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Forget 1916, we need a revolution of the spirit

Bertie Ahern was present at the reading of the famous Proclamation in front of the GPO last Sunday.

Patrick Pearse in this manifesto spoke about the number of times that the Irish people had risen in arms to gain freedom. He seemed to include 1803 and 1848 and 1867. Robert Emmet's rising was a tragic fiasco. The Young Irelanders' rising was a comic fiasco. The Fenian rising hardly took place at all.

The Fenians had great numbers and were fairly well organised and they were ready to rise but the arms they expected never arrived. Their rising was confined to east Cork and south county Dublin.

Peter O'Neill Crowley, a young farmer in Ballymacoga, was the leader of the Fenians in east Cork. In a place called Kilclooney, he waited for other companies to arrive. They didn't. The main rising never took place. Crowley and his comrades were surrounded and in a skirmish, he received wounds from which he died.

The rising in south county Dublin was a sad affair. The rebels were hunted like foxes in the hills. Their revolt came to nothing.

When Dr Moriarty, Bishop of Kerry, said that hell wasn't hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the Fenians, he wasn't talking about the brave lads who went out in that bitter March but about their masters in Paris. The Fenians were not separatists; they were an international movement. It is doubtful if Pearse understood that.

Let us look now at Ireland before the Easter Rising. The farmers had got the freedom of their land. Parnell's achievement seemed almost a miracle. John Redmond and his comrades had got Home Rule. This seemed another miracle. It was written into the statute books in 1914 but because the Great War broke out, it was postponed until peace time.

We have to ask ourselves why Pearse and his comrades decided on an armed rising. In doing so, they rebelled against some of their own leaders. Eoin MacNeill, the wildest man in the Volunteers and effectively their leader, countermanded the Rising when he discovered that German help was a myth.

Pearse was probably the most influential man in the movement that led to Easter Week. He cannot have believed that it would succeed in military terms. He saw it as a spiritual gesture. It is hard not to suspect that he was a sick man. He spoke about the old soil of France needing to be renewed by bloodshed. And it is clear from his poetry that he had a death wish.

It was very hard to understand why James Connolly took part: some said that he expected the working class in Britain to refuse to take part in the war and that he became disillusioned with the concept of international brotherhood.

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The rising went ahead and it led to the War of Independence and in turn to the civil war and to the troubles we have seen in Northern Ireland in this generation.

Why should we commemorate a movement that failed and that had such terrible consequences? I suppose the truth is that we admire men who are brave and who are idealists.

The state known as the Republic of Ireland has been independent since 1921. We have to ask ourselves, what did independence bring?

For the mass of the people, it brought little change. The great anonymous army of servant boys and servant girls who underpinned the economy were treated as badly and paid as miserably as ever. Nobody has ever written their history -- in general, the farmers treated them as little better than slaves. There were exceptions but not many. They never succeeded in organising themselves. Whenever they did, the farmers proved too strong. There was a man in my part of Kerry who attempted to organise his fellow farm workers into a union. He more than failed: he had to spend the rest of his life in England.

Even in death, the farm workers were badly treated: if a young girl drowned herself, it was always recorded as suicide. The upper classes, of course, never committed suicide: they died by accident or by misadventure.

The Catholic Church was stronger than ever in the new Ireland: priests could slander people from the altar with impunity. The offended party wouldn't get a solicitor to argue their case.

Only a few years ago, a priest in the west of Ireland said terrible things about Sonia O'Sullivan, a national heroine. His astonishing outburst should have brought a rebuke from a higher authority -- seemingly it didn't.

Another aspect of our "freedom" was the Censorship Board: the most innocent books were banned. Seemingly, our masters were bent on keeping us in the darkness. Television didn't come a day too soon. Much of the freedom we enjoy now has come not from our politicians but from the world outside.

Bertie Ahern, on St Patrick's Day, gave George Bush a bowl of shamrock. He should have given him a dictionary: Bush believes that the war in Iraq can be won. It isn't a war: it is an invasion and in this conflict, there can be no winners.

Five years ago, the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign country; in their first week they bombarded Baghdad and devastated an ancient city that wasn't either a military or economic target. Of course, Saddam was a dictator and a very cruel dictator but the Americans had no moral right to invade his country. Iraq now is in an infinitely worse state than it was five years ago. What will happen when the Americans pull out? It is almost certain that there will be a series of civil wars.

In the context of Iraq, our government disgraced itself by facilitating the American forces. They are as guilty as Bush and his people.

When it became clear that the Americans intended to murder Saddam, our government should have done everything in its power to prevent an act that cried out to heaven for vengeance. There was a terrible silence from our heads of Church and State. Capital punishment is always obscene but it was especially so on this occasion when a man was hanged in public by a people who had no right to be in his country.

In the US and in the UK, revulsion against a so-called war is growing. There isn't much now that our government can do to redress their wrongs but they can at least think about it and never again facilitate any country in an immoral war effort.

By now, all over the world there is a growing awareness of the difference between independence and freedom. Nowhere can it be seen more clearly than in Zimbabwe. A few days ago we saw Robert Mugabe rejoicing in his power and telling the world that nobody else can govern his country while he is alive.

In the context of Zimbabwe, the British government has been woefully negligent. Many of the people whom Mugabe has dispossessed were morally if not technically British citizens. Britain should have gone to their aid if it meant invading a sovereign state. There are times for desperate measures.

There are native African philosophers who believe the only hope for the continent is recolonisation. That, of course, can never happen. The more sensible remedy is to intervene when human rights are being grossly abused as is happening in Zimbabwe.

After 1921, we endured a civil war and this has coloured our politics ever since. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael do not differ in their political philosophies; they are both extremely conservative parties. Our Government is facing crises in education and medicine. There is little evidence of radical change. One cannot help feeling that this government is content to stay in the saddle, irrespective of which way the horse is heading.

The need for reform in education has been obvious for a long time. We are accustomed to overcrowded classes in inadequate buildings. There a lot of our trouble begins: too many of our people are undereducated. The facilities now are better than before but many parents think that education is for the upper classes. This is a long and deep crisis. Children leave school very early because they feel that they have no place higher up in the world. We need here a kind of spiritual revolution.

Only God knows what kind of celebrations we will see for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Will they be as hysterical as in 1966 when that series of programmes praising the Rising as a wonderful thing played some part in bringing about the Troubles in Northern Ireland?

This country is in need of a revolution, a revolution of the spirit. I doubt if any of our leaders have the capability to initiate this. The men of 1916 were brave and idealistic but misguided; we need men who are brave and idealistic and wise.