Diaspora must be involved in centenary discussions
Opinion: It’s often easier to understand the complexities of your own tribe from a distance
A panel discussion with Roy Foster, Louise Ryan, Maurice Walsh and Diarmaid Ferriter takes place at the London Irish Centre on September 2nd.
In his political memoir, Conduct Unbecoming, founder of the now defunct Progressive Democrats Des O’Malley churns out a familiar myth still prevalent in most dominant narratives of Irish political history: violence perpetrated by the provisional IRA from 1969 onwards was thuggish and uncouth, but violence from an earlier period- committed by Irish republicans during the Easter 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the subsequent Civil War that followed- was justifiable and honourable.
O’Malley is a politician I’ve always hugely respected. He’s also related to me. His uncle, Donogh O’Malley- the Fianna Fáil minister who brought in universal free secondary school education in Ireland- was a first cousin and good friend of my late grandfather, Tim O’ Malley.
But the one-dimensional view of Irish history O’Malley’s memoir presents is not only naïve and misleading, it’s factually inaccurate.
“These terrorist groups, who styled themselves ‘republican’-with no legitimate lineage from the past-took it upon themselves to act on behalf of the Irish people,” O’ Malley writes.
He goes onto say that Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and other Sinn Fein/IRA figures “abused the term republican”, adding that: “the provos had nothing in common with the earlier generation of republicans, who had fought for Irish freedom.”
Brutal acts of violence, carried out by the provisional IRA during the Troubles were, most sane people will agree, barbaric. But then again, violence in any age is horrific. Let’s not kid ourselves amid a subterfuge of nostalgia: Irish history throughout the 20th century was drenched in cold-blooded murder, extreme violence, and tribal hatred. Often it was against the British. But more often than not it was between neighbours and communities, and sometimes even family members.
The provos robbed banks, financed their dirty war through criminal activity, and weren’t proper soldiers, so the logical argument follows. But a plethora of murders, bank robberies, and acts of petty theft carried out before and just after the Free State was formed were all ignored, and left go unpunished, so the Free State could maintain a semblance of stability.
The argument that violence during the Troubles was more brutal and inhumane than during the period from 1916 to 1923 is nonsense. Research by journalist and historian John Horgan suggests former taoiseach Seán Lemass - who is known as the great moderniser of mid 20th century Ireland - was one of the notorious “twelve apostles”: a ruthless covert unit organised by Michael Collins, which killed 14 British intelligence officers on Bloody Sunday, November 21st 1920.
Moreover, Leamass’s brother, Noel, was brutally tortured - allegedly by Free State forces - in the Dublin Mountains in October 1923, before two bullets were put in his head. Incidents like this were extremely common.
Historian Anne Dolan has said that guerrilla warfare was so successful in urban settings like Dublin during this period not only because of the clever tactics of armed combatants, but because the general public were complicit. Many “[looked] the other way when the dying asked for help because they feared death might be coming to their own door,” she wrote in 2010.
It wasn’t uncommon in Dublin during the War of Independence for a policeman to continue to direct traffic, and for people to walk on oblivious, while a murder victim helplessly bled to death on the street. Violence was a normal part of public and private life.
As the centenary events of the Easter 1916 Rising next year approach, many uncomfortable questions regarding Ireland’s violent past will continue to be asked. Perhaps the most crucial one is this: has the egalitarian Republic - as originally envisioned by Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, and the other four signatories of the proclamation -actually been achieved? The answer, it would appear, is no.
The great tragedy of 20th century Irish history is that independence not only exacerbated conflict, but the newly formed Free State continued to export tens of thousands of people, year after year, to Britain, the US, and further afield.
Of those who did emigrate, many returned only occasionally, while others were never heard of or seen again. The most tragic cases fell into unemployment, often became homeless, and eventually succumbed to a life of drink, desperation, and loneliness.
The majority of these “forgotten Irish” ended up in London, and there is evidence that Irish migrants in Britain have much higher rates of depression and suicide than other minority ethnic groups. They never had a say back home, because unlike 115 countries across the world which have systems in place to allow their emigrants to vote from abroad, Ireland still does not.
This democratic deficit is clouded in irony when one thinks of where most of the money to provide arms and keep the political machinery rolling during the revolution came from: the pockets of emigrants. Most were Irish-Americans, who contributed millions of dollars to the cause, egged on by Éamon de Valera, who toured the US extensively in 1919 and 1920.
As I write from my flat in North London, a tattered old copy of the 1916 Proclamation, which I bought on George’s Street in Dublin when I was 14, hangs above my desk. Beside it, there is a map of Ireland. I often contemplate why I don’t just take both items down. But some unconscious motive prevents me from doing so. Paradoxically, in the past six years living in London I have come to learn that it’s often easier to understand the complexities of the cultural value system of your own tribe when you are at a distance from them.
And what about calling out certain martyrs of 1916 as violent fundamentalists? Well, that’s as good as blasphemy. When I held a public interview with Roy Foster last year in this city, I asked the historian was it possible to draw at least some connections between the basic ideas of Pearse’s Catholic fundamentalism- which had an unhealthy obsession with images of blood, pain, suffering, Christ, death, the Virgin Mary, and bullets - to those of Islamic State in the Middle East today. Before I even finished asking the question, a member of the audience shouted out that I was a disgrace.
In the last year I have become increasingly fascinated- through my efforts, so far unsuccessfully, to officially leave the Catholic Church - with how the Irish state I was brought up in was one imbued in a culture of silence, obedience and whispers: where fear is the prevailing narrative.
I don’t normally indulge in sentimental nationalistic nostalgia, but I felt a rare tinge of Irish pride this past May when I witnessed how many of my fellow citizens made the epic odyssey back home, from the four corners of the world, to vote overwhelming in favour of the marriage equality referendum: creating the global #hometovote hashtag phenomenon in the process.
A younger generation of educated Irish individuals, scattered across the globe- who are far more likely to work in journalism, media, finance, education or law, than as navvies digging holes in the road - are a more confident generation than the wave of emigrants who went before us. As Ireland prepares to mark this landmark in her national history, the discussion about it must include them.
On September 2nd, I’ll be hosting one of the first global diaspora discussions on this topic, Reinterpreting the Revolution: A Centenary Discussion on the Easter 1916 Rising, at the London Irish Centre. A formal introduction will be given by the Irish Ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Mulhall. Tickets are available at londonirishcentre.org