Saturday 25 January 2020

Daniel Mulhall: Seven signatories would hardly recognise Ireland today

A sweeping view of the 1916 commemorations captured by Kevin Doyle on O’Connell Street
in Dublin. Photo:
A sweeping view of the 1916 commemorations captured by Kevin Doyle on O’Connell Street in Dublin. Photo:

Daniel Mulhall

I was asked by the historian, Ruth Dudley Edwards, to speak at the London launch of her book, 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic', a collective biography of the 1916 leaders', and one of the many books published this year to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. The other speaker at the launch was the Nobel Prize recipient and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, David Trimble. Here is a summary of what I said at the launch. Ruth does not know this, but the first time I ever spoke publicly, at a student history conference in the late 1970s, my paper on the poet and political journalist, George Russell (AE) was chaired by her late father, Robin Dudley Edwards.

Ruth's biography of Patrick Pearse: 'The Triumph of Failure', was one of the first serious books I ever bought - in 1977, the year it was published, when I was a post-graduate student at University College Cork.

I am not an academic historian, but I have published one book on early 20th century Ireland and have recently co-edited a collection of essays, 'The Shaping of Modern Ireland': a centenary assessment, which focuses on some of the many fascinating personalities from the Ireland of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, who in their different ways influenced modern Ireland.

In my approach to Irish history, I suppose I am a liberal nationalist, proud of our Irish traditions and of the achievements of the independent Irish state I have served for close to four decades now. These achievements include a century of political stability and, after many economic ups and downs, the creation of a prosperous society with a high GDP per capita, 12th in the world according to the IMF, and 6th on the UNDP's Human Development Index. We also have a proud international record, characterised among other things by a deep commitment to UN peacekeeping and a highly-regarded development cooperation programme, Irish Aid.

I have no difficulty, however, in recognising that there are many different, even conflicting analyses of 1916. That is the way it should be. The past is multi-faceted and it is susceptible to multiple, competing readings. I welcome Ruth Dudley Edwards' contributions to the understanding of our history, even if her perceptions and interpretations can differ from mine. For me it is important to commemorate 1916 as a vital event in the emergence of modern Ireland. This does not mean that I have a starry-eyed appreciation of what happened in Dublin in 1916, or a hagiographical approach to its leaders. I do not attribute independent Ireland's achievements, nor its failings, to the men and women of 1916. Each generation makes its own choices and leaves its own legacy. The seven signatories of the proclamation would hardly recognise today's Ireland, even though they helped bring it into being, and that's as it should be. Things tend to change during the course of a century.

The Proclamation signed by the seven leaders was, for its time, a progressive document, whose principles retain their relevance today. It promised religious and civil liberty, and equal rights and opportunities for all. It contained a commitment to pursue 'the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts', and to cherish 'all the children of the nation equally.' It also promised universal suffrage at a time when the principle of votes for women was still contested.

Fundamentally, the seven signatories were men of their time. Pearse's sacrificial rhetoric may sound strange to our ears, but is it any more exotic than Rupert Brooke's thinking:

If I should die, think only this of me; That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.

Although they ended up leading an insurrection, the seven signatories were not a homogeneous group. They fall into three sub-groups: the cultural nationalists (Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett, all published poets, and Eamonn Ceannt), the Fenians (Thomas Clarke and Sean MacDiarmada) and the socialist (James Connolly). I have a particular interest in the first group, who were drawn into public life on the back of their enthusiasm for the revival of the Irish language.

WB Yeats once wrote about the 'stir of thought' that gripped Ireland from the early 1890s onwards and, in Yeats's opinion, paved the way for Irish independence. This new mood placed more of an emphasis on Irish identity than on Irish interests. Founded in 1893, the Gaelic League became an obsession for the rising generation of Irish nationalists. Thomas MacDonagh, who wrote poetry in English and taught literature at University College Dublin, called the League a 'baptism in nationalism' and the same would apply to Pearse, Plunkett and Ceannt.

When the crisis surrounding the Irish Home Rule Bill erupted in the years before the outbreak of war, all four cultural nationalists became members of the nationalist Irish Volunteers set up in 1913 in response to the emergence of the Ulster Volunteers. This meant that by August 1914 there were two rival militias in Ireland, which had mobilised hundreds of thousands of men, for and against Home Rule.

The Irish Volunteers split in 1914 and Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett and Ceannt (who was more radical than the others at that stage, having already joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood) sided with the minority who opposed Irish participation in the war. In the following 18 months, the poet-patriots, coalesced with the dedicated separatists, Clarke and MacDiarmada, and the socialist James Connolly, who had been radicalised by his experience during the Dublin workers' Lock-out of 1913. They all became part of the secret Military Council of the IRB which organised the Rising and, as signatories of the Proclamation, all faced the firing squad in May 1916.

This year's commemorations have been designed to acknowledge and respect the many strands of Irish experience that came together during that fateful year. There is no desire to simplify our history.

On the contrary, the centenary offers an opportunity to broaden understanding of our multi-stranded past. This pursuit of understanding does not require us to abandon our loyalties, but to be open-minded and inquisitive about the past.

Inevitably, there are different views about the rights and wrongs of the Rising and the motivations of its leaders, but we commemorate what actually happened and its effects on our times.

In an inclusive spirit, our commemorations will remember those who fought in the rebellion, but also the innocent men, women and children who were caught up in the fighting in Dublin, and indeed the members of the British Army and the police who lost their lives.

In Ireland, we will also commemorate the centenary of the battle of the Somme, in which so many Irishmen fought and died. That commemoration will build on our involvement in recent years in events to remember the First World War, including my own participation at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday this past two years.

There will always be those who seek to use history to justify what can never be justified and we must be resolute in our rejection of such spurious claims. Ireland's path to self-determination was a complex and difficult one. The achievements of the past 100 years, including the cherished peace and reconciliation built in Northern Ireland and the warm, friendly partnership that has developed between Ireland and the UK, are important parts of the Irish story that we are encouraged to reflect upon during this centenary year.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London. This is an edited extract from his speech at the launch in London of Ruth Dudley Edwards's book 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic, a collective biography of the 1916 leaders'. He is the co-editor (with Eugenio Biagini) of 'The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin 2016)'. He is on Twitter: @DanMulhall

Irish Independent

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