Revisionism Revised – by Revisionists

By Jim Smyth

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In 2011, deploring the ‘fundamental hypocrisy’ of official Ireland’s attitudes towards the 1916 rebellion, the (self-described) revisionist, and polemicist, Eoghan Harris, questioned the wisdom of any centennial ‘military display’; ’the republic has no right’, he declared, ‘to parade troops past the GPO’. In 2015, however, he had switched positions. The ‘defence forces should [after all] have a dominant role’ in the forthcoming commemorations. How is this flipflop to be accounted for? Did Harris follow the purported reasoning of John Maynard Keynes:

When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?[i]

Perhaps he had altered his conclusions because his information had changed – by way of the recently accessible Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, for example? In 1976 a Fine Gael-led coalition government banned public commemoration of the rising; today the leader of another Fine Gael-led administration is a self-styled ‘1916 man’. What changed facts changed their minds?

To answer those questions we should begin with 1966 and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s seminal dissent from the official celebrations of the rebellion. In the 50 years since then the ‘history’ of that event has mutated, with Soviet-scale shamelessness, according to, as historian Ronan Fanning’s puts it, the ‘political imperatives’ of the times. Nothing epitomizes more the rocky road to 2016 than the fluctuations in the reputation of Patrick Pearse, a figure sacralised in the 1960s, ridiculed in the 1970s and beyond, and rehabilitated in time for the 100th anniversary of his execution (although his 1977 vintage biographer still thinks he was ‘nuts’[ii]). The iconic image of Pearse stood to the forefront of the events of Easter 1966 which celebrated the proclamation of the republic in parade and pageant, the issue of commemorative postage stamps and post cards, and specially commissioned television drama and documentary, all set to the soundtrack of Sean O’Riada’s majestic Mise Eire. Schoolchildren who took part in the festivities recalled them vividly, but looked back in some perplexity. ‘My generation’ notes the novelist Dermot Bolger, who was seven years old at the time, ‘were perhaps unique in being left so quickly in the curious limbo of being taught certain songs at school one year and seeing them banned from radio the next’.

The reason for the abrupt silencing of inconvenient bits of the past was the eruption of the northern crisis in 1968-1969. Had he have had it his way – as he demonstrated when eventually he did get the chance – Cruise O’Brien would have silenced them two years sooner. By glorifying the use of political violence by a ‘determined minority’ in the past, the state, he argued, sanctioned it, implicitly, in the present. Because of the unfinished business left over by partition appeals to the patriot dead – ‘being taught certain songs at school’ – incited and, to some minds, legitimised, armed struggle by living generations. In his essay, ‘The Embers of Easter’, published in 1966, O’Brien contented that

A few who were not lunatics, but brave and logical young men went to their death for Pearse’s Republic, in whose attainability they had been allowed and even encouraged to believe. They saw clearly that the national territory was not being integrated by semantic exercises; they tried force, sanctioned as they believed by the example of Pearse and Connolly, and they died for the fantasy of a United Ireland at the hands of one or other of the governments which rule the Ireland of reality. The government in Dublin continued to propagate the fantasy while punishing those who acted on it.

Here is the ‘fundamental hypocrisy’ of official rhetoric to which Harris refers. The brave young men to whom O’Brien refers were IRA volunteers in the 1939 British bombing and 1956 Border campaigns. And the dangers of promoting heroicized versions of history were about to get much worse.

For all its pretentions to intellectual detachment, its scholarly austerities, and attendant professionalization, Irish historical revisionism, codified in the late 1930s, has always had an (at the least) de facto political agenda: to purge the historical record of the distortions and misconceptions produced by popular – that is nationalist – ‘mythology’. O’Brien now began to push that agenda vigorously into the open. And as the conflict in the north intensified his critique of its ideological and rhetorical underpinnings on the republican side sharpened. In his 1972 book, States of Ireland, he attributes much of the blame for the outbreak and escalation of the troubles to the incendiary influence of schoolbook history generally and to ‘the cult of 1916’ especially. Even unionist misrule – a rather obvious ‘cause’ of civil unrest – is largely explained in terms of the systemically sectarian, gerrymandered, northern state’s understandable, if admittedly ‘vindictive’, response to the threat presented by a disaffected Catholic minority. Thus, in O’Brienland 1916’s ‘mystique’ is modern Ireland’s malaise – one which the good doctor intended to eradicate. Dr O’Brien was a Labour minister in the 1973-1977 coalition government which prohibited the 1976 commemoration of the rebellion and banned Sinn Fein spokespersons from the airwaves. He personally planned to go further, by drawing up Nixon-style enemies lists, extending censorship into the classroom, and locking up off-message newspaper editors. In short, as he casually revealed to an incredulous American journalist, he proposed ‘to cleanse the culture’. Upon mature reflection, his admirer, Mr Harris, misses the ‘moral clarity’ of that bygone age.

In several ways O’Brien’s analysis provides the template for contemporaneous and subsequent debunking of the Easter Rebellion. To those who accepted the thesis that the valorization of rebellion, blood sacrifice, and martyrdom, had been used by later cohorts of extremists to justify violence, it followed that the rebellion itself should now be delegitimised. That exercise had two basic elements. First, it was argued that the rebels lacked legal and moral legitimacy because they had no popular or democratic mandate (nor, in the Catholic theological cousin of this indictment, did they meet the requirements of a just war); and secondly, the whole bloody business was pointless anyway because Home Rule was on the statute books and would, in due course, have been delivered peacefully.

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith.

The rebellion has been characterized variously as ‘an orgy of violence’, ‘a negation of democracy’ and ‘fundamentally delinquent’; ‘what right’ asks Ruth Dudley Edwards, ‘had the 1916 insurgents to start killing innocent Irish people in Dublin?’ More precisely, as Liam Kennedy points out, before the volunteers took to the barricades ‘the people of inner city Dublin … were not even consulted’! (as if the ill reared rebels had dispensed with the rules of etiquette as set out in The Gentleman’s Guide to Insurgency). Outrage expressed over the senseless carnage visited upon blameless civilians extends, of course, to the sufferings of unfortunates with crown insignia on their caps. Roddy Doyle who wonders about ‘the British officer who decided it would be a good idea to execute the leaders’, would ‘love to see a proper depiction of him. And not as a beefy public schoolboy who has come to teach Paddy a lesson but as a human being, to understand just what sort of pressure he was under.’ If, reasons Harris, the men of 1916 were heroes. ‘Well then, what does that make members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police? Ordinary lads from working class districts who joined the police and suddenly some-one comes up and shoots them in the head’.

Inevitably, these humane sentiments call to mind the words of Breandán Ó hEithir’s stirring anthem of inclusivity:

It’s all about a soldier
Who has carried history’s can,
Who dodged Tom Barry and Dan Breen
The gentle Black and Tan.

‘Twas the curse of unemployment
That drove him to our shore.
His jacket black and trousers tan
Like a badge of shame he wore.
“Subdue the rebel Irish
And shoot them when you can!”
“May God forgive me if I do,”
Prayed the gentle Black and Tan.

(Note: why does Doyle assume that the officer was not a beefy public schoolboy who wanted to teach the Paddies a lesson?)

The other main objection to the rebellion is the Redmondite proposition, championed by former Taoiseach, John Bruton, that the constitutional settlement achieved, by force of arms in 1921, amounted to much the same thing, or even to a bit less, than what would have been otherwise obtained by the ‘politically irreversible’ and bloodless implementation of the Home Rule Act. Counterfactual speculation is unprovable. Plausible ‘what ifs?’, fashioned upon evidence-based assumptions can, however, illuminate the historical process by recovering the role, contingency, and complexity, of choice in human affairs. On the other hand, the seductions of politically-inspired wishful thinking, and the free play of imagination, can prove all too strong. Writing in the Irish Times, retired diplomat Niall Holohan, considers it

conceivable that, without the events of Easter week 1916, the admittedly sharp divisions which have so far long existed between the[,,,] two main traditions on the island could have been greatly reduced – and possibly resolved entirely – solely by peaceful means and normal democratic procedures.  [italics added]

How nice that might have been.

During the 1970s the state, mindful of Provisional IRA claims on the legacy of 1916, attempted to shut down its own foundation myth. Meanwhile, likeminded revisionist historians and pundits sought to debunk it as undemocratic and unnecessary. But by the 1990s, as the IRA’s ‘long war’ gave way to the peace process, political facts changed, opening up possibilities for rebunking the past. Redmondite hardliners continued to lament the road not taken, and as recently as August 2015 journalist Stephen Collins worried over ‘whether the commemoration of violent events in the past can be used as a cover for those still wedded to violence as a political tactic today. Earlier this year in an address to the Fine Gael national conference Professor Fanning sought to ‘dispel the sense of unease that seems to inhibit the constitutional parties from asserting their rightful claims to the legacy of 1916’. More significantly, Redmonite mythology was silently abandoned in favour of a ‘shameless’ and ‘unabashed celebration of the seminal moment in the birth of the Irish Republic.’ The calculation behind that call to arms emerges later in the speech when Fanning asserts that the present day Sinn Fein ‘has no roots whatever in 1916.’ The state and the constitutional parties alone held the tittle deeds to that foundational event. The time had arrived, apparently, for revisionists to revise themselves.

[ii] [ii] Ruth Dudley Edwards ‘Start the Week’, BBC Radio 4 (14 March, 2016).

Jim Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, and author of Cold War Culture: Intellectuals, the Media and the Practice of History (IB Tauris, 2016).

Image source: http://img.rasset.ie/0001f1bc-642.jpg


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