THE year is barely a wet week old and already 1916 is being milked like a prize cow. As might have been expected, Sinn Féin are first in line to claim the Rising as theirs, writes Michael Clifford
While they engage in the standard rhetoric about the events of Easter week not belonging to anybody, this is usually followed by a treatise on why it belongs to them. We are also witnessing the wailing of those who claim that the men of 1916 were betrayed by those who governed the new State. Oh Lord above, please keep us safe during the coming year.
On January 7 in the Mansion House, Sinn Féin launched its Join The Rising programme of events for the year. Gerry Adams urged his followers to join the rising against Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour in the pending election. He mentioned much of the dark aspects of the State, particularly through the early and middle decades of the last century, inviting his devotees to speculate that things would have been so much different if Sinn Féin had been in charge.
In this newspaper last Monday, former Sinn Féin publicity director, Danny Morrison, went further. He compared “the aims, objectives and modus operandi” of the 1916 insurgents with those of the Provisional IRA.
“To justify or to sympathise or at the minimum to understand 1916, is to justify, sympathise or, at the minimum, understand the IRA’s armed struggle in the North,” Morrison wrote.
Complementing these gents’ interpretation of the Rising was the artist Robert Ballagh, who spoke on The Late, Late Show last week about the leaders having been “betrayed” by the State that emerged from turbulence of 1916-23.
“These people (the leaders) were not merely rebels, they were visionaries,” Ballagh declared.
“What they wanted was a complete transformation in Irish society and the nature of that transformation was set down in the Proclamation.”
What would Patrick Pearse — or the other signatories to the Proclamation — have made of the Provisional IRA’s campaign of violence? What kind of Ireland would have evolved if Pearse had been spared by the British, and the death sentence on Eamon De Valera carried out?
Pearse took up arms in a highly militarised world. His engagement with violence lasted six days. There is evidence he was concerned about the loss of civilian life during Easter Week, and his surrender was at least in part down to a wish to prevent further innocent deaths.
None of that is to place the man on a pedestal or even enter the debate about his contested legacy. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest he would have found common cause with the aims or modus operandi of an organisation that persisted with killing for their political objectives over 25 years.
The campaign of violence was fuelled by money from armed robbery, extortion, and a range of criminal activities which involved real victims. The modus operandi required the installation of a regime of fear in many Catholic working class communities in the North. And it was all governed by a moral compass that promoted the killing of anybody whose death was deemed necessary to further the aims of the movement.
One such victim was Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic father of three from Derry. He worked as a cook in a British army base. He was told by the IRA to give up his job or risk his life. He chose to continue supporting his family. On one occasion in 1990, the IRA forced him to drive a bomb into the base and gave him just enough time to flee. The bomb failed to detonate.
On October 24 that year, the IRA took over his house, holding Gillespie’s family at gunpoint while he was forced to drive to a rural spot where he was put in a van loaded with 450kg of explosives.
He was told to drive to a border checkpoint on the Buncrana Road outside Derry. When he arrived at the checkpoint, he tried to get out of the van to warn the soldiers, but the bomb detonated as he opened the door.
The IRA had installed a device to ensure the bomb would explode when the door was opened. Gillespie and five British soldiers were killed by these people who saw themselves as ‘carrying the flame’ from the GPO.
Would Pearse have gone along with that? There is nothing in his background to suggest he was capable of sinking to depravity of that order. One can only speculate; but those who were among the small minority who saw killing as a solution over 25 years do much more than speculate when they claim lineage to the GPO.
What of the Ireland that grew out of the embers of 1916? Sinn Féin, and Robert Ballagh for one, believe it was a “betrayal” of the executed leaders.
Eamon de Valera was a leader in 1916 who was sentenced to be executed but was ultimately saved from the firing squad.
He went on to live rather than die for Ireland. Nobody had more input than he in shaping the State that emerged. That State was a cold, harsh place for minorities; those who didn’t conform to strict mores; and even for the female half of the population.
It was dominated by a Church obsessed with power. And it was governed in an inept manner that did little to alleviate poverty, to the point of pretending that emigration didn’t exist.
But who can claim that it would have been any different under Pearse or the other signatories to the aspirational proclamation? If anything, it might be speculated that Pearse’s Ireland would be more in thrall to the Church; more inward looking; more Gaelic at the expense of catering for the welfare of all its citizens.
What of his comrade-in-arms, James Connolly? For sure, Connolly’s Ireland would have been far removed from what emerged. But would a socialist workers’ republic have ever gained traction among the electorate?
Could the flock have ever been coaxed to leave the Church, keepers of their salvation? One need only look at the outcome of Noel Browne’s Mother and Child scheme, some 30 years after the State’s birth, to realise that the Church and the powerful so-called professions would have ensured short shrift for Connolly.
In any event, a year after the Rising there was a revolution to install a workers’ Republic in Russia. And where exactly did that lead? Connolly was an honourable man, but had he lived it’s highly unlikely he would have any major impact on the State that emerged.
All manner of views from the unreconstructed mythologising of Mr Ballagh, to the outer shores of revisionism occupied by John Bruton, are going to be aired in the year of remembrance.
But please, no more ransacking of graves for political points, either for electoral purposes, or in trying to make spurious likes between Easter Week a century ago and the kind of people who murdered Patsy Gillespie and more than 1,800 other human beings.
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