Sinn Fein's attempt to seize the myth of 1916
Sinn Fein's commemoration for O'Donovan Rossa exposes their determined strategy to seize the opportunities presented by 1916, says Sarah Carey
Published 09/08/2015 | 00:00
Three dots joined up this week to reveal a grim precursor of 2016.
One: On a brief skite to Skibbereen last Saturday week, I observed both the entertaining sight of my colleague, Eoghan Harris, being accosted by fans in the local market, and a town in the throes of O'Donovan Rossa festivities. It was all very jolly; but I found myself in front of the Maid of Erin statue in the square, which Rossa unveiled in 1904, thinking: "What do I actually know about this guy? Apart from the oration. Which was a fine speech, in fairness."
Two: my question was answered on Tuesday mooching around the Irish Times website choosing which articles to read before the note asking you to subscribe pops up. (Eh, no.) I spotted a letter titled "O'Donovan Rossa" and clicked. Now that was worth it.
Carla King, from St. Patrick's College in Drumcondra, debunked uninformed romantic notions about the famous republican. "O'Donovan Assa" was mentally unstable after a severe prison sentence; an alcoholic; a buffoon and an embarrassment to Michael Davitt and John O'Leary. His support for bombing campaigns undermined constitutional nationalism.
A follow up by Niall Whelehan, from the University of Edinburgh, argued that King had over-egged the pudding; but conceded that, "O'Donovan Rossa was reckless in his calls for violence, blind to the advantages of the Land League, and his repeated celebrations of dynamite often bordered on parody". But since his funeral was hijacked by republicans in 1915, who bothers to learn all this? The name is mythology. And does it matter at this remove?
Three: That question was answered on Wednesday, near midnight, when a Fianna Fail pal sent me an email titled "Late Night Horror Film". It was a link to a Sinn Fein YouTube video of their party's re-enactment of the O'Donovan Rossa funeral; organised in defiance of the official state commemorations at Glasnevin last Saturday week.
It featured a large group of people in historical volunteer uniforms and replica guns. The production values are high, indicating good funding. The moral and political consequences so profound, I realised my Fianna Fail friend hadn't exaggerated. The scale of what we face throughout 2016 hit me.
There are two major problems to be addressed. The first is the fundamental difficulty presented when a state's foundation myth is violent. This is true for many countries. The American War of Independence; the French Revolution; or in more recent times, World War II for the United Kingdom and the Battle of Stalingrad for the Russians.
July 4 and 14 represent events that took place so long ago and being based on reasonable enough democratic principles; fireworks and parties present few moral complications. For both Britain and the former USSR, the World War represents the huge sacrifices made in the face of unprecedented aggression. It was a question of survival. True; those events have been shamelessly hijacked to justify modern campaigns lacking any moral credibility, but commemoration in those cases is easily justified; and in Britain at least, appropriately sombre.
Reared a Redmondite, naturally I take the view that 1916 was an act of insanity resulting in the deaths of nearly 400 civilians, including 40 children. Do I think this was a necessary sacrifice to secure the independence of the state? No.
Do I accept it is nevertheless seen as such by consensus? Sure. That ship has sailed. But every effort must be made to avoid glorifying violence. That will be difficult, since, as Niall Whelehan observed in his conclusion: "the uncomfortable fact that many commemorative events of this decade honour people responsible for a lot more killing and misery [than O'Donovan Rossa]".
It's the old terrorist-versus-freedom-fighter debate, normally sterilised by the passage of time.
But in Ireland we don't have the luxury of leaving this to counter- factual parlour games, because we have the second problem.
This centenary is not just about what happened 100 years ago, but how Sinn Fein have so cleverly leveraged the mythology to implicitly and explicitly justify the modern IRA campaign of terrorism. It's not the distant past that counts but how they use it to legitimise their much more recent past.
From the GPO to Canary Wharf. That's the game here. And it's all just history, isn't it? Good people have to do bad things in times of war, right? Whatever about arguing whether or not Pearse was a dangerous fool - when you draw a line from him to Gerry Adams, that's when you've a lethal moral narrative. One that Sinn Fein is determined to use to gain political traction next year. They can play on the combination of ignorance, myth and romanticism to reframe the IRA's disgusting modern campaign as all part of the glorious fight. It's not commemoration they're after, but sanitisation.
If you think these are the paranoid ravings of a blinkered Blueshirt, just look at their strategy of political alliances made on local authorities after the last local elections. Where Sinn Fein have entered into controlling alliances on local authorities such as Dublin City, South Dublin, Cork City and in Ulster, they negotiated the "revolving chair" agreements to ensure that their turn comes in 2016.
Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael sensed the danger and kept them out where they could. It was where Sinn Fein had the largest number of seats, such as in Dublin and Cork, that they had a chance. All they needed were sufficiently naive members in Labour and the Greens to help them. The fools, the fools. They wouldn't hold the line and so presented this golden opportunity in propaganda to Sinn Fein.
Of course, this is exactly what Sinn Fein want replicated in the Dail: Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in coalition, leaving them the leading party of opposition, poised for government. The only upside is that every day I meet regular people who are not so easily fooled. They understand the game is on to seize the myth, just as the republicans seized our flag. We must hope that when the other event of 2016 - the election - arrives, enough voters will reject both the violence of the recent past and the evil that seeks to justify it.