Monday 27 January 2020

Politicians don't understand 1916 was a spiritual revolution, not a political revolt

Padraig Pearse surrenders to British forces after the 1916 Rising
Padraig Pearse surrenders to British forces after the 1916 Rising

John Waters

A few of the things we can't handle in Ireland are balance, paradox and complexity. It's either all or nothing, black or white. For decades, marooned in a pseudo-nationalist fog, we turned our backs on the Irishmen who had fought in the Great War - until Kevin Myers woke us from our sleep of evasion. Now we cannot get enough of talking about the Great War, though I've noticed that Kevin appears to have been sidelined in the clamour to occupy the bandwagon. Interesting, that.

Now we threaten to rush in what might be called the other direction, dismissing those aspects of our history that don't appear to sit with the newly-approved narrative. Foremost among these is 1916, which, less than two years from the centenary, becomes the subject of ominous interventions from various luminaries seeking to displace the Easter Rising from its pedestal as our central mythology of freedom.

One of the most persistent voices in this regard has been the former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton, who last week made a lengthy submission to the Government, describing the Rising as "completely unnecessary", on the grounds that Home Rule was already on the statute books. He called for the marking of the Home Rule Bill this September, but appeared to suggest that we should forswear commemorating 1916 or other "violent episodes" in our history. The violence of that period, he wrote, "should not be retrospectively justified in the other commemorations that are to be undertaken over the next 10 years". I'm unsure where this leaves commemorations of the Great War.

Mr Bruton was revisiting the theme of a speech made last month in the Irish Embassy in London, in which he argued that Ireland could have achieved "better results" if it had continued to follow the Home Rule path, eschewing armed revolution. In that speech, he also spoke about the damage "done to the Irish psyche" by violence on the streets of Dublin during the Rising and in the subsequent War of Independence and Civil War. He also agreed with a question put by his interlocutor that evening, the BBC journalist Fergal Keane, to imply that Padraig Pearse had "justified" the subsequent activities of the Provisional IRA.

Mr Bruton's comments are of a piece with a long succession of previous interventions in the revisionist tradition, which became rampant during the years of the Troubles, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. In those times, the activities of the Provos made such arguments difficult to answer, there being no way of knowing when the next atrocity would blow the ground from under a dissenting view. It's interesting that, even though the Troubles have been resolved more than 16 years since, those advancing certain perspectives on Irish history still feel the need and entitlement to invoke the spectre of Provoism to bolster their arguments.

There is neither a quantitative nor qualitative comparison to be made between the Easter Rising and the campaign of the Provisional IRA.

One lasted less than a week, the other three decades. The insurgents of 1916 did not go out to kill innocent civilians, did not plant bombs in pubs or public squares. And, anyway, is it possible for someone who precedes something to 'justify' it without anticipating it?

Eamon O Cuiv has challenged as "delusional" John Bruton's view. He says there is no evidence that, without the Rising and War of Independence, Britain would have allowed Ireland to have its own army or foreign policy.

That's as may be. But it may be unwise to pay much attention to what politicians of any kind have to say on these questions: politicians see things in terms of interests and processes, statecraft and negotiation, whereas the insurrectionaries of Easter 1916 saw themselves as leading a nation of slaves towards liberty. Politicians, sitting in a relatively liberated Ireland in 2014, see 1916 as a failed venture, unable to understand that its 'failure' was at the heart of its gloriousness.

In a series of essays written shortly before the Rising, Padraig Pearse detailed the nature of true freedom, and the process by which it would be attained. He also set out the precise nature of the psychological effects of the colonial process in Ireland - some 50 years before the ground-breaking works of the Caribbean-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who exposed the interior workings of the colonial machine in his classic works about the effects of French colonialism in Algeria.

As Pearse made clear in 'The Coming Revolution', what was intended was not a 'revolt' but a revolution - ie a spiritual rather than a political act: "… the people labouring, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonising and dying, to rise again immortal and impassible". Pearse understood that the horse-trading of politicians was never going to make Ireland free.

The battle was not merely 'against' England, but for what he called "the national soul". Freedom had to be achieved by a redemptive act. National liberty was not a concession to be negotiated, but a prize to be won.

"Ireland unarmed," he declared, "will attain just as much freedom as it is convenient for England to give her; Ireland armed will attain ultimately just as much freedom as she wants."

We have sat back and allowed ourselves to be told many untruths about Pearse.

It is today almost impossible to speak above the re-echoing cacophony of these untruths. But Pearse was a great man, the greatest patriot our country has ever been blessed by.

The fact that we have made a poor fist of the gift he and his comrades bequeathed us should not allow us to justify the further insult of refusing to remember what they achieved.

Irish Independent

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