Heroes or murderers – the dilemma of 1916?
Joseph Kelly : “I say to my people that they are holy,
That they are august despite their chains.
That they are greater than those that hold
them, And stronger and purer,
That they have but need of courage,
and to call on the name of their God,
God the unforgetting, the dear God
who loves the people
For whom he died naked, suffering shame.”
In the coming few months you’ll hear and see those words in many places – in the press, on TV and radio, on posters, sweatshirts, mugs and teatowels.
Written by the great Irish poet, scholar and revolutionary Patrick Pearse, this poem, The Rebel, has become the litany that epitomises the hopes, emotions and despair of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Pearse, (whom I’d rather remember as a rather good Catholic newspaper editor), was the intellectual and spiritual fulcrum of the events that led to this iconic moment in Ireland’s history, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year.
Over in the United States this week, Irish American statesmen and politicians were joined by actor Liam Neeson to announce a programme of 200 commemorative events across the USA exploring not only the events of 1916, but also “a larger celebration of the shared history and enduring bond between Ireland and America.”
Closer to home, Ireland’s Department of the Taoiseach prefaced its announcements carefully with: “The Government is committed to respecting all traditions on this island equally. It also recognises that developing a greater understanding of our shared history, in all of its diversity, is essential to developing greater understanding and building a shared future.”
So, yes, it’s going to be a year of commemorating an armed political uprising by a small group of Catholics that resulted in hundreds of deaths and a string of executions, but the Irish government will be ensuring: “that 2016 will be a year of rich and diverse activities when the full complexity of the last 100 years on this island can be explored and celebrated.”
(Unfortunately that’s not entirely true as the key event marking the year of celebrations – the 1916 Easter Parade along O’Connell Street – can’t take place this year due to major roadworks so – to huge embarrassment all round – that’s been postponed until 2017. They also seem to have got the date wrong – as the Rising ought not to be commemorated on our shifting Easter Sunday, but on the anniversary of the actual day it started, 24th April.)
In many cities across the UK there will be 1916 commemorations of sorts, though, like the USA and Dublin, organisers are already getting into a dreadful tangle trying to balance the historical facts and landscape of the period with the changing times and obsessive political correctness of today.
That’s something I can empathise with entirely. My family background on both sides is Irish, and with strong Republican connections. My father’s ancestors were Leitrim farmers with many activists and supporters among them, and my mother’s family had strong links to Michael Collins and the Wicklow Brigade of the Republican army.
My great aunt Mary was a courier for the IRA, taking secret dispatches hidden in her bicycle pump from the Wicklow hills to Collins and his gang at the An Stad Hotel in Dublin’s Frederick Street, a notorious rebel command centre owned by my great uncle, Larry Walsh.
Family legend also has it that my grandfather was a pall bearer at Michael Collins’ funeral – though it seems hundreds of Irishmen have made this particular claim!
I was weaned on all the colourful fodder of romantic Irish republicanism – from fireside stories on summer holidays in Leitrim, to the rebel songs my father played in the lounge at home, and the social events we all attended as a family.
It’s the songs I remember most – they were so popular and endemic that we hardly noticed their content as we talked or danced away to them – The Wearing of the Green, Boys of Old Brigade, the Minstrel Boy, the Rising of the moon, the Foggy Dew.
The most vivid of these songs I remembered as a young child was Under God’s Rising Sun, a huge but unlikely hit performed by the Johnny Flynn Showband.
This wonderfully smooth waltz was ubiquitous on Irish compilation LPs of the time, and near compulsory as the smoochy finale to many a reunion dance.
As a young child the lyrics of that song made a huge impression on me – not that I understood in the least their political context, but they just so colourfully summarised all the swirling stories and family legends I’d been brought up with:
It was down in the town of old Bantry,
Where most of the fighting was done,
It was there that a young Irish soldier,
Was shot by a Black and Tan gun.
As he raised himself up to his elbow,
As the blood from his wounds ran red,
He turned to his comrades beside him,
And these are the words he said:
“Won’t you bury me out on the mountains,
So I can see where the battle was won?”
So they buried him out on the mountains, ‘
Neath a cross that stood facing the sun.
They wrote: ‘Here lies a true Irish soldier,
Who was shot by a Black-and-Tan gun.’
And now we are back in old Dublin,
our victory over and won,
We think of our comrades we buried
under God’s rising sun.”
Growing up in and around London’s Irish scene in the 70s and 80s, all this slushy nationalism developed a far darker complexion, as the new IRA set about bombing mainland Britain. The old subliminal messages of the ploughboy heroes of 1916 morphed readily into far more menacing and divisive images of masked gunmen, hunger strikers and burning barricades.
Much like Islamic radicalisation today, many young Irish people I knew were dragged easily over to this dark side, seduced by the powerful connections between old wars and modern terrorism, human rights and urban marginalisation.
It was a huge and convincing pull, especially as in all too many cases members of the Catholic establishment were complicit – if not overt – in their support for the IRA, and there were few voices brave enough on either side to remind us of the Fifth Commandment.
When we peer back into Irish history there’s no denying that Catholics were persecuted to the point of extinction, and the horrors of the Great Famine were an indisputable case of systematic genocide.
In some ways who are we to judge the desperation of those Catholics ancestors? Does starvation, disease and annihilation create the circumstances of a just war?
Within living memory we all know the sufferings in Ireland as a consequence of the Catholic desire for national freedom, and the Protestant wish to prevent it.
But the atrocities were on both sides, and true peace only comes when ALL suffering and loss has been acknowledged.
There have been many great moments in Ireland’s history, as well as many sad ones, but the Easter Rising of 1916 is a hugely tricky one, however you look at it.
Its leaders, and Patrick Pearse in particular, were all Catholics, and it was for a Catholic cause that they marched into Dublin, and called on the nation to join them. Indeed Pearse, who once claimed to have “spoken with God on his holy hill”, saw the event very much in terms of a real resurrection, and the date of Easter was chosen carefully and symbolically.
Unfortunately these men, who unilaterally declared the Irish Republic, consulted with neither Catholic Church nor Catholic laity before shooting up the Post Office and generally bringing a week of mayhem and murder to the centre of Dublin.
Recent research by Glasnevin Cemetery has revealed that 485 people were killed as a result of this brief action, and almost one in five were under the age of 19. As the week wore on there were increasing civilian casualties, with 45 innocent victims on the final day of the conflict alone.
It’s also a fact – and a splash of tragic colour to the story – that many Catholics didn’t actually support the rebels, and simply failed to turn up and fight on the day.
For them the Government and Ireland Act 1914 (or Home Rule Act as it was more commonly known), introduced by Prime Minister H.H. Asquith in April 1912, was already set to bring a peaceful, and balanced independence – and it was just on hold due to the outbreak of the First World War.
(Ironically, by 1916 most Irishmen willing to take up arms were away in France, heading for the mud and carnage of the Somme, performing heroically alongside their British so-called masters.)
To many the call to arms of 1916 put all that progress in serious jeopardy, and in many respects the Rising was a catastrophe far beyond its immediate failure, not least in that it created two sectarian states, and a further century of violence and murder.
No surprise then that many Protestants have said they’ll have nothing to do with this year’s commemorations.
You can understand their emnity, though I’m hoping it might also fire up a few reflections and reconsiderations on the equally inflammatory nature of Protestant military commemorations. In truth, it’s probably high time we all put away our fifes and drums and moved on.
It’s only mid-January, but I’m getting the strong feeling that the 1916 centenary celebrations won’t amount to much, whatever Liam Neeson and the politicians say.
Young people in Ireland just aren’t interested in all that armed conflict stuff – for them it’s a link to a past they’re working hard to get away from, and with great success. (Unfortunately far too many are also dumping their faith heritage along the way, but that’s another story!)
Yes, Pearse, Clarke, MacDermott and the others were architects of one small moment in Ireland’s great and ancient history but – like all those colourful heroes of my Irish childhood – they were also determined killers on a pretty unilateral mandate, and that ought not to be forgotten too.
In the light of very recent events and the emergence of Daesh and other terrorist groups, I’m sure I’m not the only one reassessing our history and political folklore.
Even in our increasingly secular society, the essence of the Fifth Commandment seems to be reasserting itself. If society can embrace that in the context of armed conflict, then maybe there’s fresh hope for the sanctity of life in other spheres too?
I end this article in genuine turmoil – long dead ancestors no doubt turning in their graves and close family members probably already ‘unfriending’ me on their Facebook pages. I can’t help but feel a huge sense of betrayal of my inheritance, but equally something far deeper inside me just can’t make that final step to condone the killing of another, whatever the cause. And I truly thank God for that.
• Joseph Kelly is the CEO and Editor of The Catholic Universe.