Reflections on Ireland’s Long Revolution Part 3

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.


Reflections on Ireland’s Long Revolution Part 2

Testimonies of the disillusioned – Irish Zhivagos

Ernie O’Malley’s later life and the records he has left us tell their own story, subjective but very revealing in a way which the sanitised glorification of the New Republic never is. Those who deny that the IRA of recent years bears any resemblance to that of the early 20th century should familiarise themselves with it. O’Malley, in the ten years before his death, reacted to the state-sponsored Bureau of Military History. This was the state agency entrusted with the task of setting down the official record of all that happened between 1916 and the truce of 1921. O’Malley set out to compile what for him would be a true account.

In pursuit of this he criss-crossed Ireland in his old Ford, searched out his old companions in arms and interviewed over 500 of them. The transcriptions of these remain – although the magnum opus which he had planned never saw the light of day. Foster writes: “The memories recorded therein suggest a less sanitized and more embittered memory of revolutionary violence than those of the Bureau of Military History. Violence, expropriation, intimidation, random killings and enduring resentment can be inferred through many of the recollections he recorded.” One of his interviewees regretfully observed, “Sandy Nagle should never have been shot; he was a harmless ould devil.” Sandy, whoever he was, typified the victims of the callous violence of the war. There would be many more Sandys in Northern – and indeed Southern – Ireland when the war was reignited at the end of the century.

One of the literary figures of the early years of the century, George Russell (AE), thought and hoped that the violence of the epoch was just a phase, a “passing illness” contracted from all that had gone on in Europe during the Great War. He was not to know that within 50 years it would sweep over Ireland again in the final decades of the century, leaving a death toll even higher than that of the 1916 Rebellion and its immediate aftermath.

O’Malley and many of his companions might have been the embodiment of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, a revolutionary caught in the blinding light of what looked like a new dawn for humanity but ending up in the pit of disillusion and terror. In his last years O’Malley was still looking for that illusive light – “How does one reconstruct a spiritual state of mind?” he asked himself despairingly. He ended up describing his life as a “broken” one, rejecting the world many of his former comrades had constructed for themselves in the New Ireland.

For some it was an unfinished business

Another dimension of the Irish story which Foster’s book reveals, but which will surely be played down by official Ireland for all sorts of reasons in the forthcoming celebrations, is the strong undercurrent of rebellion against the Catholic ethos of Ireland. This Catholic consciousness, in the aftermath of the persecutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had grown in the nineteenth century and had developed very powerful institutional roots. Indeed, if the commemoration were really honest it would be celebrating the fact that it is just now, finally, after one hundred years, that the dream of some of those revolutionary visionaries has finally come true – the vanquishing of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the rooting out of its influence among its people.

Rosamund Jacob, another whose post rebellion life was one of disillusion and disappointment, set out vehemently at the start to undo the Catholic influence in Ireland. Foster observes of her: “In classic back-to-the-people mode, Jacob records her attempts to learn Irish, to seek out like-minded people, and to make the contacts which would bring her…into revolutionary nationalist circles in Dublin… In this world, she searched for similarly secularist thinkers, though she was often disappointed: her robust if rather reductionist belief that ‘the Catholic Church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world’, and that it was incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic’, did not always meet with approval among her new nationalist companions.”

Jacob, also obsessively interested in matters sexual, would feel much more at home in the Ireland of today where student debating societies regularly rubbish the Catholic Church and Catholic beliefs in terms similar to those she expressed, where secularism is enthroned in Government departments – particularly in Health, Justice and Education – and where, among other things dear to her heart, radical gender ideology, among other secularist dogmas, reigns supreme across ninety percent of Irish media.

Undoubtedly in 1916 the view that Irish Catholicism was part of the national malaise was a minority one – but not insignificant. It would have been shared, among others, by the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, P.S. O’Hegarty and Muriel McSweeney, later to be the widow of the pious Terence McSweeney but not particularly pious herself. She later became a communist. All of these were later to take the view that the undeniably stronger Catholic element in this generation ended up hijacking the revolution and returning Ireland to what was, in their view, a different form of subservience. George Russell was among the disillusioned, moaning in the 1930s about “Catholic thought-control,… smug Catholic self-satisfaction with its own sanctity”.

Next week: The pitfalls of commemorations