Regime Change or Revolution?
Be wary of commemoration. Be careful about what you celebrate. Not only may they be perniciously divisive but they may also grossly distort the truth which should first and foremost be the guide to authentic freedom and the ground on which we build our lives and our communities. When we commemorate what we call the Irish Revolution we should know that it was not really a revolution – certainly not at the time. It was a rebellion against the authority of the state and a rejection of its legitimacy. Those who rebelled were undeniably revolutionary in their intent – although their revolutionary agendas were not uniform.
While Ireland’s 1916 rebellion ultimately achieved regime change, for most of the century nothing else of a very radical nature happened. Ireland remained much the same culturally. The flowering of Irish literature, drama and the burning commitment to a Gaelic Ireland which had flourished in the two decades prior to the rebellion were in fact never matched again in the century which followed. In fact the new regime ultimately alienated many from the ideal of a Gaelic Ireland by seeking a compulsory imposition of Ireland’s native language on the people. Ireland is much less Gaelic at the beginning of the 21st century than she was at the beginning of the 20th. That is tragic. She is quintessentially Irish, no less now than she was then, although that Irishness is now heavily influenced and characterised by Anglo-American culture. Meanwhile, her Gaelic soul is on life-support.
Politically, Ireland continued to be ruled and administered through the time honoured institutions it had inherited from the old regime. That was no bad thing. They are the institutions, the machinery of state, that are envy of most of the world. In terms of political life, for many decades Ireland stagnated in the strait-jacket of the enmities generated in its post-rebellion Civil War. Only now, in the 21st century, does there seem to be any hope of escape from that. Escape to what? That remains a moot question.
For most of the 20th century the new Irish State sought to assert her sovereignty in the world and for a number of the early decades sought somewhat ineptly to do so economically. That came to an end with another Act of Union, union with the evolving entity which is now the European Union. Clearly there were differences between the terms and conditions which applied under this Act and the Act of 1801. Just as the terms and conditions of that first Act had evolved into a more benign character by 1900, so also the terms and conditions of our union with Europe are of a new order as well. By 1916 Home Rule for Ireland had been put on the statute books.
The modern British state has evolved by Burkean principles for more than two centuries. Its mode of change was and remains evolutionary and constitutional. This was not good enough for the Irish. The Irish insurgents took the law into their own hands in a way which would be an anathema to that greatest of Irishmen, Edmund Burke. The foolish violence which ensued, after the inept leader of the militants tried to call off the planned insurrection, begot more and equally terrible counter-violence, including the foolish execution of the Insurrection’s leaders. Ireland has had to live with the consequences of that ever since.
One way or the other – and probably it had nothing to do with the act of rebellion in 19 16 – Ireland is now a society much closer to the mores and ideals of Rosamund Jacob, P.S. O’Hegarty and the Sheehy-Skeffingtons of that time. If it was a revolution, it really was a long revolution. What cannot be denied is that in what is now about to be celebrated there is much of the tragic – not least the loss of almost 6000 lives between its inception and its celebration 100 years later.
But human history will never be devoid of tragedy. How could it be otherwise if what Christian theology and divine revelation tell us is true? We are a fallen nature and on the level of nature much of what we touch does not turn to gold. This may be denied by the Jacobs and the O’Hegartys of the New Ireland – of whom there are now many more among us. That does not make it any less true.
Commemorate? Yes, perhaps. There was nobility and heroism in the lives of many of those who sought to carve a different identity for their country than the one they found it had in their time. Celebrate their actions and all their consequences? That path seems more problematic. Commemoration allows for a level of questioning of the wisdom of those we commemorate? Celebration seems not to do so.