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Telling the story of Easter 1916

Republicans should exploit its ambiguity to make some current popular history

Patrick Pearse loved his students not wisely but too well, if you know what I mean – what with writing poems about kissing them on the mouth and relocating his school from the healthy hustle-bustle of Ranelagh to dark woodlands in Rathfarnham. Oh, and his students didn’t necessarily reciprocate the affection: a teenage James Joyce dropped out of Pearse’s UCD Irish-language lessons because the teacher was an ideological bore.

That’s just a sample of the titbits you’d pick up from Colm Tóibín’s long essay on 1916 in the London Review of Books, arguably this season’s archetypal commemorative/explanatory text from Ireland’s media/ intellectual establishment. Whether you regard it as barrel-scraping to discredit the Rising or an exemplary eye for the telling detail is a matter of taste – if you’re like me, you might reckon it’s a bit of both – but one can’t help but notice the contrast between Tóibín’s forensic litany of Fenian foibles and failings and his breezy flypast of, say, World War I.

In the writer’s brief telling, the war was on the verge of Bringing Us All Together, something Pearse and the boyos couldn’t abide and wouldn’t permit:

“Britain was merely the supposed enemy. The population of the two countries spoke the same language after all, and had the same education system. Many Irish people moved back and forth between Ireland and England seeking work; many in Ireland also had family in England. While most in the south of Ireland actively or tacitly supported Home Rule, Home Rule was postponed until the war ended. It looked as though the two islands were going to join forces in the war effort. (More than 200,000 Irishmen eventually volunteered in the First World War. Although conscription was threatened in Ireland, it was never actually introduced.)”

Recall that Tóibín is addressing, in part, an international audience that may be getting its first substantial account of the Rising, that his article is billed as “Colm Tóibín tells the story of Easter 1916”; this audience will hear nothing from him of the consequences for Home Rule of the Ulster crisis, of Irish carnage in the war, nor of the massive, life-saving popular movement that arose in part from the Rising to resist conscription in Ireland, conscription that was not merely ‘threatened’, but introduced in legislation.

Some contexts are, it seems, more worthy of contextualising than others. As the brilliant blogger Richard McAleavey writes:

“Questions about whether Pádraig Pearse, say, was a fanatic, or a repressed paedophile even, are intended to psychopathologise any kind of radical political action or thought. They are intended to draw attention away from consideration of the real material conditions and political considerations that produced the Rising, lest they might be used to draw the wrong kind of parallels in the present”.

Material conditions? In 17,000 words, Colm Tóibín’s only mention of Dublin’s infamous slums is in a quote from arch-revisionist historian David Fitzpatrick, who says the rebels must have staged the ght in the midst of the city’s poor to ensure maximum casualties among them – as though it were the rebels who loaded the shells into the Helga’s guns, or the rebels who went house to house in North King Street murdering young men. These and other aspects of, shall we say, imperial ‘agency’ have been largely neglected throughout recent commemoration and coverage, in favour of relentless scrutiny of the Rising’s leaders.

Just below the achingly familiar debate about the Easter Rising – was it an act of visionary heroism or an act of perverse terrorism? – there lurks a more interesting series of questions about its relationship to what came after. And those are the questions that can lead us beyond dry argument and actually help us understand who commemorates what in the Ireland of 2016, and how those commemorations have played out and continue to play out in the state and corporate media.

1916 in 2016: anti-water charges protesters outside the CrossCare Food Bank Centre in Dublin Industrial Estate

Thus you can be on either side of the heroism/terrorism split and still hold (tightly or otherwise) any of the following views: (1) the state(s) in which we reside today can be understood as a direct and roughly intentional outcome of the Rising and its guiding lights; OR (2) Ireland over the last century has been a fumbling, contingent, contradictory and ultimately limited effort to fulfil the Republic of 1916; OR (3) the Irish revolution launched at Easter 1916 was firmly defeated in the Treaty and thereafter by an elite that concealed its continuity with the ancien régime behind reluctant memorials to supposed revolutionary heroes. (There are other positional alternatives and variations on all points of the political spectrum but these seem to me to be the major tendencies.)

Official and media Ireland prefers to hold and host tiresome debates about the Rising itself (Kevin Myers? Bob Geldof? Really?) rather than any really clear exploration of where we live today in relation to it. Positions number 1 and 2 are generally implied rather than directly stated, with a little frisson of excitement when the likes of Michael D. Higgins suggests that the truth may lean further towards 2 than 1 – a sort of “a lot done, more to do” view of a Republic that still awaits its full and complete child-cherishing achievement.

In mainstream media, position 3 – that there was a successful counter-revolution – is almost unthinkable, or at least unspeakable, residing outside the realm of acceptable discussion.

And yet it seems to me that it lurks with influence on both the right and left wings of Irish politics. The more or less overt Redmondism of John Bruton and other conservatives – often more Redmondite than Redmond himself – contains an implied celebration of the ‘restoration’ of constitutionalism in Ireland, coloured by regret over militant republicanism’s recrudescence in the Northern Troubles, but not reliant on that regret for its critique of the rebels of 1916-21.

The left-wing, pro-Rising version of position 3, alleging that there was a successful counter-revolution in Ireland, is more openly and interestingly embraced. Important gures on the Irish left, including within Sinn Féin and in the water movement, have been articulating it in recent years, including at this year’s Easter commemorations. It has become a mainstay of leftist speechifying and social media. It will, I suspect, feature prominently in the civilian ‘Reclaim the Vision’ commemorations late in April. (And it will remain virtually inaudible in mainstream media.)

Yet some of those who have been most explicitly advancing this analysis, arguing that we inhabit a state that defeated an Irish revolution, have also been among the loudest complainers about media and official hostility to the ideals and tactics of the Rising, as expressed in recent weeks. Really, you’d think that the more appropriate response would be along the lines of “Voilà! Told ya so”.

Thus, for example, left-wing and republican social media exploded in anger and dismay when, early in March, Dublin City Council draped a banner across the pillars of the Bank of Ireland in College Green honouring the tradition of constitutional nationalism, from Grattan (whose parliament sat in that building) to Redmond.

At one level, the banner was of course absurd: that Dublin’s single most visible marker of the Rising should be a tribute to men whose politics the Proclamation rejected. (The defence of the banner by guardians of establishment common-sense such as Elaine Byrne and Ronan McGreevy was telling in its historical ignorance.) But surely such ‘inclusivity’ is exactly what we should expect from a ruling class trying to twist this year’s memorials to their own counter-revolutionary ends? What could possibly make us think that ‘our’ version of the Rising would be respected in the state that crushed it?

In truth, it’s difficult these days for even the most devout adherent of the workers’ republic to forswear any and all aspects of the actually existing Republic of Ireland – not least because our political opponents are themselves so confused about it. (It’s also nice when its president makes a good speech.) A certain amount of uncertainty, theirs and ours, is no sin. One way for us to advance a rebel politics for the 2020s will be to exploit that confusion over the coming years of continuous centenary, to connect our aims to a genuinely popular republicanism, driving home the socially revolutionary aspects of the 1916-23 struggle, and connecting them to the international politics of resistance in that period and this one. (The new Irish-themed edition of the New York-based magazine Jacobin has made a stirring start in that direction.)

The media establishment have not established 1916’s relevance

For all there is to admire in the socialist, feminist and otherwise liberating impulses that drove so many to the Rising, the case for the Irish revolution gets much clearer in the years of popular, militant resistance after 1916, especially in 1919-20 when there are workers’ mini-risings across Ireland as elsewhere in Europe. A year or two ago I had the disconcerting experience of showing the 1916 rebel grave in Arbour Hill to the great Italian leftist novelist who goes by the pseudonym of Wu Ming I: reading the words of the Proclamation etched into the wall there, I found I had to encourage this perceptive comrade to see past the family resemblance to fascist nationalism, especially in the quasi-mystical personi cation of Ireland. I persuaded him, I think, but textual analysis alone would scarcely have accomplished the task.

The real history of women’s and workers’ place in the fight, from 1913 onward to and beyond 1916, tells the story far more clearly. The post-Rising story is not simply one of executions and martyrdom sparking further rebellion, but of a population increasingly engaged in political struggle for its material well-being.

That real history, and popular memory of it, have probably helped keep the worst sort of blood-and-soil commemoration at bay. Some liberals may claim the rebels were fascists, but the Blueshirts, lacking the courage of their founding fathers’ convictions, can’t generally bring themselves to shout it from the rooftops.

It’s true that the conspicuous, indeed exclusive, militarism of the Easter Sunday parade went a little way in that direction, as did some elements of the RTÉ Centenary gala whatsit at the Bord Gáis theatre on Easter Monday.

That show started with an absurd tableau of the nation awakening in the forest primeval, followed by some muscular warrior-dancing by Cú Chulainn, whose portrayal by a black dancer somehow deepened rather than tempered the sense of national mythologising. Then, a little while later, there was the smarmy, sure-to-be- viral video in which, armed by a confident wee colleen, an ancient standing stone shoots rays of pure Irishness all around the earth to shiny places where shiny people are somehow possessed to recite the Proclamation. (Yes, that’s the New York Stock Exchange emblemising the Republic’s resolve to pursue the people’s happiness and prosperity.)

Within the hour, however, the programme had retreated to the comforting confusion of chaotic montage, and Imelda May’s show stopping version of Kermit the Frog’s ‘Bein’ Green’ returned us all safely to the realm of mild self-mockery, where Irish mainstream discourse is consensually in yer granny’s, and where we don’t talk about the North.

The truth is, in 1916 yer granny and mine probably wouldn’t have been able to come to any consensus about the Rising. Its leaders and fighters were radicals, dividers, at the cutting edge of thought and action about, variously, culture, class, nation and sex. And not least, and most relevantly today, about imperial war. It is surely no coincidence that the people today most likely to highlight the red ink in the yellowing balance-sheet of ‘physical-force republicanism’ are also least likely to note the fresh, daily, continuing slaughter wrought by physical-force imperialism. In fact, they are most likely to be imperialism’s celebrants, just waiting to welcome the tough new President Clinton to town in 2017 or ‘18.

Whether Constance Markiewicz would have happily stood by Hillary’s side at Shannon Airport is a silly question, though it doesn’t take any great imagination to hear Clinton, or Miriam O’Callaghan, or Sean O’Rourke, invoking the twinned image of these trailblazing women in the not-too-distant future. We should try to resist the time-travelling impulse – sorry Marian, no more ‘what would James Connolly think of our little Republic now?’

If we want to assess whether we are cherishing the children equally yet, it should be because they are worth cherishing, not as the end-point of an argument about what was meant by a document printed in Liberty Hall, where Markievicz and her pistols guarded the printing press, just an eventful century ago.

Let’s not take ‘let history be the judge’ too literally. Let’s make some history of our own.

Harry Browne