Friday 22 February 2019

The real moral of 1916 is that Irishness is not a contest

The awkward truth about the 1916 Easter Rising is that most of us would have probably opposed it too

PRIDE: Ryan Tubridy — in ‘awe’ of the men of 1916
PRIDE: Ryan Tubridy — in ‘awe’ of the men of 1916

Eilis O'Hanlon

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress caused by holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and Ireland is awash with it right now as the country approaches the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Not republicans. They've always been comfortable with men taking it upon themselves to blow things up, together with whoever happens to be nearby at the time. No cognitive dissonance for them. It's the rest of Ireland which is showing signs of conflicted thinking as the centenary approaches, not least Ryan Tubridy, who has been waxing lyrical about the "pride" he feels in the men of 1916.

"These guys were poets, they were artists, they were thinkers... They firmly believed in blood sacrifice and the love of their country. And I am in awe of them."

Really? Tubridy now? That nice man off the telly? The one who gave Socialist TD Paul Murphy such a hard time on the Late, Late Show about the rowdy protest in Jobstown which trapped Tanaiste Joan Burton in her car for a few hours?

There's a delicious irony in well-behaved middle-class boys and girls enthusing over bloodshed in 1916 when they'd run a mile from any hint of the same in 2016. It certainly can't be a huge leap to suggest that, had he been around at the time, Ryan Tubridy - or at the very least a man in his equivalent position, with the same apparent temperament - would not have felt this way about events that Easter week.

Or indeed to say that most people in modern Ireland would not have felt that way either.

The Irish Independent's editorial in the week following the Rising, which denounced those who organised the coup as "insane and criminal", is often quoted by cartoon nationalists as an example of some shocking betrayal of the "real" Ireland; but it simply articulated the general mood at the time.

"Around us in the centre of Ireland's capital, is a scene of ruin which it is heartrending to behold. Some of the proudest structures in what was one of the finest streets in Europe are now reduced to shapeless heaps of smouldering ashes."

Far from being unpardonable apostasy, those words represent an entirely natural reaction to seeing hundreds of people slaughtered in an abortive coup which even some (though not all) of its own participants regarded as a symbolic "blood sacrifice" with no hope of success, and which lasted only hours before they were surrounded and surrendering.

Those who opposed the Rising did not do so because they were British lickspittles, but because, as the same editorial made clear, they genuinely believed that the rebels had scuppered hopes of Irish independence for another generation.

That mood changed quickly, for well-rehearsed historical reasons, but they didn't have the benefit of hindsight. That doesn't mean they were wrong to feel angry or horrified at what had happened.

"The net result of the outbreak is, in brief, the loss of many valuable lives and a large toll of wounded extending to many hundreds, perhaps thousands; the wholesale surrender of the Sinn Feiners; the monetary loss to Dublin and to Ireland of many millions of pounds, the ruin of some of the finest business districts and the destruction of many buildings, the beauty of whose architecture was a legitimate source of pride to the citizens of the capital."

The vast majority of Irish people reading those words at the time agreed with every word; and as we play at being armchair rebels, 100 years on, it's all too easy to brush off the inconvenient truth that most of us would probably have been no more enthusiastic about the Rising back then than we would be now if it happened again.

Ireland is still a bourgeois country, not easily roused.

That's not to denounce or demonise the men of 1916. It's as easy to vilify history from a distance as it is to defend it with the same gap of time; but it exacts no physical or psychological toll whatsoever to support violence when the victims are long dead and safely in the past. Try being so blase when it's one's own family and neighbours who might be on the receiving end.

Broadcaster Joe Duffy has compiled a list of 40 children killed during those few days. These included a two-year-old child killed by a bullet which passed through the hand of her mother, and a 10-year-old boy called Christopher Cathcart, whose family shared a six-room house with three other families, 27 people in total. He was out playing on Easter Monday when word was sent to come home. He was killed in crossfire. Another two-year-old was "shot through the head at the level of ears" near Father Mathew Hall in Church Street.

In a pattern which would be followed in the North during the Troubles, the number of civilian casualties was more than double that of the British Army, the supposed targets. These things happen in war, as Gerry Adams would say, but we wouldn't be so accepting if Christopher Cathcart and the others were children we knew.

There is no one right or wrong answer here. It's complicated, as the saying goes. That's why programmes such as RTE's History Show are invaluable right now, encouraging intelligent debate about the Rising rather than wrapping the issue in cheesy jingoism.

The last thing it needs is for the Easter Rising to be turned into an excuse for macho posturing. The dangers of that are obvious. During last weekend's Road To The Rising re-enactment, John O'Keeffe was performing with his accapella group, and, as he told Liveline during the week, found himself berated by some passers-by for singing It's A Long Way To Tipperary, which they decried as a "British Army recruitment song".

It wasn't so much the catcalls which were disturbing as what happened afterwards. When O'Keeffe tried to explain the actual provenance and popularity of the song, those who had raised objections walked away because they didn't want to hear anything that conflicted with their world view. These are not issues that can be safely confined to the past.

Ryan Tubridy says he is in "awe" of the 1916 rebels, but it's not that hard to find young men, and to a lesser extent women, who are willing to give up their lives, and that of plenty of others, for a cause. The truth or otherwise of a conviction bears no relation to the passion with which it is held. If voices called now for a "blood sacrifice", most of those in Tubridy's place would recognise the fanaticism as well as the emotional appeal.

We're all hypocrites to some extent in our attitudes to violence, but the best place to start is by recognising it, rather than elevating certain beliefs to the status of holy credos because it suits us in retrospect and because we don't personally have to pay the price.

The people of Dublin who opposed the Easter Rising were every bit as Irish as those inside the GPO. Patriotism is not a contest.

Sunday Independent

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