willingness to take hard decisions all political careers end not so much in failure as in a kind of emptiness.

Let's now look at the 2016 centenary. Even if the General Election will be more of the same, can we hope that the long 12 months of commemoration will leave a more benign legacy behind than past commemorations of 1916?

Right now, at the start of 2016, we may be a bit too close to events, too subjectively involved.

But even now we can already see the chief actors in action.

The State is the first of three actors dominating public discourse on 1916. And so far it has adopted a commendably calm but firm approach.

By giving the Defence Forces a central role, as I recommended last January, the State has stopped Sinn Fein turning it into party propaganda.

Here Minister Heather Humphreys deserves more credit than many in the media have given her so far.

They miss how adroitly she has deployed her own border Protestant heritage to defend a real republican and pluralist approach.

That said, the dignified State roll call at Dublin Castle should have included the names of all victims, even if it meant multi- voiced readings - which would have carried their own sonorous power.

Second, civil society has begun the badly needed debate on 1916. In recent weeks, Patsy McGarry, Professor Liam Kennedy and Seamus Murphy SJ have robustly rejected the right of Pearse & Co to speak for the Irish people.

McGarry stressed the sectarian aspect of the Rising, particularly Pearse's propagandist use of Easter and his hijacking of the Roman Catholic Easter rite of blood sacrifice and redemption.

Liam Kennedy parsed the Proclamation in the Sunday Independent and found it full of political and moral holes, particularly its arrogant assumption of the right to speak for the majority of Irish people without consulting them.

Seamus Murphy SJ pointed out that Pearse & Co had destroyed the Irish Parliamentary Party, just as the Provos had destroyed the SDLP, and that both had done more damage to Irish democracy than to the British.

But Professor Diarmaid Ferriter is a doughty fighter. He rejected some of these revisionist charges, using a more nuanced narrative.

Ferriter probably speaks for the majority of people who feel that 1916 was the legitimate founding act of the State and should be honoured without further fuss.

But a substantial minority is now willing to publicly dissent from the dominant nationalist narrative, and this can only be good for Irish democracy.

But the biggest impact on popular imagination is likely to be left by the RTE series Rebellion, which, with some reservations, I believe to be a resounding success.

Colin Teevan, the screenwriter, has done a decent job with difficult material. Here I speak from experience.

Over the past 30 years I have written numerous screenplays on four major figures of the Rising and War of Independence: James Connolly, Countess Markievicz, Erskine Childers and Michael Collins.

Niall Jordan's Michael Collins removed the market for most. But I still revise them every few years for my own purposes.

Looking over them recently I was struck by how each successive script is darker than its predecessor.

So while the Constance Markievicz of my screenplay, A Terrible Beauty (1977), is a cheerful romantic creature, she features in my Michael Collins screenplay (2010) as a hard-faced fanatic.

Given that body of work, I would have to be a saint not to be a bit begrudging of Colin Teevan.

However, knowing how huge the canvas is he must cope with, I am full of admiration for his work.

Apart from some reservations by John Boland, most critics (Laurence Mackin, Declan Lynch and Liam Fay) have given Rebellion good reviews.

But I agree with John Boland's problems with authenticity.

He rightly wonders if polite young women in 1916 used f**k as freely as they do in Rebellion.

My own biggest complaint is Camille O'Sullivan's abysmal Dublin accent when playing Constance Markievicz.

Constance was a Gore- Booth and spoke with an Anglo-Irish bark perfectly suited to her cry of 'Tally Ho' which opens my Michael Collins screenplay.

Like other reviewers, I admire Teevan's brave decision to put women in the driving seat, or at least in the shooting seat.

Finally, 2016 will leave many books behind. But the 1916 book most likely to leave an indelible impression on the public mind, and for the better, is Joe Duffy's Children of the Rising.

If we are wise we will make it a standard school text book on the Rising, a constant reminder to cherish the children of the nation. Equally.

Sunday Independent

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