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Centenary of struggle to make sense of Rising

A RECENT suggestion that Britain's prime minister might be invited to attend the centenary of the 1916 Rising raises a raft of tantalising questions for the First Lord of the Treasury in 2016.

Can he or she project a more virile image than Asquith, their most elusive predecessor, who in private seemed ambivalent about General Maxwell's firing squads?

Can they avoid the drooling effusions that often disfigure prime ministerial addresses to the US Congress, and make it through the centenary without apologising for distant events the way Blair apologised for burning Mr Madison's White House?

And what on earth should they read for homework?

There are obvious candidates. They might have a look at Garret FitzGerald's various essays, for example, and savour the way a son's love for his father can broaden as well as burden a mind. FitzGerald could never quite face the essential irrationality of the Rising because this event propelled his father, Desmond, into the Department of External Affairs in 1922.

Noting that Ireland was about to become a net beneficiary of British capital transfers after Lloyd George's wizardry in 1909, FitzGerald explained how his father's generation rolled the Fenian dice one last time before financial dependence morphed into cultural destruction.

The chances of a future British PM making sense of this are at best even, especially when we remember that many natives are still not quite sure why the sad rhythms of Joyce's Ireland justified the obliteration of central Dublin, or how dynamite was supposed to revive 'real' Ireland. (Echoing Dean Swift's unpublished essay from 1733 on Catholic loyalism, Joyce would defy this mentality in Ulysses, proclaiming Irish Catholic peasants to be the "backbone of our empire". )

Asquith's heir must not despair, though, because FitzGerald's attempted cost-benefit approach does not totally command the field.

Conor Cruise O'Brien's States of Ireland could be usefully canvassed as well. The PM should be directed to O'Brien's remorseless attack on Taoiseach Jack Lynch, especially to the chapter entitled Under the Bony Thumb.

Here, O'Brien assesses Lynch's fondness for rhetorical ambivalence when discussing the Rising after 1969.

O'Brien gives crucial passages from one of Lynch's more sensitive historical speeches, delivered at the Garden of Remembrance on July 11, 1971. When addressing the vexed legacy of the Rising that year, Lynch seemed to be channelling Jefferson on slavery. The bibliophile of Monticello said once that dealing with chattel slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears -- the very act of confinement was itself unpleasant, but it was still marginally preferable to letting the beast go.

Lynch struggled in a similar way. O'Brien explains how Lynch hoped to neutralise the principle of counter-majoritarian violence by enveloping this in constitutional form.

In juggling the Rising with de Valera's famous statement to the effect that "we do not contemplate the use of force", O'Brien's Lynch emerges as a man who is worshipping a graven image known inwardly for its basic hollowness.

A dose of Lynch's sad Cork ambivalence might help this future British PM avoid any undue reverence in 2016.

But if Garret risks baffling him, and Lynch risks turning him off the entire enterprise, then there is one final resource available to him. I think that the single most insightful essay on the 1916 Rising was that written by UCC folklorist Gearoid O Crualaoich for an anthology called Revising the Rising, published in 1992.

O Crualaoich's 21 short pages, titled Responding to the Rising, contain all he needs to know. Written from the perspective of someone trying to rescue the Proclamation from the cruelty and hysteria of PIRA's campaign against working class Protestants, O Crualaoich found that this complex task almost exceeded the narrow economy of the mere scholar's art.

Cautioning his readers about the peculiar qualities of all mythic events, he reminds us that the Rising can never really be understood if one begins with Pearse's lurid Anglophobia.

The mentality that shaped the Rising itself grew out of a Victorian romantic sensibility that was itself profoundly British. Young Ireland knew their Thomas Carlyle, and the Fenians knew all about English Chartists. Even those of us who see a fairly clear line from Tom Clarke to Thomas 'Slab' Murphy can appreciate the way O Crualaoich uses the Rising to remind us of our very British temperament.

Imagine what might happen, though, if a British PM came over here to remind us of the way Cromwellian Puritanism subtly shaped the anti-monarchical element in Irish nationalism!

This would be only slightly less bracing than a reminder that Pearse's great failure was in having a rising in Dublin rather than in Orange Belfast -- the city that really hated him. But we must leave these thoughts for now, until Dr Paisley runs for the Aras.

JP McCarthy holds a doctorate in history from Oxford

Sunday Independent