It's about more than Grandpa's courage
Commemorating the bravery of the past shouldn't require us to ignore reality, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 10/08/2014 | 00:00
Here's a rule of thumb: we take from history that which makes us feel good about ourselves today. And, of course, we ignore those parts of history that don't quite fit the picture we like to paint of who we are.
The current commemoration of World War I, and this country's part in it, lives up to that rule. Some of us feel uneasy at the sentimentality. I'm tired of hearing people speak in awed tones of their relations who fought in the trenches; and in hurt tones of how those relatives came home to a country that didn't greet them as heroes.
Sometimes it's said openly, always it's at least implied - that that nation was instead celebrating what was, in terms of blood and sacrifice, a piddling little Easter rebellion.
After which comes the chorus claiming that the rebellion wasn't even necessary.
(By the way, and not that it gives me the slightest insight or credibility in discussing these matters, both my grandfathers were in the British army in 1916 - one of them up to his neck in muck and bullets.)
Some of us feel that maybe it should be possible to remember those who fought in that disgusting war without sneakily putting down those who fought in the GPO.
And vice versa.
Otherwise, how do we remember and respect the likes of, for instance, John McQuaid? Or Vincent Poole?
We are invited to feel guilty that the heroes of the trenches were not treated as such. The answer is simple. We take from history, even recent history - particularly recent history - that which makes us feel good about ourselves today.
And we wanted, in the Twenties and Thirties, to feel good about our infant state, to feel proud of those who sacrificed so much. And the guys coming home from Mons and Ypres, they didn't fit the picture.
And in the Seventies and Eighties, when the Provos were exploding bombs in restaurants and markets, we sought to distance ourselves from all that, and for some that meant distancing themselves from all republican violence, including 1916. In order to paint a picture of what we were really like, our historians had to reconfigure our understanding of the past.
And things shifted. It turns out that 1916 wasn't so much a courageous stand against an empire - it was, well, according to some historians, some sort of psychosexual working out of issues in the kinkier recesses of Paddy Pearse's mind.
From there, the argument went, well - wasn't 1916 a bit of a waste, altogether? Blood sacrifice and all that? Sure, wasn't Home Rule coming in, anyway, fingers crossed? And, sure, wasn't that as good as it was going to get, really?
And from there to - aha, my grandpa got trenchfoot, and I'm so proud of him. And it's a shame that he wasn't treated as a hero. Unlike the ignorant scuts in the GPO, who were too stupid to know that they could have had Home Rule, which was every bit as good as what they achieved.
The selection of things from the past that we want to remember not only involves downplaying that which doesn't fit the picture, it requires a softening of reality.
Thus, World War I isn't presented as what it was, a massive, inexcusable waste of 16 million dead, 20 million more wounded.
And 27,000 of them Irishmen who went to their deaths encouraged to enlist by Irish politicians on the basis that not defending the empire would be "a disgrace forever to our country" and a "reproach to her manhood".
It was never about the freedom of small nations. Or big ones. It wasn't about democracy. It didn't achieve anything. Nothing at all.
So, it's presented today in terms of My Grandpa's Courage.
In reality, World War I was about dipping into the massive pool of wasted humanity created by economic and political inequality, and plucking out cheap cannon fodder to throw at the guns of the enemy.
It was a war of empires, a war to preserve alliances and dominion over markets, a war of waste.
In the midst of any war there is sacrifice, camaraderie and courage - even in a war of empires - and that should be acknowledged.
But it's not about the personal qualities of the individuals who ended up in the trenches. It's about the politics of war.
And it's part of the politics of war that we sentimentalise the bloodshed and create stories about yesterday that emphasise personal courage, and gloss over the obscenities.
By the way - was the Home Rule on offer as good as anything achieved by violence? Here's Alfred Norway, Secretary of the General Post Office - the British civil servant whose office the rebels occupied in 1916.
A decent man who described himself as "a liberal of the imperialist school", who wished "the maintenance of British control". What did he think of Home Rule?
"It proposed the creation of a purely subordinate legislature in Dublin, subject in all respects to the ultimate control of Parliament at Westminster, which could not only review all acts of the Irish Government, but could, if it thought right, reverse them."
Alfie approved of this: "I did not see real danger to the welfare of the British empire in the concession of Home Rule of the type proposed."
Another rule of thumb: history is complex. It's not neat.
Take George Plunkett - the guy who on Easter Monday stood in Sackville Street and roared "Charge!" and led the Volunteers into the GPO.
Four days later, Plunkett's taking shelter in a grocery shop in Moore Street, bullets flying, the insurrection barely alive.
And there's a British soldier out on the street, crying for help. And Plunkett takes someone's water bottle and goes out and gives the man a drink - the British machine gun at the end of the street still chattering.
And Plunkett lifts up the British soldier and carries him to safety, and the Cumann na mBan nurses treat his wounds.
And Plunkett goes back out into the firing line, to get the soldier's rifle. Because the fight's not over yet and good guns are hard to come by, and he's still in the business of trying to shoot that soldier's comrades.
Courage and reality.
Who were John McQuaid and Vincent Poole?
Sergeant John McQuaid was a pivotal part of the mobilising mechanism of F Company 2nd Battalion, Irish Volunteers. He got the men out on Easter Monday. Then he went into the GPO and fought to get rid of the empire. And a few months later, "owing to difficulties at home", he had to join the British army and go fight for that empire.
He wasn't a traitor, he wasn't a fool, he was a man bobbing about on the current of history. His comrades knew he did what he had to do.
Years later, aware of his service to the empire, the leader of F Company, Frank Henderson, deemed McQuaid "a splendid Volunteer".
Some of us have been around too long to have heroes, but if I had a hero in these matters it would be an obstreperous little man named Vincent Poole.
Vincent fought at an outpost of the GPO garrison. He was an excellent shot, and along with Harry Boland and Tom Leahy he held off an attack by superior forces.
The reason he was an excellent shot was that he was ex-British army. He came home from the Boer war and the best the empire could offer its hero was a job in the sewers of Dublin.
Noble work, but they paid him just a pound a week.
After he'd finished helping to found this state of ours, in 1916 and in the War of Independence, the best it could offer Vincent Poole was his old job in the sewers. On the lousy wages they paid for such indispensable work.
Some thrived in the new state. And when they were looking after the old age of those who fought an empire, they gave Vincent a 1916 veteran's pension of £24.
We should acknowledge courage, certainly - and that includes the courage of those of our grandfathers who went into the trenches; and those who went into the GPO.
And, in the case of John McQuaid - both.
But not at the cost of ignoring reality.