Wednesday 26 October 2016

The future belongs to our young, but they may find a light to it in embers of 1916

Published 03/04/2015 | 02:30

Irish Defence forces personnel at the long-awaited commemorations for the centenary of the Rising at Collins Barracks in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Irish Defence forces personnel at the long-awaited commemorations for the centenary of the Rising at Collins Barracks in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Taoiseach Enda Kenny launches the long-awaited commemorations for the centenary of the Rising at Collins Barracks in Dublin with formal state events boosted by international celebrations (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

For a while there, some people had begun to worry about the commemoration of the Easter Rising next year. They included Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, one of the people involved in the planning. When somebody like Ferriter has doubts, we have to take him seriously.

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This week our fears have been set to rest. The draft schedule for the events seems to have everything just about right. That is important for two reasons. First, the Rising must be commemorated with dignity. Disputes about the condition of Moore Street or the place accorded to the descendants of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation provide room for futile controversies and self-indulgence.

It is therefore particularly pleasing that the Moore Street question has been settled. The location of the Easter Week surrender will become a museum. With this as a focal point, we can hope that the Dublin City Council will set about the revitalisation of the whole area.

I am less happy about the proposal to invite schoolchildren to write their own proclamations.

Does this mean revision of the 1916 document or – something that seems more realistic – their current aspirations for the present and future? And do we ask them to write in the context of an imaginary revolution or about what may be realisable in our own time?

Which brings me to my second point. There could never be a better time than the present to re-examine the events that occurred between 1916 and 1923 but also to reflect on the history of the independent Irish State with all the advantages of hindsight. The latter should not dwell too much on the many abuses of our freedom, still less on attempts at “counterfactual history”.

Might-have-beens may provide material for an amusing parlour game, but ultimately they are pointless. Several hundred years ago, the Ottoman Turks might have captured Vienna and opened the door to Western Europe. Had that happened, we would all be speaking Turkish now. It didn’t, and we don’t.

Similarly, the Easter Rising might not have happened and the 1914 Home Rule Bill might have come into operation. In that case, we might have ended a century later with the same result. Since there is no way of knowing, argument is futile. Allied with this debate is the one that questions the legitimacy of the Rising. This borders on daftness. The First Dáil retrospectively conferred all the necessary legitimacy. And the convening of the First Dáil itself constituted a magnificent assertion of democracy as well as legitimacy.

The 1916 leaders did not foresee that event. Instead, they concentrated on the history of the Irish struggle for freedom. The Proclamation declared that we asserted our demand for independence “in arms” six times in 300 years. That was hyperbole, but forgiveable hyperbole.

The plain fact is that in 1916 the country was ripe for revolution, in a somewhat similar manner to the United States and France in the 18th century. In America, the revolutionaries fought to uphold the principle of “no taxation without representation”. The French fought for the abolition of the outrageous privileges of the aristocracy and the Church. The Irish fought for national independence. There could be few better causes. But who were those Irish revolutionaries? What kind of people? The answer comes from Professor Roy Foster in his terrific book ‘Vivid Faces’.

He portrays the “revolutionary generation” as young, lively, intelligent and attractive. Reading his book made me think of France in the 1960s, though the rebels in that era spoiled their case by sheer silliness.

Foster makes a better comparison, with the Russian revolutionaries of 1917. That may seem extraordinary now, in view of the appalling history of Russia since that date. But one can see the resemblances. Young Russians fought for freedom and got Stalin. Young Irishmen and Irishwomen, as the Proclamation reminds us, fought for freedom and got de Valera.

The Americans seem to have fared best. They win hands down when it comes to “image”. When we think about US history, we probably think of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whereas when we think about French history we are likely to think of the Reign of Terror.

But there is much more than image to American success in governance. Their founding fathers gave them a constitution which has survived the shocks of more than two centuries. That constitution is not working particularly well right now, as we witness the omnishambles in US foreign policy. Still, we can hope for the advent of a sane Republican party and a strong president.

What can the Irish hope for? Hardly another Michael Collins. Maybe another Arthur Griffith?

To put it at its mildest, the present-day Irish political scene is discouraging. But a new generation is growing up which is better educated than ever before, more ambitious and enterprising, less tolerant of the rubbish that passes for debate and less likely to shrug off the question whether we have fulfilled the aspirations of the 1916 leaders.

Some of these are as valid as they were a century ago. Others – in a country that has changed almost beyond recognition – need tweaking and updating.

And for that reason, it is necessary for me to put aside my misgivings about the forthcoming “proclamations” by teenagers, to welcome them and hope they will be useful. This world is no longer my world, or the world of anyone of my generation. It belongs to the young. They have inherited a lot of good and a lot of bad. In a year’s time, they can celebrate the good. They may be surprised at how much of it they can find.

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