Commemoration frustration : the battle for history

Commemoration frustration- The battle for History

As we find ourselves entering the second decade of the 21st century the inevitable debate about the centenary celebrations of the seminal events of the early 20th century has re-opened. It is rapidly approaching 100 years since the words of the proclamation echoed around the GPO yet what those words meant and mean remains fervently contested. It is not only the Rising that will be an issue of contention in the coming years. The Dublin strike and lockout, the formation of the Irish Volunteers and other events are all being put under the spotlight. Republicans must not allow the reality of what happened in those tumultuous years be lost to revisionism and distortion. The seeds for this have been sown for some time now. In the following piece I hope to outline the history of such revisionism, its relevance and aims today and how Republicans must respond.

What is termed as the revisionist school of Irish history gained prominence in the 1970s and onwards. Its adherents claimed that they were dispelling simplistic nationalist narratives of history. They claimed that such readings of history were responsible for the militant Republicanism that they saw as a cult feeding on myth and romantic ideas of the past. In reality the historians practicing such history allowed themselves to become apologists for the atrocities and suffering inflicted by Imperialism in Ireland over centuries. Britain was presented as a benevolent ruler; the famine became an unfortunate by product of chance rather than an indictment of laissez faire capitalism, the landlord system and an immoral occupation. Those historians such as Cecil Woodham Smith who sought to present a balanced and objective historical view were derided as nationalists or Provo fellow travellers!

Padraig Pearse was subjected to what amounted to a character assassination by Ruth Dudley Edwards in her poorly researched biography. He was painted as a proto fascist bloodthirsty maniac. Selective quotes of his writings were used to try and distort a complex man with a multifaceted ideology into a simpleton who clung to physical force. The Easter rising was open season for the revisionists. Historians such as Roy Foster, Tom Garvin and Peter Hart extended the attack to the IRA during the war for independence and the civil war. Garvin accused the IRA of being fascistic in their refusal to accept the treaty. The executions of Republicans without trial by the Free State were justified by him as being a necessary response to extremists! Peter Hart went a step further and simply invented history. Portraying the Cork Brigade of the IRA as a sectarian murder gang he falsified sources and altered or edited other material to suit his agenda. His work was hailed by the media and “intellectuals” as an immensely important work in dispelling the myths of Republicanism. His research was clinically demolished by the historian Meda Ryan in her excellent biography of Tom Barry. Despite this his work continues to be sold and cited by those who attack the credibility of the IRA during this period.

This trend of attacking those who fought against the occupation was powerful and pervaded the Free State media and academia for decades. By now it is no longer a version of history. It has become the accepted history. This has seen statements and events that would have been seen as ridiculous as recent as thirty years ago. One example that would be comical if it weren’t so tragic is the initiative put forward by a Young Fine Gael member in Donegal to commemorate the creation of the UVF this year. This could be passed off as an over eager blueshirt struggling with a severe case of post-colonial guilt but it shows the extent to which apologists for empire have gained influence in directing the historical narrative. This was blatantly evident during the visit of the queen when it seemed more likely that the Free State government would issue an apology for the temerity of the Irish to resist over the years than it was for her to apologize for the atrocities perpetrated by their government and armed forces. Following the visit the retired Garda association has called for a monument in Glasnevin to commemorate the RIC; this would of course be commemorating all the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries who were killed whilst in Ireland. This is the equivalent essentially of the French erecting a monument to the SS and the Vichy collaborators who assisted the Nazi regime.

Having laid out the background to the current debate I think it would be useful to return to three events that will be commemorated over the next four years and how their historical reality reflects how Republicans should treat their centenary. The first is the anniversary so cherished by the aforementioned young Fine Gael member. The creation of the UVF has been included by the Free State government as a part of a number of events that will be commemorated or officially recognised. Allow us then to address what exactly the historical truth is behind the creation of the UVF. It was founded in 1912 to be used as a tool of political intimidation by Unionists. They were opposing a Home Rule Bill which had been passed by the parliament and which had been delayed numerous times previously by the unelected and undemocratic House of Lords. Now to Republicans this merely exemplifies the limits and ultimate failure of constitutional nationalism. However to those who condemn Republicans and who avow proudly their own constitutional commitment this centenary represents an unpleasant reminder of their own failure.

The UVF was openly supported by high society in England. Rudyard Kipling amongst others happily donated large sums for the purchasing of weapons that were to be used to defy the British government and the legislative process. The British military refused to deploy to challenge them when a rumour was circulated that they would be asked to do so. This Curragh mutiny was supported by the Conservative party then in opposition. Having disparaged for years those who argued that Britain listened to force before anything else the Nationalists had been proved spectacularly wrong. Weapons were openly distributed without interference from either the police or army. When the Irish volunteers landed weapons a year later at Howth the police and army attempted to seize them resulting in the bachelors walk shootings when civilians were murdered. The UVF proudly declared that they would not be held to the rules of the government they swore allegiance to. The limits of constitutional means had been shown for all Irish men and women. Those politicians today who will speak at length about the events of 1912 will not dwell on the uncomfortable reality that it was the British establishment who aided the use of physical force in Irish politics. The founding of the Irish volunteers was a natural reaction yet the volunteers unlike the UVF were treated as dangerous subversives.

The Dublin strike and lockout will also be celebrated in the coming years. No doubt figures in the trade union movement, the Labour party and others will attempt to stake their claim to be the inheritors of Larkin and Connolly. The reality is that they have been complicit in the savagery inflicted upon working class people in Ireland by successive governments. The current unions bear little resemblance to the revolutionary and principled men who refused to bend to the demands of Capitalism in 1913. The leadership of SIPTU and other unions live on high wages and work out cosy deals with the government rather than fighting for their workers’ rights. Larkin and Connolly challenged the establishment and fought to ensure that the right to live with dignity was accorded to their members. They were pitted against William Martin Murphy owner of the Irish Independent, a publication which remains committed to the demonization of the public service! The workers were up against the top tier of Irish capitalism. However the bosses also had the aid of the RIC who battered workers who had the temerity to stand up for their rights. The successors of the RIC in An Garda Siochana have continued this tradition. Their brutal attacks against protestors, students and workers in the past two years have shown their true colours. The function of the police in 1913 remains the same today, to uphold the privilege of the few and their grasp on power.

Republicans should treat the anniversary of the strike and lockout with the same respect and attention as we do the Rising. The sacrifice of workers in 1913, the creation of the Irish Citizens Army and the effect it had on Connolly’s thoughts of revolution were all central factors without which the Rising arguably may not have happened. As our communities, families and work colleagues attempt to fight the onslaught of the cuts we must also look to our own role in the class struggle. 2013 should be a year when Republicans bluntly assess the relationship of the national struggle and the social liberation.

2016 will be a momentous year for Republicans. Let there be no doubt that the anniversary of the Rising will be used by constitutional nationalists and the Free State to attempt to bolster their own legacy and credibility. However it will be a year in which Republicans must not only stake our claim to the past but also present our vision of the future. In the midst of the condemnations and attacks we must rise above it and articulate a blueprint for a New Ireland just as Pearse and Connolly did. And just as they did we must stand in unity with those who genuinely share our aspirations. Republican bickering 100 years on from the sacrifice of 1916 would be a poor testament to the legacy of the men who fought and died.

The message of the Rising was that those willing to fight would be those who forced the issue. Words and rhetoric had not delivered the Republic and they still have not. The conviction of those fighting over 100 years ago was that their efforts may not be sufficient but that they had the capacity to force open new avenues to achieve our goals. There was no equivocation over the morality of the use of force. Nor should we in 2016 bend to those who claim that the right to resist the occupation remains in the past.

Republicans have an opportunity in these next few years to push for our vision of a New Ireland. A Secular, Socialist and free country ridden of the twin evils of Capitalism and Colonialism. The path to victory may not always be immediately evident, but the commitment and sacrifice shown by the brave men and women in those tumultuous years leaves us with a burden of responsibility to carry through on their words and to take a stand for the Republican ideals that they cherished.


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