Tuesday 20 March 2018

After years of violence here and abroad, I feel a surge of hope

We cannot forget the link between 1916 and 1969, but commemorations at a national school give me hope, writes Fergal Keane

FAMILY HISTORY: Fergal’s great-grandfather, sergeant Paddy Hassett of the Royal Irish Constabulary, seen sitting in the front, middle. His son Paddy, Fergal’s grandfather, would later join the IRA during the War Of Independence, radicalised by the aftermath of the Easter Rising
FAMILY HISTORY: Fergal’s great-grandfather, sergeant Paddy Hassett of the Royal Irish Constabulary, seen sitting in the front, middle. His son Paddy, Fergal’s grandfather, would later join the IRA during the War Of Independence, radicalised by the aftermath of the Easter Rising

Fergal Keane

After a week in rainy Bosnia in pursuit of a war criminal I came home to an Ireland where the sun was shining. In Sarajevo the lived experience of a war of competing nationalisms is vividly present.

Twenty years - a mere flicker of time in the long Balkan memory - has passed since the slaughter ended. I was struggling to shake the testimonies of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing out of my head as I took the road to Knockanean in Co Clare. This is where my mother's people came from before their migration to Cork via Waterford in the late 19th century.

My great-grandfather grew up on a small farm in Knockanean and went to the local school. With several of his brothers he joined the RIC after leaving school, an escape from rural poverty which drew thousands of young Catholic men into the service of the Crown. His son Paddy, my grandfather, would turn his back on all of this and join the IRA during the War of Independence, radicalised by the aftermath of the Easter Rising.

I have always wondered what the old RIC man would have thought of his son's decision. Was there bitter family conflict? Or would Patrick Hassett the elder, like a lot of RIC men, understand the forces that drove a younger generation into arms after 1916? My grandfather was dead before I was old enough to ask him.

Last week, Knockanean National School was commemorating the revolution which began the overthrow in Ireland of the empire Patrick Hassett served. The children staged plays; they composed a wonderfully creative 1916 soundscape; they read excerpts from the proclamation, like Amara Neyer from Nigeria who was allotted the pledge to cherish "all the children of the nation equally."

The music was as good as you'd expect in the country of Willie Clancy and Martin Hayes.

A boy called Oran Flynn brought in a picture of his great-great-grandfather who fought in Dublin and later ended up as an officer in the Free State army. The songwriter Declan O'Rourke came and performed his ballad Children of '16, with the entire school accompanying him in the bright sunshine, before everybody escaped for the Easter holidays.

There was no shrill nationalism here. After my Balkan travels I was more than usually sensitive to atavistic display. The most moving moments came during a short play about the child victims caught in the crossfire of the rebellion.

When the head teacher, Jim Curran, asked the children what they would include in today's proclamation, they spoke of ending economic injustice, the need for proper healthcare and fighting discrimination against minorities.

I felt a surge of hope. This was a world away from the national schools of my childhood. Jim and his teachers came across as open-minded and deeply committed. How wonderful it was to talk through a school full of eager young faces and questioning minds.

And there was humour. I ask another teacher, John Corbett, if they had any refugee children in the school? "We do. We have a lad from Tipp - he's settling in well," came the reply.

I said a few words, speaking of my great-grandfather and his son and the paths they chose. I also reminded the children of the successive political detonations which prepared the way for the Rising: the mobilisation of a loyalist army against Home Rule, supported by the leader of the Tory party who threatened to support an armed rebellion against the democratically elected government; the threat by the British army to mutiny rather than enforce Home Rule against the will of Ulster Protestants; the significance of the outbreak of World War I and the plan to enlist German help.

I was in my first year of school when the 50th anniversary was celebrated. I was imbued with the cult of the martyred heroes. Blood sacrifice was our noble heritage. They were the times in which I grew up. We marched around the schoolyard and recited the proclamation. Dev came on a visit, old and going blind and unheroic to my child's eyes.

My actor father appeared in a drama celebrating revolutionary martyrs like Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. We were all off to Dublin in the Green, in the Green. At five years of age in 1966 nobody was going to give me a nuanced account of the revolution or the complex legacy it had bequeathed us. Nor would I have understood had they tried.

In any case, nobody could have guessed then how complex it would turn out to be. The Troubles were three years away, although there were ominous stirrings. The first loyalist murders of Catholics took place later in the spring and in early summer of 1966. The gun re-introduced into Irish politics by the UVF would in time be eagerly taken up the IRA.

None of that can be forgotten in these weeks of commemoration. We cannot pretend that there is no link between the violence of 1916 and 1969. This is not to say that one caused the other, or to place the blame for the atrocities of the UVF, UDA, the Provos and the INLA on the shoulders of Pearse and Connolly. That is a tempting polemic but indulges in the same simplification that has poisonously infected nationalist and loyalist versions of the Irish story. It assumes an absolute inevitability about the passage of history which I do not accept, in Ireland or anywhere else.

The violence in Dublin in 1916 certainly shaped attitudes on both sides in Belfast. It inspired successive generations of republicans to take up arms.

The proclamation made very clear the right of armed men to act in the name of the Irish people without asking their permission.

Now, after 30 years of butchery, we have a working peace process. The vast majority of republicans and loyalists have put away their guns. The armed forces of the British state have been withdrawn from the streets. The assassins who received their intelligence from state agents have vanished into the murk of history.

But as recently as this month the remaining minority who espouse physical force nationalism were still killing fellow Irishmen, basing their right to do so on the actions of the men of 1916.

Rest in peace prison officer Adrian Ismay, and may all Ireland remember you amid the trumpets and marching of the official commemorations.

Sunday Independent

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