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