Monday 23 April 2018

'The Proclamation is fanciful, evasive and presumptuous'

The Easter Rising was a malign act of propaganda that deformed Irish politics for generations to come, says Professor Liam Kennedy

Professor Liam Kennedy: 'We should leave the celebrations to X Factor winners'.
Professor Liam Kennedy: 'We should leave the celebrations to X Factor winners'.

My introduction to the Easter Rising was in a two-teacher national school in Ileigh, Co Tipperary in the 1950s. There were 43 pupils in the entire school, with four or five classes in the same teaching room.

Graduating into the senior cycle was like entering the Republic of Fear. Our teacher was utterly devoted to Catholicism, the Irish language and Patrick Pearse. They seemed to form a sacred trinity, a faith and fatherland complex, as it were. He was also devoted to an bata (the stick), and because he was overweight, his beatings were usually accompanied by angry grunts.

Possibly influenced by the IRA campaign of the late 1950s, but more likely because of his passion for Pearse, he had us older boys drilling in the school yard.

He often spoke to us of St Enda's as a model for Irish schooling, with its emphasis on heroism, athleticism and our native language. Only much later did I come to realise that St Enda's was a rather creepy place burdened with latently paedophilic tensions. In any case, we learned how to stand to attention, turn smartly - ar dheis, ar chlé - and march in the manner of boy soldiers.

My pictorial image of the 1916 Rising was from an illustrated history of Ireland published by the Christian Brothers. This showed the GPO in flames with a profile of Pearse in heroic pose. His bad eye was forever turned away from history.

There is a family story that one of my grand-uncles owned a Dublin pub that was looted during the early days of the Rising. Not only that, some of the looters came back afterwards to complain that the whiskey was watered down. They hadn't realised the large bottle of Powers in the window was for display purposes and contained only coloured water.

Be that as it may, my embryonic socialist feeling was that the tenement dwellers of Dublin deserved a bit of cheer, once in a lifetime at least. Perhaps these were the real heroes of 1916.

Despite some gathering doubts about the Rising during my student days, I regarded the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as an iconic text, to be revered rather than analysed. To my shame, it was only in recent years that I finally got round to reading it with some care.

The text is fanciful, evasive and incredibly presumptuous. I hadn't noticed the vainglorious and make-believe character of it all. A small, unrepresentative bunch of fanatical nationalists, none of whom had been elected, presumed to speak on behalf of the Irish people and plunge them, without so much as a by-your-leave, into the most terrible of all states, that of war and its associated terrors.

Who suffered most? Not the insurgents; fewer than a hundred were killed, some at the hands of their own inexperienced comrades. Not the British army, you can be sure.

It was the plain people of inner-city Dublin who died in their hundreds to satisfy the blood-drenched fantasies of less-than-impressive poets and marginal figures on the Irish political scene.

The consequences of this act of propaganda are with us to this day. Think of the Provisional IRA whose actions were authored by the Proclamation. A large mural in north Belfast shows the late Martin Meehan, a leading IRA man, crouching in firing position, with the text of the 1916 Proclamation in the background. Think of the dissident IRA, who also claim the mantle of 1916.

Easter 1916 was a pivotal moment in Irish history. It copper-fastened Partition and deformed Irish politics. How could fellow Irish people of a unionist persuasion, who made up a quarter of the population, even think of an all-Ireland state after an insurrection that proudly proclaimed its alliance with the armies of the German Kaiser? Despite some progressive rhetoric, the Rising ensured that concern with social inequality and individual liberties was effectively sidelined, North and South, for generations.

It is vitally important to commemorate Easter 1916, but not in the triumphalist manner of the 50th anniversary in 1966. The more discussion the better, but we should leave celebration to X Factor contestants. We owe it to 'the men of 1916' to look seriously and dispassionately at what they stood for and the flow of events following Easter Monday. This means facing up to the malign consequences that ensued: deep political divisions within nationalist Ireland, the emergence of a Northern Ireland statelet, and a tradition of green jingoism that is still with us.

If we must have heroes, there are better role models than 'the men of 1916' (and yes, there were women too). There are our great writers, from Joyce to Banville, and from Yeats to Heaney and Longley. There are our entrepreneurs, including those in the state and co-operative sectors, who created livelihoods and helped stem emigration. There are those who cared for others, in sickness and in old age. There are those who laboured to mend communal relations on this island. Come to think of it, the heroes are all over the place. Alternatively perhaps, we should just sing with the Punks: 'No more heroes anymore.'

In conversation with Celine Naughton

Liam Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic and Social History at Queen's University Belfast. His book, Unhappy the Land, The Most Oppressed People Ever, The Irish? is published by Merrion Press

Irish Independent

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