As Ireland continues to work itself up into a frenzy over the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising few in Irish public life are willing to consider the inconvenient fact that the majority of Dubliners descended from the men, women, and children who were part of the rising are descended from either looters, disapproving bystanders, or members of the British armed forces. Back in 1916 the armed struggle for Irish freedom was a minority sport, and even today – as we have seen in the campaign against austerity – the majority run in fright from militant struggle. No one appears to get the irony that it was a tram drivers’ strike in 1913 that kick started the Dublin Lockout (a definite precursor to the events of Easter Week 1916) as the Irish media continues to condemn the threat of a LUAS strike over this Easter bank holiday weekend.
We are picking and choosing what we remember and celebrate as we near the one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 attempted Irish revolution. There is, I believe, as much to be learned from the history we ignore as there is from that which we tell. History’s silences are informative. It’s no secret that in the chaos of the violence of the rising many of the denizens of the nearby slums descended upon the city to loot the demolished shops and stores. Dubliners today recall with relish the tales they heard from their own grandparents of women emerging from the broken up front of Clerys’ department store with prams laden with new clothes, children raiding sweetshops, and men wandering about the streets with new suits.
In the heroic version of the glorious rising both the British soldiers and the Republican volunteers took it upon themselves to shoot many looters on sight, but then there are other versions, remembered by many Dublin families, of volunteers abandoning their posts in the Liberties when news got out that the whisky distillery on Marrowbone Lane was on fire. It is at least conceivable that a number of volunteers and British soldiers met one another in this effort to rescue the whisky. We don’t know, but anything was possible in the mayhem.
Discussing this less ideological aspect of the rising might be thought by some as a sort of treason; tarnishing the memory of the deeds many in Ireland consider martyrs. Personally, I refuse to believe that violence ever makes martyrs. That’s the language of a dangerous extremism from which our world today is suffering in no small measure. These were human beings, and rightly or wrongly they were doing exactly what human beings do in such situations. Some fought gallantly, others looted, and others still did both. From the stand point of a revolution we have to ask if their deeds were any less heroic.
Quite apart from the Irish Catholic nationalism of Pearse and others there was another insurrection taking place – one which had all the characteristics of the one that would later unfold in Russia. For many of the socialists manning the barricades in 1916 this was not merely a fight against the British Empire. This was a do or die against imperialism. To Lenin, if we care to remember, imperialism was the highest development of capitalism; the system that had systematically reduced the poor of Dublin to the death sentence of the tenements and slums of the city. Surely their opportunistic effort to redistribute the wealth of the ‘Second City of the Empire’ was an act of resistance, a rebellion in its own right? Yet, the gilding of a century and the victory of the bourgeois in Ireland, has made this inglorious revolution more difficult to see.