Easter Rising seen as an exercise in futility

Opinion: There’s an overlap between views of John Bruton and cheerleaders for the IRA’s 1971-1998 campaign

It’s more than a pity John Bruton has never been much of a one for mischief. He might have contributed to the gaiety of the nation if he’d ended his contribution to a debate in the Irish Embassy in London last month on the significance for Ireland of the first World War by bursting into a sardonic rendition of that most rousing of republican ballads: “Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors/That’s the flag we Republicans claim/It can never belong to Free Staters/You have brought on it nothing but shame.”

Leave aside for a moment the competing analyses of the 1916 Rising and speculation about the trajectory events might have taken had the Rising never happened. The point is, there’s a rough overlap there between the perspective long held by Bruton and the viewpoint now of the cheerleaders for the IRA’s 1971-1998 campaign in that both believe that the 1921 partition settlement fell so far short of the aims of the Rising as to reduce the event to an exercise in futility.

The shift in the official republican position has since smoothed some of this roughness away.

Blandishments of the British

Bruton’s conclusion is that the partition settlement was as much as was achievable at the time and could have been secured without an uprising. On the other hand, the tradition which the Provos set out to revive on the back on the civil rights campaign held that much more could have been won had Griffith and Collins not fallen for the blandishments of the British: the task now was to take up arms to save honour and complete the job.


“Leave it to those who are willing/To uphold it in war or in peace/To the men who intend to do killing/Until England’s tyrannies cease.” Used to raise the rafters at closing time, that.

Bruton leaves a lot out of his account. Insofar as useless waste of life is at issue, he might have mentioned – although no surprise that he didn’t – that the tens of thousands of Irish who died in the first World War died for no good reason. Indeed, he appears to believe that the unspeakable bloodletting of 1914-1918 was rather a splendid affair.

Given the ideology he espouses, Bruton cannot acknowledge either that the Rising was a genuine strike against imperialism, whereas the Great War was a clash between rival robber gangs, with the proles as expendable fodder. (The Oh, What a Lovely War account remains the most accurate of the narratives.)

Nevertheless, specifically within the context of Irish history, the common ground between the Redmondite ex- taoiseach and modernising Sinn Féin is considerable – and more considerable now than in the days when only songs of struggle sufficed.

All respectable heads now bow in remembrance of the fallen of the Great War. No longer the shout of rage against those who bribed and bewildered them into service of king and another country.

The dead of 1914-1918 should, of course, be remembered, but never without anger against the recruiting sergeants, political and military, who gladly dispatched them to their dreadful end in cloying trenches. But to show disrespect for the Last Post and Chorus would now be seen as reprehensible disruption of peace.

It’s said the Irish soldiers who fought for Britain were ignored and insulted when they – some of them anyway – straggled home. There is truth in this, but not all of the truth. Some of us can remember being taught, literally at our father’s knee, of the Catholics who went over the top in hopes of a united Ireland and the Protestants who died to preserve the union and the contempt for working-class lives which this signified. The fallen were not forgotten on our street.

We hear none of that bitter disillusionment from John Bruton, and rarely hear it any longer from official republicanism. In the interests of peace, it seems, we must eschew or at least moderate condemnation of war.

Ireland wasn’t alone in averting its eyes from the maimed who made it home. Legless veterans begged on the streets of England, then saw their suffering sentimentalised in a ubiquity of poppies. Same as ever. Kipling’s thin red line of ’eroes earned their place in history and literature at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 in Crimea. “It’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and ‘chuck ’im out, the brute’/ But it’s ‘Saviour of his country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” (Crimea. There’s another place we sorted out.)

Those who railed against the traitors who’d brought nothing but shame to the cause have now accepted partition until such times as peaceful efforts can usher in unity – Collins was a bit more belligerent than that – which surely brings them and Bruton by circuitous route to agreement at last. Meanwhile, the anti-war tradition can be said to be more needed and relevant as ever.