Frustratingly, with the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising approaching, I know myself too well to trust that my lips will stay sealed during the commemorations. So I have determined to lay my cards out on the table; partly to help me make sense of my own thinking on the events and their present significance, and partly to ensure that others are not too perturbed when they see me looking on disapprovingly. It is only right that the Rising be remembered. Few other events in the long and turbulent (and, as yet, unresolved) story of Ireland have been stamped with such weight upon Irish nationhood, statehood and personhood. Easter 1916 is identity forming. So let me begin by saying that no one should attempt to quieten or deny this significance.
Easter Rising 1916 (@IrishRepubIic) February 03, 2015
Historically, it is an event which troubles me. As a Scot who has lived in Ireland all of my adult life, and who has campaigned and continues to campaign for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, I harbour a deep sense of warmth and admiration for the historical Irish struggle for the same. Yet there is a sobering nugget in the immediate background on the Rising, and that is that even as the rebels took their positions around Dublin Irish Home Rule and the inevitable road to independence was already a fait accompli. Without a single shot being fired, through the democratic parliamentary process, what Ireland was to become by 1923; only after a bloody war for independence and an even more destructive civil war, had been achieved in 1914. Of course now we use different language for armed rebels who occupy public buildings, and even in 1916 the great majority of Dubliners saw this as an act of terrorism.
Britain naturally takes the blame for the destruction of the city, but it was not the British who took the GPO and, in the midst of a global war in which thousands of Irishmen were fighting in British uniforms, proclaimed the honour of “gallant allies in Europe” before opening fire on soldiers with experience of the trenches. It was never going to end well. British officers in Ireland weren’t ever going to have a calm discussion about this fracas. The leaders of the Rising knew this; it was a suicide mission from the start – or rather, a blood sacrifice. Indeed it was. One of the leaders was a fanatically nationalist poet and barrister, and another was actively engaged attempting to transform Ireland into a Soviet Republic. Just how do you think this was going to end, and what sort of Ireland would have emerged from such dysfunctional fanaticism had it succeeded?
The Ireland that did emerge between 1922 and the 1948 Republic of Ireland Act was the work, for good or for ill, of moderates and parliamentarians. Next year we will be commemorating the martyrdom of the leaders and their Rising. Some will even be celebrating. What precisely? It wasn’t successful. If anything it delayed what had in 1914 become a legal and constitutional reality, and bloodied it through another two conflicts and a century of Troubles. It is right, now that it unarguably constitutes the foundational mythos of our nationhood, that we do commemorate this, but a century after the facts we owe it to ourselves – and to the children who did win it by a better deed – to see these events more clearly lest they continue to be used by ideologues of all shades to manipulate us.