Part I: A Commemoration Nurtured in Bad History?
There is something of the tragic about Ireland and her story. But then, there is something of the tragic in all of human history. Last year Roy Foster published Vivid Faces, his study of the generation and the cultural milieu in which the Irish Insurrection of 1916 and its aftermath fermented. It is a masterful study. It is a book which, if it were read with the detachment from the current received mythology of Ireland with which it is written, will stand as one of the most valuable reflections on that Rebellion which its centenary next year will be likely to leave us.
How honest, how intelligent, will this exercise in the enhancement of the memory of a people be next year – which is what this kind of commemoration is all about? Will it lay before us the “terrible” element of the “beauty” born in those years or will it just give us the feel-good version and go on feeding the legend. This is the legend which has to this day sustained the blood-lust of Sinn Fein and its military incarnation, the Irish Republican Army – and its multiple Hydra heads.
The roots of tragedy often lie in the failure of a man to recognise his inner truth – his real self, warts and all. The value of good history to a people is the revelation of the truths of the past, the motives, the mistakes, the right turnings and the wrong turnings, the good and the bad, their roots and all the things which make that people what they are today. It is not there to condemn or to praise. It is there simply to try to tell the truth.
The curse of bad history – which is no history at all – is that it blinds the people whose story it purports to tell. It is not even good mythology – for mythology is good only when it is true to the core truths which underlie reality. It is a corrupting and pernicious mythology when it does not.
It is unlikely that Ireland in 2016 will be commemorating with any sense of tragedy the events which were the catalyst which brought it independent statehood. Should anyone suggest that the horrors of the years between 1969 and the end of the last century had any roots in the armed struggle which followed the 1916 Rebellion, there will be a shaking of heads and muttering of “no, no, no”. This will be the first self-deception. There will be many more.
There are many passages in Foster’s book which reflect the reality of the epoch and its lingering legacy of hatred of Britain. Ireland now boasts that it has relations with its nearest neighbour that have never been seen before in its history, at least not since the time some fourteen hundred years ago when Irish missionaries crossed the seas and brought Christianity to Scotland and the North of England. It is true that the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 was a watershed in relations between the two islands. We can but be grateful for it. But it is also true that there still resides in the hearts and minds of many of the Irish a level of animosity towards the people of Britain – and of England in particular – that is as deep and unchristian as it is silly and distasteful.
One such passage in Vivid Faces – the title comes from W.B. Yeats celebrated poem, Easter 1916 -tells the story of Ernie O’Malley, a survivor of the Anglo-Irish War which followed the 1916 Rebellion. Having fought in the war and in the subsequent civil war, he lived on until 1957 but never joined the new Irish Establishment in independent Ireland. He cuts a sad figure in the story. O’Malley left instructions for his burial. He was to be buried upright, facing eastwards across the Irish Sea, facing his enemies, the British. But, Foster tells us, he added a coda: “In fact they are no longer my enemies. Each man finds his enemy within himself.” And so he died.
Foster’s achievement in this book is to give us pictures of the dramatis personae of the Irish cultural revival as flesh and blood human beings like ourselves and those around us today. That revival, which began in the last years of the 19th century, fed into a new Irish and Gaelic consciousness. It was one strand of this which exploded in the face of the Government in 1916. It seemed, to a radicalized minority in the Gaelic movement, that the only way forward to their vision of Ireland was through the barrel of a gun. Irish republican mythology has turned that minority into heroes and Ireland finds it very difficult to surrender the comfort of that mythology. The truth is that they were men and women like many of those who are leaders in our country today – no better, no worse. That, however, is not good enough for the myth. The mixture of good and bad common to all humanity is thought to be unworthy of these men and women. We are not allowed to see them as they saw themselves, as for, example, we see in Dr. Patrick McCartan’s assessment of Sean MacDiarmada, one of the executed leaders of the rebellion. He “was bright and energetic but mentally superficial; he had not an idea in his head when (Bulmer) Hobson took him up and directed his ‘education’….he was cunning rather than clever, would do a crooked thing if it served his purpose.” McCartan himself was a survivor. He lived until 1963. He went on to become one of the co-founders, with Sean McBride, son of Maude Gonne and John McBride, another of the executed leaders – of Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s. This new political party was yet another failed attempt to reincarnate the vision of the revolutionary generation.
The executed leaders.
The paradox inherent in Yeats’ “terrible beauty” is terrible in many ways and not the least of them is the distortion of the humanity of the men and women of 1916. With our need to make sacred martyrs of them we simply distorted into a parody of beauty. To seek the truth about them, and to tell it as is was is to be thought of now as sullying their memory. But if we cannot admire them as they really were what is the point of admiring them at all?
Next Friday: Testimonies of the disillusioned