Friday 23 March 2018

Taking pride in a troubled legacy

Critics say the Easter Rising was a disaster and costly mistake. But people shouldn’t be bullied out of a sense of pride in the revolutionary generation

The shattered remains of the General Post Office in Sackville Street, Dublin, after the Easter Rising.
The shattered remains of the General Post Office in Sackville Street, Dublin, after the Easter Rising.
Diarmuid Ferriter at the GPO

Diarmaid Ferriter

As we mark the 99th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, questions that have long been asked about the necessity, impact and the legacy of the Rising will, once again, come into sharp focus. Unsurprisingly, given the role of violence in 1916 and subsequent decades, these questions have been a feature of debating the Rising, the War of Independence and civil war, for decades.

One of the most contentious assertions associated with these controversies is the idea that the Free State could have been achieved without the Rising and that it was therefore completely unnecessary.

With the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s, 1916 and its legacy were scorned by some. For historian and Labour Party politician Conor Cruise O'Brien, for example, it was the origin of all later ills.

In the 1970s, O'Brien described 1916 leader Pádraig Pearse as "a manic, mystic nationalist with a cult of blood sacrifice and a strong personal motivation towards death".

He added: "A nation which pretends to take a personality of that type as its mentor, without really meaning it, is already involved in a disaster, a disaster of intellectual dishonesty and moral obliquity."

For others, such disparagement was not about genuine historical revision based on an assessment of new evidence and an appreciation of context, but a politically driven revisionism. It amounted to a denigration of a legitimate revolutionary impulse that had become, in the modern era, an embarrassment.

Undoubtedly some historians, in response to the Troubles, began to paint their history in black and white instead of grey, absorbing messy reality into a neat narrative of constitutional progress that had been interrupted by undemocratic physical force advocates.

Reordering the Civil War generation as pro-state democrats or anti-state dictators was common, as some scholars felt it vital to undermine the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. But some of what was criticised as political revisionism was also about legitimately challenging those who were abusing history and falsifying the past for their own ends.

The idea that the 1916 Rising and all that flowed from it was unnecessary still has much currency; former Taoiseach John Bruton, for example, has been adamant recently that the 1916 Rising was a costly mistake.

But in tandem with the peace process and more distance from the revolutionary era, some of the heat has gone out of these rows, which is no bad thing.

While the historical realities and divisions of 100 years ago need to be recognised, commemorating with dignity and an absence of rancour is surely preferable to some of the bile associated with these debates in the past.

Moving beyond the limitations of the debate in previous decades allows for a more textured approach and for people to resist attempts to bully out of existence the pride they might feel in the revolutionary generation.

But for all the rows and the variety of perspectives relevant to remembering and commemorating the revolutionary decade of 1913-23, it should not be forgotten that many, for too long, were deprived of a basic knowledge of the revolution.

On a Friday night in November 1968, Dublin teenager Gene Kerrigan, now one of Ireland's best-known journalists, was watching the Late Late Show on RTÉ. A guest on the programme was the Australian historian, Calton Younger, who was there to talk about his new book on the Irish Civil War, fought from 1922-23.

Kerrigan was in for a rude awakening; as he recalled: "I watched, slightly puzzled at first, then more than a little agitated. What civil war? I had lately turned 19, five years out of school, making my way in the world, and I'd just discovered that there had been a civil war in my country only 26 years before I was born."

It prompted him to dig out his old primary school history textbook, James Carty's A Junior History of Ireland, the version published in 1959, which celebrated the 1916 martyrs and then proceeded to the Treaty negotiated between Britain and Irish republicans at the end of 1921.

That was it. "There ended the lesson" as Kerrigan recalled.

"There wasn't a single word in the book or in my schooling about the bloodshed that led from the Treaty and the split which created the dominant political culture of the decades that followed".

Kerrigan, of course, was not alone in his ignorance; one of the legacies of the Civil War was a silence about divisive events; for all those from the 1920s to the 1960s who engaged in score-settling and writing one-sided accounts of events of the revolutionary period, there were many more who would not talk or write about it; the fact that an Australian was the first to publish a detailed history of the Civil War was revealing.

The previous year, Taoiseach Jack Lynch told historian Eoin Neeson that even if Britain opened state papers from 1922, the Irish government would not, as access "might well stir domestic controversies that best lie buried."

Such reluctance and caution is far removed from the current situation. The National Archives Act of 1986 allowed papers for the revolutionary period to be made more accessible; other private archives began to collect the personal papers of revolutionary veterans, and archives long under lock and key, including the Bureau of Military History Statements - the personal accounts from participants in the revolution collected in the 1940s and 1950s and then locked up - were opened in 2003.

More recently, the applications of those who applied for military service pensions based on their service during the War of Independence and Civil War have begun to be released.

All of these sources have made it possible for the revolutionary decade of 1913-23 and its participants to be re-evaluated, with a variety of new perspectives now possible on the motivations, mentalities and experiences of that generation.

The witness accounts do not contain all the answers and have to be treated with caution; memories could be faulty, prejudices could be at work as scores were settled and some may have had reason to either exaggerate or be overly reticent.

But the combination of all the material now accessible means we can think in a more layered and nuanced way about identity during the revolution, and try to understand the participants through the lens of their era.

As summed up simply by the novelist Roddy Doyle in 2012: "There are more layers to being Irish" than his generation, born in the 1950s, were led to believe. Doyle also suggested, "there should be questions so that we give back these people their humanity. Let's see human beings making these decisions, flawed and all as they are."

That amounts to wise advice and is possible to aspire to given the range of sources now available.

One of my aims in writing a new account of the revolutionary period was to do justice to this new archival material; another was to look at how, over the decades, contemporary politics has influenced how the revolution has been written about and commemorated.

Remembering the revolution has always been complicated by a shifting political and academic focus, but one thing cannot be denied.

The most important commemorative priority should be about informing, educating and ensuring that young Irish citizens have a good knowledge of what happened during the revolution. This will ensure that they are not subjected to propagandist versions of what happened, or have to discover it, like Gene Kerrigan in 1968, by accident.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of ­Modern Irish History at UCD. His book A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 has just been published

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