I can’t muster any interest in the 1916 celebrations

March 23, 2016 History

FERGUS FINLAY: I proclaim that I can’t muster any interest in the 1916 celebrations

I sat through ‘Rebellion’, and the documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. It has all left me cold, writes Fergus Finlay. 

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I HAVE a confession. I was going to keep quiet about it, but then I read an article at the weekend, and I realised I’m guilty: I just can’t get worked up about 1916. There, I’ve said it. I’ve read everything I can. I’ve tried to dredge up all my school-boy memories.

I even forced myself to sit through all five episodes of Rebellion, and the dreadfully overblown documentary series narrated by Liam Neeson. It has all left me cold.

Apparently, it’s because I’m politically correct. That’s according to Gene Kerrigan, whom I greatly admire, writing in the Sunday Independent. “There was a time,” he writes, “up to the late 1960s, when the politically correct thing to do was praise the 1916 Rising without qualification. Your attitude to the Rising was a litmus test, indicating the purity of your Irishness.

“Then, violence erupted in the North. For the next quarter century, the politically correct thing to do was to denigrate the 1916 Rising — with a concession that some of the lads meant well, but they were led astray by Patrick Pearse. Your attitude to the Rising had, by then, become a litmus test indicating the purity of your commitment to constitutional politics.”

Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. The article forced me to accept that I’m still not over the 30 years of murder, maiming, atrocities, and cover-ups perpetrated by “the lads”.

I’m still one of those politically correct types, who believes that nothing, not even the gloriously failed adventure of 1916, can justify a callous and brutal war, in which nearly 80% of the victims were Irish people.

I dread the thought that those who perpetrated that violence continue to derive self-satisfaction, at the very least, from the notion that they are in a direct line of descent from MacDonagh and MacBride, and Connolly and Pearse.

Like most people of my generation, I was raised to look at the 1916 Rising in a particular way. Ask me to describe it and the words I use are ‘heroic’, ‘seminal’, ‘necessary’, ‘martyrdom’. I’ve never really questioned that, and I’m in no position, unlike many of the experts I’ve read, to make a definitive judgement. That may be my failing, but there it is.

But, as I grew, doubts surfaced in me, and I’ve never been able to reconcile some of them. Doubts about Pearse’s seeming addiction to blood sacrifice.

Doubts about how other struggles, and the need for a different class of politics, were always subsumed into the so-called ‘national question’. In early adulthood, I firmly rejected the notion that whatever about 1916, my view of the world would never be defined by who had won or lost the Civil War. And my entire attitude was shaped by the Troubles (isn’t that a wonderful euphemism). I can see the nobility in dying for Ireland, but I can see nothing but brutality in killing and maiming for Ireland. Those who claimed to have lived by the Proclamation of Independence, who asserted their own legitimacy as heirs to its meaning and tradition, continuously dishonoured it by acts of cowardice, inhumanity, and rapine.

So, I can’t claim to be sure what it is we’re celebrating right now. For sure, the Proclamation has resonance for me. Its nearly 500 words, or many of them, still have the capacity to inspire.

The lyrical language in which past assertions of freedom are defended, the proclamation of a sovereign independent state, and the commitment to the freedom and welfare of the nation are noble aims.

As is its simple definition of a republic, its guarantee of religious and civil liberty, its promise of equal rights and equal opportunities for every citizen, its commitment to the happiness and prosperity of the nation, and all of its parts. Also, its overarching promise of equality — “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.

The legitimacy of all that, it seems to me, is not to be found in bombs or bullets or even in grandiose assertions of our place in the world.

Of course, it’s right to celebrate what was undeniably an historic, and often heroic, turning point in our country.

I’m not suggesting we should put them on hold — and there’s a nice irony in the fact that the celebrations over the next few weeks will be presided over, as the Rising was, by a provisional government that still doesn’t know whether it will survive the next month or so.

I’m guessing it’s the Proclamation we want to celebrate — not the violence, nor the blood sacrifice, nor the martyrdom, and not the by-standing civilians and children who died.

Some of us, I suppose, have our individual heroes and villains, but the turning point wasn’t so much the battle (they surrendered, after all), but the stupid brutality of the aftermath and the executions. It is really the Proclamation that has stood the test of time, and which makes us proud still, whatever our other reservations.

But if it is the Proclamation, the question I’m guessing we should ask ourselves is: are we there yet? The happiness and welfare of the nation have an awful lot of clouds hanging over them.

We’re in the middle of a homelessness crisis (and that’s fundamentally different from a housing-shortage crisis, which takes years to solve — a homelessness crisis is destroying lives now and needs radical action now). But we’re also in the middle of a political crisis. Our elected parliamentarians are playing games, jockeying for position, talking about other people’s responsibility, and insisting on reform before they go any further. Here’s a little reform that might match the spirit of 1916 — what about changing the rules, so that TDs don’t start getting paid, and can’t claim any expenses, until they vote in a government?

But, every now and again, something happens that brightens up my perspective. The other night, on the news, I saw children from all over Ireland celebrating the Proclamation in their schools, and singing the national anthem. Watching and listening — the African faces among the children singing their hearts out, the foreign accents among the children being interviewed — I thought, that’s something anyway.

We’ve got a new generation coming along. They’re culturally and socially diverse to an extent the leaders of 1916 wouldn’t have recognised (and some mightn’t have approved of). They’re full of hope and excitement, and they’re learning all this stuff without the baggage we carry.

Maybe they’ll get it in a different way. Maybe they’ll catch the idealism of a republic, and the principles of equality, in a way we’ve never quite got.

Maybe they’re the ones who’ll have what it takes to produce a society in which discrimination becomes a thing of the past. Now, that would be something worth celebrating!

I sat through ‘Rebellion’, and the documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. It has all left me cold.

Copyright : IrishExaminer

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