Friday 30 September 2016

Idealised vision of Ireland is an important legacy of the Easter Rising

Dr Conor Mulvagh

Published 14/03/2016 | 02:30

James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army
James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army

Dr Conor Mulvagh is lecturer in Irish History with special responsibility for the Decade of Commemorations, 2013-2023, at the School of History in UCD. This is an edited extract of a lecture he delivered on the Rising last week.

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The rebels of 1916 left two important legacies. Firstly, they can be said to have set an example and inspired the population into revolution. Secondly - and, I would argue, more importantly - they left a written document that set forth an idealised vision of how Ireland could govern itself in a way that was inclusive, without discrimination of gender or religion or class.

Militarily, the 1916 Rising was a failure. Buildings and strongholds were occupied all around Dublin and in a few other locations. The garrisons that took these buildings held out for a week and when the leadership of the rebellion finally surrendered, Dublin city lay in ruins and the citizens who the rebels believed they were fighting for booed and jeered the prisoners as they were led off to internment camps in England and Wales. While the rank and file were spared harsh punishment, the leaders of the Rising were tried and executed.

This fact, and the extension of martial law to areas of Ireland that had neither planned nor participated in the rebellion, caused one of the most decisive, rapid and important shifts ever to have occurred in Irish public opinion. Within a fortnight of the Rising, children on the streets of Dublin were referring to Patrick Pearse as 'St Patrick'. Two years later, the Sinn Féin party, the political movement that benefited from this change in public opinion, won almost every seat outside of Ulster in the General Election of 1918.

If the 1916 Rising was a symbolic sacrifice, then the result of the 1918 General Election provided Irish republicans with a mandate to initiate a far more ambitious military project that would eventually culminate in an agreed settlement for Irish Independence in 1921.

But to understand these events, we must go back to 1912, when Ireland was offered a more limited, but nonetheless extensive offer of greater independence.

However, this offer set in train a series of events that led directly to the door of the GPO four years later.

In the GPO in 1916, it is reputed that James Connolly, the socialist leader of the Irish Citizen Army, told his men that if they were victorious - and this was an increasingly unlikely outcome - then they were to hold on to their rifles.

Connolly foresaw the eventuality when the Irish Citizen Army might need to take up arms to defend its vision of Ireland against the more middle-class and Gaelic Irish Volunteers in a vision akin to Orwell's 'Animal Farm'.

Connolly imagined a revolution that was to bring about a socialist republic.

Freedom would not be freedom if it merely changed the identity of the ruling classes.

While the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army never found themselves facing each other down the barrel of a gun, in some senses, Connolly's scepticism about the impact of the revolution would come true.

After the War of Independence, cautioning his colleagues from being overly congratulatory, TD Kevin O'Higgins asserted to the Dáil that the IRA's achievement had been to dislodge the British from nothing greater than a fairly good-sized police barracks.

From a social perspective, it has been argued, only somewhat unfairly, that the achievements of the new State in its early years amounted to little more than painting the postboxes green.

In this light, we must ask the question first posed seriously by Diarmaid Ferriter: what were the limits of liberty? Did the State make good on any of its promises to cherish the children of the nation equally?

The Proclamation's promise of gender equality soon gave way to the proposed exclusion of women from jury duty in 1927, the criminalisation of contraception in 1935, and finally, in 1937, the enshrinement of the woman's place as being in the home in the new Constitution.

In economic terms too, the real revolution had preceded the firing of any shots. Land transfer from landlord to tenant had come about gradually, with very little violence or bloodshed, between 1870 and the first decade of the 20th century.

This new smallholding farming class was socially conservative and eager to gain social advancement for themselves, not a great levelling of society to bring everyone down to the same level. Thus, the big fights after the revolution were about symbols, sovereignty, and emblems, not pounds, shillings and pence.

Irish Independent

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