Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Troubling Legacy of 1916

I have interrupted my Irish language reading to browse Tim Pat Coogan's History of the IRA. People unfamiliar with Ireland might not realise that the IRA (the Irish Republican Army) has a long and complicated history, encompassing various splits and changes of approach. The IRA of the 1950s was a very different organisation to the IRA of the 1920s, and the IRA of the 1970s was radically different to both of them. The IRA was an illegal organisation in the Republic of Ireland for most of this state's history. 

At the moment, I'm only interested in the IRA of the thirties, forties and fifties-- before the outbreak of the Troubles. My grandfather was involved in the IRA at this time, and indeed he was held in an internment camp by the Irish government. My entire family on my father's side belonged to the tradition of radical Irish republicanism which rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty. I'm partly interested in this subject for that reason. 

I'm also interested in it through having recently read a biography of Brendan Behan, who was a member of the IRA in his youth, and who lampooned them somewhat when he became famous. According to the biography I read, it was Behan's old IRA comrades who remained loyal to him, despite this lampooning, when he was in his last phase of self-destruction and had alienated everyone else.

The IRA of these decades attracted a great many intellectuals, writers, and idealists, so it's a big part of Irish social history.

In contrast to the horror of the Troubles, it can seem that the IRA of the middle of the century were more comic opera than anything else. Anecdotes and reminiscences often portray them as hopelessly quixotic and ineffectual. Many of their leaders were devoutly religious (in more recent decades, Marxism took a hold of the organisation). One story in Coogan's book describes how one of the IRA's training camps, located in the mountains, ran out of food. There were plenty of cattle in the vicinity, but none of these diehards had the stomach to shoot a cow!

However, reading Coogan's book rather explodes this whole atmosphere. Whatever funny stories might be told, the truth is that many people were shot, bombed, executed (sometimes as informers) and died on hunger strikes as a result of IRA activity, even before the Troubles. (Tim Pat Coogan is quite controversial as a historian, but I'm simply going on the primary sources he quotes.) Reading about these killings is sickening-- especially the executions, which were performed by both the IRA and the Irish government.

A few days ago, I was reading the writings of Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Rising. Although I admire Pearse enormously, I'm very troubled by some of the rhetoric he used, for instance in his oration at the graveside of Wolfe Tone:

Ireland one and Ireland free —is not this the definition of Ireland a Nation? To that definition and to that programme we declare our adhesion anew; pledging ourselves as Tone pledged himself —and in this sacred place, by this graveside, let us not pledge ourselves unless we mean to keep our pledge— we pledge ourselves to follow in the steps of Tone, never to rest, either by day or by night, until his work be accomplished, deeming it the proudest of all privileges to fight for freedom, to fight, not in despondency, but in great joy, hoping for the victory in our day, but fighting on whether victory seem near or far, never lowering our ideal, never bartering one jot or title of our birthright, holding faith to the memory and the inspiration of Tone, and accounting ourselves base as long as we endure the evil thing against which he testified with his blood.

When I read those lines, I can well understand why idealistic men and women (and, indeed, boys and girls) would decide that the programme of 1916 would not be fulfilled until it could be truly said that Ireland was "one and free". Furthermore, how could the use of violence to attain this goal be condemned, since the 1916 rebels had used violence? And how could the lack of a popular mandate be used as an argument against the use of violence by any group, since the rebels in 1916 represented a radical minority at the time of the insurrection? (The population later swung behind them, and this seems to have been the expectation of every subsequent incarnation of the IRA.)

I often wonder what Pearse and his fellows expected to happen in Northern Ireland. Did they expect that the Ulster Unionists, who had solemnly proclaimed their loyalty to Britain and their willingness to fight to preserve this connection, would simply go along with a united Ireland once the British were removed? That seems extraordinarily naive. Did they think they should be coerced into a united Ireland through force? That seems extraordinarily ruthless-- indeed, unthinkable.

Please note, I am not drawing an equivalence between the 1916 Rising, the IRA of the nineteen-fifties, and the IRA of the Troubles. Indeed, I believe that the 1916 Rising was remarkable for the chivalry with which it was conducted-- despite some lamentable incidents. Nor do I believe that 1916 was responsible for the Northern Irish Troubles. I think the Troubles grew out of a context of ethnic strife which had little reference to Irish romantic nationalism, although the rhetoric and imagery of Irish romantic nationalism were drawn upon by one side.

However, I can't help agreeing, even if it puts me in the uncomfortable company of many anti-nationalist and revisionist historians, that the 1916 Rising left a dangerous legacy. So ultimately, although I'm fascinated by the Rising and greatly admire those who took part, I can't say that I think it was justified.


  1. It's always very difficult to look back at a situation from a century later a make a definitive judgement on the wisdom of a particular situation.
    Even if it's less than a century: People still find the perceived restraint of PiusXII during World WarII puzzling, or the silencing of Cardinal Mindszenty by PaulVI at America's request, even though only decades have lapsed since.
    History will always be written and rewritten, but we still need to know history.
    An addendum:
    For some reason I didn't mention at the time, but for St Patrick's day you mentioned that you were taught little in school about the subject. I had a teacher in Phibsboro who was different (for some reason we had her several years running) every year she would give us an oversight on story of St Patrick and beyond-up to the Viking days. I mostly remember her illustrating it with different coloured chalks on the blackboard-I'm not sure that I'd remember it otherwise. I can remember in particular her round Tower and burying or hiding precious chalices in it from the Vikings. It may have always been March 16th,I seem to remember school only going until midday that day

    1. It's true that it's hard to look back and make a judgement, but I still wonder...WHAT did Pearse and other others expect would happen in the North?

      I dno't know anything about Cardinal Mindszenty, but I don't think there's any reason for anyone to be puzzled by Pius XII's behaviour-- it's well-documented now.

      We learned a lot about Irish history in school, but I don't remember anything about St. Patrick.

    2. Actually, I do remember we were shown one projector slide show about him. How I loved those projector shows! The darkness of the room and the glow of the screen...

  2. Wolfe Tone, Parnell,a lot of Gaelic revivalists were protestant. Could anyone have felt there was hope for a change in the North? Partition had been considered impossible when originally discussed. We've seen 'populist change' in our own days. But then there's protestant and there's protestant. Looking at some of the extremes that they've had there it does seem impossible but that's with hindsight.

    1. It seems incredibly naive considering the Solemn League and Covenant.