Sunday 18 March 2018

An alternative view of the seven signatories as men, not saints

History: The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of The Irish Republic, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Oneworld, €23.99

Iconoclast: Ruth Dudley-Edwards offers a different perspective on 1916.
Photo: Tony Gavin.
Iconoclast: Ruth Dudley-Edwards offers a different perspective on 1916. Photo: Tony Gavin.

JP O' Malley

On May 2nd, 1916, the night before his execution in Kilmainham Gaol, the President of the Provisional Government, and Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic, Patrick Pearse, wrote out what most likely were his final words: "If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed."

With the story of Christ's resurrection always at the forefront of his mind, Pearse saw the prospect of dying as something to which to aspire.

Penning a letter to his mother, shortly before his death, Pearse wrote that he had "[no] hope or desire to live."

Mythology, romanticism, and martyrdom are the dominant leitmotifs running through the story of the Easter Rising.

Just like the image of the cross at Calvary symbolises the arrival of western modernity, the faces and names of the seven signatories of the Easter Proclamation represent year zero for the modern Irish State.

In this sense, though, Ireland is not unique. Nearly all nation states, historically, have arisen out of a blood-soaked-violent mythology.

Modern Irish history, however, has added complications to this dichotomised tale of nation and state.

Partition, the totalitarian relationship between church and state; a culture of silence that emerged from the largely unspoken about civil war, and, of course, the Troubles, are just some of the reasons why an ongoing debate about 1916, understandably, hasn't been easy.

Times have changed though. The story of the Easter Rising, finally, is open for reinterpretation. And it's no longer owned by a powerful elite.

Ruth Dudley Edwards has never been one to shy away from questions other historians might previously have deemed sacrilegious.

Her controversial biography of Patrick Pearse - first published in 1977 - for example, questioned Pearse's fanatical nature, his sexual preference for young boys, and claimed the cultish, Christ-like-heroic-narrative surrounding his personality was purposely self-constructed for posterity.

With the progressive-liberal-intellectual culture that flourishes in Ireland today, The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, won't cause the kind of outrage and notoriety as the aforementioned book on Pearse did almost 40 years ago.

Still, controversial or not, it's a first rate read.

Moving the narrative along with colour, verve, pace and attitude is something that comes natural to Edwards' writing style. Academic jargon is avoided here at all costs. But nor is the book dumbed down for simplification purposes either.

The tale we read here is of seven human beings, rather than seven saints, all of whom, Edwards believes, were obsessed with living a mythology. This, in turn, inevitably meant trying to create a country from these mythological obsessions.

Edwards continually returns to this theme throughout: focusing specifically on the enormous diversity of ideas among the seven signatories.

This mismatch of ideals, Edwards posits, helps explain why the Rising lacked a singular ideological and military vision: culminating in disastrous planning where victory was an impossibility.

Connolly, the most progressive thinker of the seven, was a Marxist fundamentalist, and an internationalist, who believed the problems of Ireland were the results of permanent class struggle; Plunkett and MacDonagh were bohemian poets, often concerned with an intellectual cosmopolitanism that differed greatly, from say, Pearse's fanatical vision of a Celtic utopia, or Ceannt's rigid Catholic piety; Clarke and MacDiarmada, meanwhile, were hardcore IRB men with a singular vision of a republic that had its roots in Fenian militancy that was uncompromising to the core.

By taking a rather brash approach to Irish republican history - where others have consistently genuflected with a kind of pious reverence - Edwards is able to philosophise and ask some worthwhile questions.

She wonders, for instance, if the seven signatories are any different to Provo martyrs, like Bobby Sands; or so called dissident republicans in the North today; or even, say, jihadi suicide bombers in the Middle East?

All of them, Edwards correctly points out, share one commonality: claiming moral superiority over the rest of society as a justification for acts of brutal violence.

This may not be a popular idea: particularly in the year of the centenary celebrations. But it's pretty hard to disagree with the logic of her argument. It is possible - as this book shows - to continually question the founding myths of a nation, without treating the sacrifices of those who orchestrated its birth in vain, or with contempt.

However, without an ongoing debate about what the founding mythologies of a society actually mean, potentially, we cease to live in a free, pluralistic democracy.

After all, it was this fundamental aspiration to a free society - which would be universally inclusive and give rights to freedom of expression without fear - that caused these seven men to take up arms, and dream of a brighter future: as they set out across Dublin to be slaughtered by the British on Easter Monday 100 years ago.

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