By Brian Hanley
For some time we Irish historians have been congratulating ourselves on how an array of primary sources (particularly the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and the Military Service Pension Files) have opened up new vistas for researching the revolutionary period. It has even been suggested that all this knowledge could lead to an embrace of the complexity of Irish history in the 2016 centenary year. Some hope. Instead, 2016 has opened with familiar salvoes from the usual suspects, with the key phrases being ‘blood sacrifices’, ‘Jihad’, ‘undemocratic’ and ‘immoral.’ Fears have been expressed that celebration of the Rising will lead to an upsurge in support for armed republicanism, while the old chestnut that the 1966 commemorations in the Republic played a direct role in the eruption of the Northern conflict has been given several airings. (The fact that in 1966 it was loyalists who actually took up the gun is rarely mentioned). Many of these articles could have been written at any stage over the last 30 years. Indeed some of them seem to be unconsciously inspired by Professor John Joly, the Unionist academic who in 1916 concluded that all what he called the ‘rash and foolish sons of the Empire’ in Ireland needed was ‘sane education … (and) protection from the fanatic and agitator, to whose poison they are at present exposed from their earliest years.’ Joly could not conceive that material realities might have inspired the Rising, and the tone of some of today’s commentary echoes him. It seems that listening to the wrong speeches or reading the wrong books is all that it needs to send someone out with a gun in their hand.
Meanwhile neo-Redmondites have been arguing that the Home Rule leader’s vision offered a way to avoid violence, civil war and partition, only to be thrown off course by the insurrectionaries. This group seem willfully ignorant of Irish political life prior to the Rising, the culture of the Home Rule movement itself and the impact of the World War. After all, it was the leader of ‘peaceful’ nationalism who claimed in early 1916 that it was ‘heroic deeds entering into their traditions that give life to nations – that is the recompense of those who die to perform them’, and that ‘no people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess.’ That, and similar praise for blood sacrifices and militarism, was written by John Redmond after a visit to the Western Front in late 1915. While there he was allowed to fire a ‘large gun’ at the German lines. Discussion about Redmond’s hands-on approach to weapons of mass destruction is sadly lacking from the commentary of his latter-day admirers.
Naturally there has been a reaction to this and to the contrived and convoluted efforts of the official commemorations to be ‘inclusive’ while sidestepping the fact that 1916 involved an armed revolt against the British Empire. In that sense Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster was absolutely right to describe the Rising as a ‘violent attack on the United Kingdom.’ Such candour would be welcome in the Republic’s official centenary events. But much of the criticism of the official commemorations comes with a strong sense of déjà vu as well. It does not help that some of those prominent in campaigns to ‘reclaim’ the Rising are part of Ireland’s ‘republican royalty’, those lucky enough to be in possession of a hallowed surname which allows them to pontificate at length about how their grandparents would have felt about any given subject. Despite angry denunciations of ‘revisionism’, they often show no sign of having read anything by the historians they criticize, and substitute lamentations about ‘betrayal’ for critical analysis.
In 1991 campaigners could justifiably point to a state that seemed to be in denial about about its origins. They organized alternative events because the then Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat government wasn’t really organizing any. In doing so they helped to promote a lively debate about the meaning of the Rising. It is worth noting that in that year an Irish Independent survey found that 65% of respondents regarded the Easter Rising with pride and just 14% with regret. 58% of people agreed that it was right to take up arms, while 66% felt that the ‘men of 1916’ would oppose the modern IRA. In contrast, 16% thought that the rebels of Easter Week would endorse the IRA, an opinion which ironically could be held by both IRA supporters and some of their strongest critics. Nevertheless the survey and others like it showed that, despite official unease, most southern nationalists were proud of the Rising. It was the state that was out of step with popular opinion.
All this changed in 2006, when Bertie Ahern’s government revived the main Easter parade in Dublin. Once armed and masked men had paraded past huge cheering crowds at the GPO things would never be the same. The masked men were members of the Irish Army’s Ranger Wing (balaclavas being de rigueur for elite units) and among those saluting them was the British Embassy’s military attaché. Seated on the viewing platform were representatives of all of the Republic’s political parties, including Sinn Féin. The Irish state had decided to reclaim the spirit of 1916 for itself, and they have been doing so ever since. There is no doubt that many commentators are uncomfortable about this and that some politicians are more enthusiastic about it than others. But it unquestionably reflects the public mood. When Taoiseach Enda Kenny declares himself a ‘1916 man’ he is speaking for the majority of his supporters. Despite John Bruton’s Redmondite nostalgia the Fine Gael grassroots have always seen themselves as nationalists of the Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy variety. The Irish state may have moved to reclaim 1916 only in order to head off Sinn Féin’s claim on it. But that is beside the point now. They are spending millions on projects related to the Rising and sponsoring a variety of events that will be hugely popular.
Hundreds of thousands will attend the commemorative events because they reflect pride in independence and self-determination. Some will feel that independence was not enough, or that it has been compromised in numerous ways since. Others will regard partition as an outstanding injustice, while many will be content that the Ireland of today is, more or less, what the rebels fought for. 2016 offers opportunities to historians if they are prepared to engage with the public. The digitization of the witness statements and pensions files has democratized research, allowing people to examine themselves how the revolutionaries remembered their actions. Despite the condescension of some academics this is not just producing ‘hagiographies’. There is a wave of grassroots enthusiasm for local history, in Dublin’s Cabra, East Wall, and Smithfield areas, for example, where every aspect of Ireland’s story in the revolutionary era is being discussed.
In my experience those attending these events are well able to digest the nuances and complexities of life in Ireland 100 years ago. They often disagree with each other but they are far less hidebound by dogma and score-settling than those (so far) setting the agenda in the media. Both the prophets of doom and the professional critics are out of step. While they ‘party like it’s 1991’, everyone else is just getting on with it.
Brian Hanley’s books include Our Rising: Cabra and Phibsborough in Easter 1916 (Co-edited with Donal Fallon, 2015), and A Documentary History of the IRA, 1916-2005 (2010, paperback, 2015).