The ideals of the Rising can still be achieved
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
We are a people for whom the past is as vivid as the present, even without the prompt of this centenary year which invites us to remember a group of extraordinary, idealistic men and women who altered the course of Irish history. But a race preoccupied by the past needs to learn from it.
The Easter Rising led not only to the foundation of the State, it shaped the contours of our cultural identity. 1916 helps to define how we see ourselves. In the run-up to the rebellion, a romanticised version of violence was advanced - Padraig Pearse's blood sacrifice, heavily invested in mythmaking and martyrdom.
Such iconography has been referenced again and again during the intervening century in novels, poetry, film, theatre and art. It was used as inspiration during the Troubles, most potently during the hunger strikes of the 1980s. But the few holding out against the many to the last drop of their blood is a far from unusual theme in Irish culture, dating back to the mythological hero Cúchulainn protecting Ulster's borders singlehandedly against Queen Medb's warriors. The 1916 leaders - numbering poets among them - conjured up the blood sacrifice repeatedly.
Pearse spoke of how Ireland occasionally asked not for something ordinary "but for a supreme service". Thomas MacDonagh told of his pride that his blood would "bedew the sacred soil of Ireland". Our blood "will rebaptise and reinvigorate the old land", said Séan MacDiarmada.
Key organisations such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin drew their legitimacy from cultural nationalism, which became closely intertwined with revolutionary nationalism.
The 1916 combatants claimed an Irish as opposed to British identity, accepting the legitimacy of force to achieve that goal, and romantic and revolutionary nationalism consummated their union during the Easter Rising. If we condemn them for that, we remove them from their historical context - militarism was in the ether at that time.
However, criticism can be levelled at our readiness to allow the romanticism of violence to remain one of our defining visions. We have an ambiguous approach towards it, even today.
It is to the Free State's credit that it set aside violence relatively quickly; it was unusual for a new state to achieve political stability so fast. But the Northern state has been less fortunate. Institutionalised discrimination, culminating in the brutal suppression of the civil rights movement, led to three decades of violence. The IRA traces its descent directly from the Easter Rising combatants: its heroes are the Proclamation signatories.
In the Republic, the plucky underdog tale - little Ireland taking on imperial might - is an appealing story in the casting of national identity.
But it's only one element. The component most often overlooked is how our story is one of unfulfilled potential because of the separation of the two peoples and two traditions on the island.
The men and women of 1916 wanted an equal, inclusive society regardless of social class, gender or religion. Much of the progressive radicalism reinforcing the intellectual justification for the Rising was rooted in a socially progressive and inclusive nationalism - Catholic and Protestant equal - originating in Ulster.
The build-up to the Rising was characterised not just by a political movement but a wider cultural drive - the Celtic Revival. In a daring act of the imagination, its pioneers dreamed of a vibrant, innovative version of Ireland distinct from the excess of empire. Inspiration was drawn from a Celtic past that was more myth than fact but creativity, confidence and pride flowered in literature, music, art, theatre. Its thinkers and dreamers experimented with the traditional and the modern to fashion a new version of Ireland.
Among them were people from a unionist tradition - Alice Milligan, Roger Casement, and others - who rejected the values of their upbringing after engaging with the concept of Ireland on a cultural level.
However, the politics of partition intervened to destroy the Ireland of their dreams. Not just separation but cultural apartheid intervened. Partitioned Ireland became a censorious place, each side setting up sacred cows. Many of those associated with 1916 were pushed to the margins, especially those who didn't fit the narrow templates.
There was little by way of an active role for the women of 1916 in the reactionary, patriarchal, protectionist, ultra-Catholic society which emerged from the wreckage of the civil war. Women were betrayed by the state they had struggled to bring into being.
Another of the great ironies of the independent Irish state, which came about because of daring ideas, was that it banned books. A Committee on Evil Literature was appointed in 1926 and the Censorship of Publications Act followed in 1929, establishing a board which censored books with a totalitarian fervour.
Among banned writers was Frank O'Connor. If I could have one wish for the Easter period, it would be that everyone might read his 1931 short story, 'Guests of the Nation'. A former volunteer, he understood the corrosive nature of violence, and his story disputes the romanticism of violence implicit in the physical force tradition.
'Guests of the Nation' is set during the War of Independence, with Irish volunteers holding hostage two British soldiers. Kinship develops between the men when they realise they have more in common than divides them - and the notion of 'the enemy' begins to disappear. When the order comes to shoot the soldiers, the Irishmen don't want to do it. But the captives are shot, and in the final, elegiac line of the story, the narrator admits: "And anything that happened to me after I never felt the same about again."
What is the logic of war, O'Connor asks, and can there ever be justification for killing? The overwhelming majority of us know the answer to that. Yet the question remains relevant today, in the broader world as well as in Ireland.
As for the Rising, it retains a meaningful contemporary resonance if we consider the ideals underpinning it - to build cultural connections between Catholic and Protestant communities on this island. The republic envisaged by those who took their courage in their hands and went out in 1916 did not materialise. Ireland remains a work in progress.
But dreams can be reimagined, connections re-forged. It will take time and patience, and setbacks are inevitable. But we should persevere.