I was twelve in 1966 when the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising – the catalytic event of modern Irish history – was celebrated. It was my last year at primary school, where we marked the occasion by singing patriotic songs and solemnly chanting the Proclamation of Independence with what was, in the context of an all-girl classroom, a commendable emphasis on its third word: Irishwomen. I still have my copy of the astonishingly dull commemorative booklet, which, with its turgid prose, dense print and dull grey photographs of the proclamation’s “signatories”, might have been designed to alienate its juvenile recipients. Not me though. I was made of such devoutly patriotic stuff that I uncapped my swanky green felt-tip pen and wrote a 1916 poem:
On Eire’s white throat a red ruby gleams
Fashioned of patriots’ blood and dreams
There was more, a lot more, and although I cannot recall the rest of it, I do recall the look of strangled mirth on my father’s face as he perused those livid green verses.
By 1966, I’d known for years that you couldn’t dig your way to Australia, and I was beginning to have serious doubts about the existence of a supernatural almighty being, but I was still sure that the Easter Rising was a fine and noble endeavour. I even had a direct connection with our liberation struggle, courtesy of a grand uncle called Michael Mulvihill, who was among the rebels in the General Post Office, and shot dead on as he made his escape from that blazing symbol of British political power in Ireland. Although I was proud of this dead grand uncle – my own father’s namesake – it was a formal pride, nothing like hero worship. My heroes were heroines, “true-life” activist females, as opposed to allegorical or holy females: women like Joan of Arc, Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Anne Devlin and the conspicuously combatant, flamboyantly uniformed Constance Markievicz.
Feet of Clay
Six years later, it was a different story. I was a history student at UCD, where the parricidal, revisionist backlash of the early 1970s was in full swing. Now, with the exception of James Connolly, whose participation in the Rising could be linked with respectable, ongoing socialist narratives, the leading characters of the 1916 drama were fair game for mockery and scorn. Although they were, undoubtedly, as brave as they were conscientious, they owed their posthumous glory to the stupidity of their militaristic executioners. Otherwise, the wider truth of the matter was that the martyrs of 1916 were as delusional as they were unrepresentative.
The “unrepresentative” angle of the revisionist argument, if you could call this adolescent dissent an argument, never quite washed for me because the same critique could have been made of every other liberation movement that matters. Before there are great crowds of meeting and marching “normal people”- be they peasants, slaves, proletarians, females, or non-European “natives” – there is, invariably, an unrepresentative avant-garde of non-conformist and, yes, downright eccentric individuals.
My youthful problem with the terrible beauty of 1916 was its plain and repressive legacy. In the early 1970s we weren’t living the republican dream, any more than the citizens of the Soviet Empire were living a socialist one. We did have a free press and an unarmed police force – and these things are important – but many of our laws and institutions were more informed by Catholic patriarchal values than the classic republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity. This deficit was further complicated by the vicious little war going on in the northeast of Ireland, where the ongoing political injustice was, to my way of thinking, mitigated by the superior social and medical services, not to mention the generously funded educational system, of post-war Britain’s welfare state. (I was so jealous of the seemingly lavish and never-ending grants of UK students!)
In fairness to the 1916 grand uncle, I should say that he was the genuine republican article. An anti-clerical, Jacobin streak runs in my Kerry family. This oppositional tendency is almost as persistent as our squints (strabismus with hypermetropia) and it dates back to a classic clash between my great grandfather, a freethinking schoolmaster, and the local parish priest. I say “classic clash” because priests and teachers were natural authority figures in the rural parishes of nineteenth-century Europe: inevitable rivals if they didn’t get along. Moreover, this particular clash of personality and politics happened in seditious north Kerry, not long after a famously forceful bishop of that same county had declared that hell was not hot enough, nor eternity long enough, for Fenian (i.e. republican) men. (Incidentally, this bishop was a Moriarty, sharing his Kerry surname with those school fellows of Arthur Conan Doyle thought to have inspired the identity of Sherlock Holmes’ adversary.)
The curious, and perhaps peculiarly Irish thing about this family feud with the parish priest is that, while it did entrench anti-clerical attitudes – there were no nuns or priests in my family – it didn’t lead to a permanent and irrevocable loss of faith. My grandparents and parents chose to sustain our Catholic cultural identity on their own terms. We went to ordinary schools, made our first communions and so on, but the rites and rituals were accompanied by a scepticism that enabled me, in due course, to make up my own mind. Even now, I would describe myself as a Catholic atheist.
Citizens and subjects
But now, now that I’m old and grey, my feelings about the Easter Rising have been sieved again, and my republican soul has been rebooted. I live in the realm of the Queen of England, a paragon of constitutional monarchism who enjoys the esteem and loyalty of the majority of her “subjects”, but I would never choose to be one of them. I am more comfortable as a citizen of a republic and, as such, the French Revolution will always mean more to me than the “Glorious Revolution”. My heart lifts to the strains of the Marseillaise, and when I hear “God Save the Queen” there is, still, an inner flinch, a frisson of distaste. And because I identify myself as an Irish European, I’m mildly distressed by the persistence of English separatism in regard to continental Europe. (For various reasons, the Scots and the Welsh don’t choose to affirm their identities in anti-European terms.)
Elements of the English intelligentsia have always disdained the otherness of their closest neighbours. The makers of a BBC documentary about the splendours of the Australian landscape will translate the Aboriginal place-names sooner than they will translate aboriginal British, i.e. Welsh, Scottish or Cornish, place-names. It’s possible that this Anglo-Saxon reticence is rooted in nostalgia for the days when “England”, “home” and “Britain” were synonymous. (I spent nearly two years poring over the correspondence of the British military establishment in Raj India, in which those three words were synonymous.) In the century after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain became an industrial superpower: buying in the cheapest, selling in the dearest, and generally having its own way in matters of language, culture and ideology. It’s more than irritating for the heirs of imperial Britannia’s hegemonic heyday when these upstart minorities presume to rename their streets and cities in honour of their own movers and shakers, and insist on writing their own history, inventing and celebrating their own self-congratulatory myths.
Heroes and poppies
In the UK, the centenary of the First World War has occasioned a barrage of commemorative rituals, films, period soaps, art works, books and exhibitions, and sanctified the red poppy as a badge of British pride. This latter-day poppy fervour, which goes on for weeks, is not just about the First World War. Officially, it’s also in honour of the people who suffered and died during the Second World War and every subsequent conflict involving the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. Unofficially, it’s a way of affirming a collective British identity in the face of new fractures and threats (notably, the jihadi elephant in the room). Fair enough unless, like me, you’re still inclined to consider the First World War as a multi-faceted tragedy, as opposed to a simple victory of right against wrong.
According to this new jingoism, it was for freedom and democracy in the shape of “little Belgium” – invaded by the forces of the evil German Empire – that Britain, ever so reluctantly and conscientiously, went to war in 1914. The full story is perhaps too complex and too morally ambiguous to be remembered, or told, and for most people the salient truth is that 720,000 British soldiers were killed in 1914-18. It’s the sheer scale of the loss, and the fact that the grief was relatively widely shared that informs popular understanding and remembrance of the First World War. The rank and file Tommies are all heroes now, as opposed to victims of a deceitful recruitment campaign and the power politics of the early twentieth century.
Even so, it’s worth mentioning the appeal of a publicly applauded war effort – a state-funded adventure – for young men, especially if you were a poor, unemployed, unhappily married, underfed or inadequately shod young man in search of a break. This consideration brings me back to my grand uncle, who resisted the blandishments of church, state and media, and didn’t volunteer to fight for “King and Country” against the Kaiser and his Huns. (He might well have appreciated the ironic fact that Lord Kitchener, the face of the famous recruitment poster – “Your Country Needs You!” – also had a terrible squint and was actually born in north Kerry.)
By spring 1916, as the British Army ran low in trench-war fodder, conscripts rather than volunteers were required. A few weeks before Easter, Michael Mulvihill was called up for military service. He ignored the call, thus forfeiting his government office job, and becoming a wanted man, liable to arrest in Britain and Ireland. He was already a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. When he and his comrades – who included his brother-in-law Austin Kennan – decided to act on their political convictions, and join the Easter Rising, they knew they hadn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of success in military terms. But that very amateurishness was the whole point of the exercise. Sans training, sans serious artillery, sans armoured cars, these weekend combatants wanted to shake things up, and they expected to be judged by posterity. As things turned out, the all-important emotional, moral and political victory was promptly assured when the authorities executed the leaders of the Rising, and turned them into our very own “Glorious Dead”.
If he had been killed in action as a uniformed soldier of any of the regular armies of the First World War, Mick Mulvihill’s family would have had official condolences, medals, pensions, etc. But none of that mattered in Kerry, where Michael Mulvihill and his comrades were more or less immediately hailed as heroes. Eventually, in the 1920s, when his mother was a widow, the newly independent Irish government awarded her a pension of £1 a week as a dependant of “officer volunteer Michael Mulvihill”. Family tradition has it that she received a letter of condolence from Michael Collins but none of us knows what became of it.
All over Europe, especially in the towns and cities of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, there were young men and women like my grand uncle: ink-stained, bespectacled, bike-riding office workers and teachers who trusted in national self-determination as a key stage in the forward march of economic and political progress. Of course their optimism was misplaced. For many of them, change, any sort of change in the status quo, was progressive, and they welcomed the disruption of the First World War. Few of them could have foreseen the unintended consequences of the great upheaval – civil wars, famines, genocide – and no one anywhere anticipated the sheer resilience of capitalism, its global reach, and its ability to adapt and to generate new inequities.
It’s not you; it’s me
After the Rising, it was only a matter of time before the post boxes were green and Irish school children had the basics of the language that “ghosts” and enlivens our use of English, and lives on in our songs, place names and surnames. Some of the greenery was way over-the-top, as absurd as it was reactionary, and small consolation for the economic poverty of our first fifty years as an independent state. But in politics, hearts and minds count as much, sometimes more, than taxes and gross national produce. For the “native” Irish, self-respect went hand-in-hand with national self-determination. It’s often forgotten that the early twentieth century was a social Darwinist world, one in which we were on the lower rungs of a ladder topped by the “advanced Germanic” peoples. In that climate, was it any wonder that we were inclined to shout and make a virtue of our noble and still largely rural savagery. By way of a sample, of the sheer condescension of the Anglo-Saxon ancien regime, I will quote from the “The Story of Ireland” in the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia.
Who those very early Irishmen were is not quite clear. We can still find characteristic examples of at least three types. There is a very primitive type still to be met with in the west. It is the one which was formerly used in Irish caricatures by unfriendly observers. The forehead is low, the mouth and lower part of the face are large, there is an inclination to a squat figure, and the general effect is that of a survivor from an early period in history. Then there is the tall, often blue-eyed, engaging Irishman of easy address and good-humoured air, who would wile a bird from a bough by his fluent tongue, ready for adventure anywhere. And there is the businessman, chiefly from the north, who carries in his speech and form and features signs of being of a stiffer and less pliant breed, as from Norse, Scottish or English forefathers.
All these mixed together to form the Irish people, and their mixing makes up the whole story of Ireland from the first – a tragic story in the main because the mixing was long delayed. Education and easier communications, however, are fast bringing about a better state of affairs.
The first two types appeared in Ireland before history has any definite record. There must have been a primitive race which was not killed off by the incoming of a brighter and superior race, the different waves of Celtic invasion, first the Goidels and next the Brythons, in the thousand years or more before the Christian era. Both these earlier and later types of mankind contributed to the character of the Irish people today – particularly in the south and west – a strain of primitive man’s long inherited superstition, and, from the finer race, a strain of ideality and sentiment and artistic quality. The one infusion has made Ireland a land given far too often to brawls and bloodshed, while the other infusion has made it from time to time a land where religion and learning have held sway though its remoteness from the centres of intellectual activity left it to stand alone in is preservation of the finer and gentler qualities of life.
My father bought Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia for children in the late 1950s from a door-to-door salesman, and it’s full of this sort of thing. The “Story of Ireland” is a laugh, compared with the “Story of the Jews”, or the stories of Australia and Africa. When all is said and done, we got off lightly compared with other minorities and “primitive” peoples, largely because we were able to talk back in the same language. In the end, we won the right to affirm our identity on our own terms, and we can celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising as the beginning of our story as the citizens of a small and incontrovertibly European republic.