Thursday 29 September 2016

In 1966, we did not understand. Now, we can handle the truth of the Rising

The 1916 celebrations this time around demand something more nuanced than history as pageant; it's time to insist on being treated as adults who can cope with the facts

Fergal Keane

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

Soldiers inspect the interior of Dublin's General Post Office, viewing the complete destruction of the building after being shelled by the British during the Easter Rising 1916 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Soldiers inspect the interior of Dublin's General Post Office, viewing the complete destruction of the building after being shelled by the British during the Easter Rising 1916 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I have only the sketchiest memories but marching men are there, soldiers of the Republic on O'Connell Street on a spring day in 1966. I was five years old and the son of a devout romantic. My father brought me into town to view the parade. He was a gifted storyteller and his stories brought the dead of the Rising back to life. Dev came to our school, a titan shuffling towards immortality, but without the hero glow of the executed and the assassinated.

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I was a child of the cult of Pearse. I worshipped our heroes as I imagine English children were taught to see the glory of the lost of the Somme.

It was easier then, three years before the North erupted. Paisley was a vague noise, discordant and menacing, the powerful militarist cult of the Provos unimagined and unimaginable; a Catholic barman was among three people murdered by a re-emergent UVF. Leading UVF figures would later say the group's revival was in part motivated by the rise in nationalist spirit around the 50th anniversary of 1916.

As alibis for murder went, it set the tone for much of what followed from the self-appointed executioners on both sides: if you killed, it was never your fault. Nor were they minded to reflect on how the 1916 rebels had been inspired by the training and arming of the original UVF, to the cheerleading of constitutional politicians like the Tory leader, Bonar Law.

As the dead of the Troubles multiplied, the legacy of 1916 was funnelled into a reductive debate about whether it justified the violence of the Provos. We heard and read much of how history poisoned the present, but paid too little attention to the opposite reality: how the present was busy poisoning the past. Professor Ronan Fanning recently called for a "shameless celebration" of 1916. He is one of our best historians, but I find the notion of celebration curious coming from a scholar.

The nation celebrated in 1966 but did not understand. There was so much still to know about what happened in Easter Week, about the motivations and influences at work and the deeper meanings of the revolution. It was never a simple case of a revolt against the Crown in a long tradition of glorious martyrdom, etc etc.

This time around, the memory of 1916 demands something more nuanced than history as pageant. There is a political scramble to claim the mantle of the dead that is both predictable and noxious. The anniversary must be built around the primacy of fact. Let us demand that the politicians on all sides treat us as adults. We can handle the truth.

* * * * *

A friend from Johannesburg calls with sad news. Milton Nkosi and I reported together from the townships during the worst years of violence in the early 1990s. Memory brings back the images of hacked bodies, burning buildings, the tear gas, the smell of too many people crowded into makeshift shelters.

Now Milton is back in those small streets, listening again to stories of violent dispossession. But there is no apartheid state to blame this time. The victims are black Africans, being hunted down by xenophobic gangs of South Africans. The migrants are blamed for taking jobs from locals. The comparative prosperity of, say, Somali traders is bitterly resented.

All of this happened before, back in 2008 when more than 60 people were killed and scores injured. It is happening again because many feel they are without hope, and because the Government left it too late to act against the instigators of hate.

President Zuma has now spoken out, but he is a figure so tarnished by allegations of corruption and misrule that his words are lost in the maelstrom of looting and burning. South Africa is no longer the great moral cause that inspired the anti-apartheid movement.

Will anybody in Ireland raise a voice for the victimized Somalians, Mozambicans, Malawians, Zimbabweans and Nigerians of the Jo'burg townships? Sadly, South Africa has slipped away from us, out of the headlines and our moral consciousness.

Once, we looked south for an example of how prejudice and fear can be overcome. In this last week we saw the opposite, a warning to us all about what can happen when minorities are blamed for society's ills. There are, as always in South Africa, people who offer hope. You will find them giving shelter to those driven out, marching in cities and townships to stand up for the victimized.

There are people with names like Milton Nkosi and Nomsa Maseko, two colleagues of mine, with the courage to tell difficult truths about their own land.

One of the saddest things that is happening is the creation of a new separation, between South Africa and the rest of the continent. The common bond of brotherhood is being painfully pulled asunder.

Sunday Independent

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