Thursday 24 October 2019

A little of the idealism of 1916 would go a long way to rekindling our sterile politics

WB Yeats said of the 1916 Rising that 'all was changed, changed utterly'
WB Yeats said of the 1916 Rising that 'all was changed, changed utterly'

Tim Pat Coogan

Today I'm taking part in the sort of debate which is taking place all over Ireland currently as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Some argue that somehow Ireland would have been better off had the 1916 Rising not occurred.

Firstly, of course it did occur, and as the poet WB Yeats said thereafter "all was changed, changed utterly".

General Maxwell, who is commonly portrayed in Irish history simply as the ogre figure that shot the leaders of the rebellion, was a more sympathetic observer of the Irish situation than he usually gets credit for.

He accurately diagnosed a number of key factors in the post-1916 situation, saying correctly that, in the wake of the Rising, people were saying that more had been achieved in one week than in all the years of patient endeavour by the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond.

Secondly, he blamed the outbreak on the latitude given to the Orangemen, meaning the blind eye turned to the Larne gun-running and to the Curragh mutiny in which the British Officer Corps in Ireland let it be known that they would not take part in any armed attempt to enforce Home Rule on Ulster.

He said that the root causes of Ireland's ills were things like absentee landlordism and the awful slums of Dublin which could easily have been rectified.

And he argued that "a warm-hearted and generous people" such as the Irish should be treated decently.

What people don't realise today is that the threat of a mutiny did not only involve the military. Without the compliance of the British Navy and the Senior Service, the Larne gun-running could not have taken place. The number of Anglo Irish ascendency types, largely, but not exclusively so, younger sons who did not inherit the estates, is rarely mentioned in discussion of 1916.

But this section of the Irish population was an important factor in the policy which threatened that "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right." This slogan, coined by Randolph Churchill, was backed by the Conservative and Unionist Party from Churchill's time in 1886 to that of Bonar Law on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War, and is the reason why six counties of North Eastern Ireland are today part of the United Kingdom.

Looking at the near deadlock in the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive in Stormont today, one gets a sense, a very small sense, of what the Conservative and Unionist opposition to Home Rule in the 1916 era was.

And insofar as the argument about loss of life is concerned, it should be remembered that none of the anti-1916 camp ever address the reality that even in post-Rising Ireland, Sinn Féin got the vote in the 1918 election which swamped the old Irish party, not for war but for peace. It was the Sinn Féin mobilisation against conscription which earned the gratitude of the people more than the admiration for 1916, great though this was, particularly after the executions of the leaders of the Rising.

We know what the death toll was amongst the segment of the volunteers who took Redmond's advice to fight for the 'freedom of small nations', in other words England. This, however, was only a fragment of the death toll which would have ensued had conscription been imposed on the country as a whole.

However, while it is true that all arguments fail before a gallant deed, one cannot address the question of 1916 purely as a debating matter for or against that great 'If'.

The bell of 1916 tolls for this generation too. And it is not a call to arms, it is a call to apply the relevance of the sacrifice of the 1916 leaders to our present state.

Those men did not fight and die so that we could give away our economic sovereignty as the centenary of the Rising approached.

Their vision was to cherish all the children of the nation equally - not to rip them all off equally.

Christ and Caesar were certainly hand in glove in the production, in equal measure, of scandals that wrenched at the roots of old beliefs and old idealism. Cathleen Ni Houlihan's treasure had been pillaged by a horde of corrupt, greedy bankers, politicians, accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers and paedophile priests.

How many of them have gone to jail? What lessons have been learned? It's been a case of women and children first with the weak and the vulnerable being forced to give up their medical cards, pay the Universal Social Charge, made to suffer innumerable cuts in Social Welfare and watched their children driven into emigration, suicide and unemployment. The path to our present state corresponds with near actuarial accuracy to the length we have travelled from the idealism of the 1916 leaders. A rekindling of that idealism, not futile debate or sterile nationalistic flag waving, is the appropriate way to commemorate the men of 1916.

That way we will have something to really celebrate next year during the centenary of the Easter Rebellion.

Tim Pat Coogan will take part in the debate 'The 1916 Rising: We have Nothing to Celebrate' at the Eblana Club, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, today.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss