Draped across the portico of the Bank of Ireland College Green Building (former home of the Irish Houses of Parliament before the British government and their pawns in this country shut down any façade of Irish democracy in 1800 through the old reliables of bribery and coercion) for the past week is a state-sanctioned banner purportedly commemorating the 1916 Rising. The banner displays four faces, those of Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell (all men who died in the nineteenth century, the last being Parnell in 1891), and John Redmond, the British military’s most successful recruiting sergeant in Ireland, who described the Rising as ‘wicked and insane’ and who welcomed the executions of the Rising’s leaders.
There can be little doubt that were Redmond to know that his image would be front and centre to the commemorations of the Rising he would be as surprised as many are disgusted. Redmond’s appearance on anything that is ostensibly designed to commemorate the Rising summarises the confused and ludicrous perspective and view of history held the state and by a number of ‘holier than thou’ type commentators emerging from the woodwork over the past few months, not least the Irish Times’ Patsy McGarry who believes empires to be more legitimate than national liberation struggles.
Some, like John Bruton, have been hell-bent over the past few years on gifting Redmond posthumous hero-status. The narrative has been that Home Rule was some kind of be-all-and-end-all, and that Redmond was a man of peace. Neither slant is correct. Either one takes the view that the best situation is for Ireland to be in a ‘union’, or more accurately a fully subservient relationship, with Britain or any other power or that Irish independence, the ideal that all the people of Ireland are fully free to rule this country exclusively in the interests of the Irish people, is most desirable. To seek Home Rule, where the minimal powers granted to Ireland would be akin to those possessed by the Welsh Assembly today, was an statement on the part of so-called nationalists, like Redmond and his political heirs, that this country is more of a province than a self-respecting nation and is not worthy of ruling itself, that outsiders must ultimately lord over us. The heroes of 1916 rightly and unashamedly repudiated that malignant, defeatist agenda. More power to them and to those who follow in their steps.
Redmond, it has been repeatedly correctly stated, was opposed to the concept of the Irish people fighting for their freedom. Yet, he had no objection to, and indeed pro-actively encouraged Irishmen to join up with the British armed forces to butcher the enemies of the British government be they Germans, Turks, Austrians or Hungarians (people who had never done us any harm as opposed to the people who these Irish men died and killed for) from 1914 to 1918 or be butchered themselves in the service of the world’s largest empire and the pursuit of that insult to Irish nationality that was repeatedly rescinded Home Rule.
Redmond was responsible in large part for the deaths of at least 35,000 Irishmen and the deaths that 200,000 Irishmen inflicted on others in George V’s name in the imperialist murder game that was the ‘Great’ war. If John Redmond was opposed to violence in all instances, it would be possible to hold some degree of respect for the man or at least not hold him in the contempt that he actually deserves, but the fact that he was against the Irish people fighting directly for their freedom in Ireland and endorsed the British war machine’s slaughter of millions internationally over a four year period makes him a justified hate figure. He did not oppose the empire, he wanted a place in it.
He did not seek Home Rule as a ‘stepping stone’, he saw it as a way to create a Redmond fiefdom in the British monarch’s UK. He sought to become a bully-minion and the potential for Home Rule gave him the chance to become the British government’s chief pawn in Ireland. In that sense perhaps we should be somewhat appreciative of the fact that the anti-democrats and thugs of the UVF established themselves to derail Redmond’s ambitions. The heroes of 1916 must also receive due recognition for shaking the Irish people from their continued sleep-walking into greater acquiescence in the British empire, as well as their responsibility for saving countless lives, the lives of people who decided not to join the British Army die and the lives of those who they would have otherwise killed in World War One, once the Irish national spirit was reawakened by Easter Week 1916.
Redmond was an imperialist happy to suck up the crumbs of the empire’s table, hoping that the crumbs he’d get would be bigger than the crumbs given to other colonised peoples. Redmond deserves no public commemoration, and certainly not one that sees the hi-jacking of 1916 to rewrite history to ease the worries of those most appropriately described as West Brits or Shoneens. But, the presence of this warmonger and doff-the-cap face on College Green in 2016 provides us with a much needed reality check of the ideology guiding the Irish state today. It forces us to acknowledge the truth that if Redmond can be held up as a man worthy of commemoration and praise by the powers-that-be, then the revolutionary tradition rekindled in 1916 remains to achieve its objectives in 2016.
O’Connell also features on the banner. While he did not take up the role of British Army promoter, he was still an imperialist. He famously said that Irish freedom was not worth a drop of blood, but that supposed pacifism did not stop him killing a man in a duel. He did not seem to think of the regular human cost of British rule in Ireland made so evident by the deaths through starvation and disease of between a million and two million people during An Górta Mór and forced emigration of a similar number. He was more concerned about the potential cost of rising up against that oppression and tackling it head on. The Young Irelanders, led by Trinity graduates Thomas Davis, John Mitchel and John Blake Dillon, and others like James Fintan Lalor and Charles Gavin Duffy, threw down the gauntlet to O’Connell when it became clear his Repeal Campaign had been little more than a wild goose chase for the Irish people, that the British government would never concede anything to Ireland without force being threatened.
If history proves anything it’s that empires need to be confronted head on, not given favours by subdued peoples and their stoop-backed chiefs in the obsolete hope that substantial rewards will result. It is likely that Catholic Emancipation would not have been granted in 1829 if the British government did not fear a possible outbreak of rebellion in Ireland with the aim of achieving equal rights for Catholics, something which had been promised as far back as the Act of Union by William Pitt, but was never followed through on like so many other promises made to the Irish people by Perfidious Albion.
The story of Catholic Emancipation is more complicated than the moral force of O’Connell winning over the British government to a liberal position. Even though theoretically Catholics could take their seats in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ from 1829, the British government, most likely unenthused by the prospect of Irish Catholics in Westminster, changed the rules of the game to minimise the likelihood of such an undesirable outcome, altering the property qualifications for the vote from 40 shillings to 10 pounds, disenfranchising the bulk of the population. So much for British democracy and the democratic process.
Grattan and Parnell
Grattan and Parnell, the two Anglicans who feature on the banner are more worthy of a place in Ireland’s story than the two Castle Catholics below them. Grattan, while not a republican and not a United Irishman in the 1790s risked a lot by his perceived association with the revolutionaries, believed in equal rights for Catholics and dissenters, and resolutely defended Ireland’s right to legislative independence throughout his lifetime.
Parnell, unlike Redmond, was ultimately committed to total Irish independence, saying that ‘No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation, no man has the right to say to his country thus far thou shalt go and no further’. Parnell was of the mind that Home Rule once achieved could be turned into a weapon to wrest full control of Ireland from Britain and deliver sovereignty into the hands of the Irish people. If the Fenians were prepared to accept Parnell’s bona fides, then we can be quite sure that Parnell was sincere in his separatist sentiments.
Nevertheless, despite those words on Parnell and Grattan, it does not justify their inclusion on a 1916 banner, which is designed to give pride of place to the so-called ‘constitutional nationalist’ tradition, as clear a contradiction in terms as you’ll ever get. How can a true nationalist accept as legitimate the constitution of a foreign power which claims the right to rule another people and country, and in this instance the constitution of a state that isn’t even a written document, but something that is made up on the whim of the ruling authority at any given time?
There is little which is more profoundly anti-democratic and anti-nationalist than that. To call nationalist those who supported the idea of attaining some kind of independence from a foreign power that has imposed its rule over parts of Ireland from 1169-1603 and 1922 to the present, and from 1603 to 1922 over the whole country, without once seeking legitimation for its presence from the Irish people, is an active inversion of the term ‘nationalist’.
This week Sir Bob Geldof, under the guise of a ‘documentary’ on Yeats of the most subjective vitriol, joined the queue of the Patsy McGarry, Kevin Myers, Ruth Dudley Edwards, John Bruton types to demean our national heroes. A knight of the British Empire pontificating to the Irish people that we had no right to assert unfettered national freedom is the height of hypocrisy, especially when he decries the bloodshed that occurred in the course of us striving for freedom. It’s all very simple. If the British Army left this country, there would have been no lives lost to attain what is due to us as a people.
Any individual who accepts a British knighthood has no right to lecture us or any other colonised people on their supposed illegitimate use of force to overthrow the tyranny foisted upon them by the blood-drenched entity for which he spews his drivel. This sad man, who clearly regrets his Irish birth, is incapable of understanding the motivations that drove people to take their freedom. Geldof has a proven record in this regard. Last year he told the Scots they should vote against their independence. He, like revisionists generally, is severely limited in grasping the appeal of sacrifice for a cause greater than the individual.
It is incorrect to say the Rising was anti-democratic. The Rising was determined to rid Ireland of British rule so that a functioning democracy with universal suffrage could be put in place as quickly as possible. It does not require a historian to interpret the Fenian Proclamations of 1867 and 1916 for that to be obvious. The Rising was about putting sovereignty into the hands of the Irish people, in political, cultural and economic realms. Under British rule, Ireland experienced a century and a half of penal laws, hundreds of years of property qualifications and a denial of the Irish people’s vote for full independence in the 1919 and 1921 elections. Ireland voted for 1916 Volunteers, Sinn Féin and a republic, the British government gave us the Black and Tans and all the fruits of empire that came with those paramilitaries.
Instead of having to spend time refuting the anti-Rising, anti-Irish splurges of a generally ‘liberal’ circle of supposed public thinkers, we should be reflecting on the Rising and what our tasks should be following on from that momentous occasion. All of the following are of equal importance. Without achieving one of these aims, we fall short of the achievement of a truly free Ireland. Firstly, Ireland should have a proactive neutral foreign policy. We should not take sides in foreign wars.
That means telling the United States that they can’t use Ireland as a de-facto aircraft carrier for their bombing trips and invasions. Secondly, we need to regain sovereignty lost to the power bloc is the EU- in the immediate term we need to stop the sovereignty-stealing Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Thirdly, we need to focus on achieving the demise of the British government’s slipping hold over Ireland so that all the people of Ireland’s thirty-two counties are able to shape our own future free from further British government interference, we’ve had enough of that.
Fourthly, we need to rebuild our links to our native language and history, we need to be confident in ourselves as a people with a proud past of unconquered resistance. We must never again allow governments to pursue the destruction of physical historical landmarks or the rewriting of Irish history. Finally, and just as crucially, we need to have a society based on principles of fairness and equality between citizens, where private companies cannot make enormous profits while their workers suffer, as we witness right now in the case of the Luas workers’ strike, an apt example of the failings of the Irish state to live up to the dreams of the 1916 revolutionaries on the centenary of their great act. We must strive for a society where resources are shared equally, not one where a certain infamous businessman has the contract for the event management of the state’s most prominent 1916 event.