‘The 1916 rebels still inspire at home and abroad’

Padraig Pearse’s great grand-nephew Ben Phillips on the love of justice which endures

Padraig Pearse’s great grand-nephew Ben Phillips on the love of justice which endures. We speak to him as he visits the GPO. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

This Easter, people across Ireland are proudly commemorating 100 years since Padraig Pearse and his comrades led the Rising against British Imperial rule.

The rebels were not universally welcomed in 1916. They saw that in the struggle for justice you cannot wait till everyone is ready, and that to endure defeat is part of eventual victory. Time proved them right and confirmed their place, and the relatives of the rebels are being welcomed to a series of events by the President and Taoiseach.

I’m attending on behalf of Padraig Pearse’s family. And I am English. It is a great tribute to the values of the freedom movement that I have never met an Irish person for whom this matters.

This is partly because Ireland is a nation of emigrants, its sons and daughters spread across the globe, from Canada to New Zealand and everywhere in between, and so the Irish sense of national family is broader. But it is also because the values that drove the Rising transcend both nationality and time.

Earlier this month I attended the beautiful St Patrick’s Day celebrations hosted by Ireland’s Ambassador to Kenya, where I now live and work for the international NGO ActionAid. The Ambassador spoke some very moving words about Pearse, and so I found myself in a series of wonderful conversations about the Rising.

Listening to Irish expatriate NGO workers, diplomats, business people, as well to the most inspiring Irish nuns who work in Nairobi’s toughest slums, I was struck by how the values of Ireland’s rebels still inspire such a broad swathe of Irish people today.

But I was also struck at the event at how Ireland’s Rising resonated with Kenyans; they too had had been denied their land and their culture, they too had had to win their freedom;. Indeed, it can be said that Ireland’s freedom movement was the first to show that a people colonised by Britain could defeat the colonisers.

But what struck me most from all the conversations was that what inspired people about the Rising was not a narrow nationalism but a love of justice, with people moved by a 100-year-old call for “equal rights and equal opportunities of all, cherishing all children equally”.

(For the Rising to inspire beyond one country is not new. Indeed, we know from the history that even the British officer who chaired Pearse’s court martial could see the justness of cause, commenting “I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel.”)

The idealist poet Pearse, the workers’ leader James Connolly, and the pioneering feminist Constance Markievicz did not struggle only to replace English rulers with Irish ones but to replace landgrabbing by the rich with fair land redistribution to the poor, cramped slums with room to move, painful hunger with full stomachs, squalor with dignity, exploitation with decent work, corporate impunity with workers’ rights, inequality with equality, hopelessness with hope, shame with self-worth. They saw that the struggles for political democracy, economic justice and cultural self-confidence were interconnected and inseparable.

Across the world, those lessons could not be more necessary today. It’s a privilege that my job as campaigns and policy director with ActionAid enables me to support communities campaigning against injustice, and working for more equal societies.

So how come I came to be English and a Pearse? Padraig’s youngest sister Mary-Kate (by birth his cousin, taken into the family when she was orphaned), was the only one of their household to have children. She is my great-grandmother. On a holiday at the Royal Hotel in Galway, Mary-Kate complained to the management about another guest who left the communal bathroom in a mess. The management made the errant guest apologise to her in person. He was Sydney Shovelton. He was English. She liked him. She married him.

She passed onto her Irish-English children the stories of her adored brother, and her pride in the values he lived by. And each generation passed on the same.

Along with so many people across Ireland and across the world, I still feel moved by his call to dream for a more just world and to work to make that dream a reality: “The wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life/ …To dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold./ Oh wise men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true?”

Ben Phillips is Padraig Pearse’s great grand-nephew. He lives in Nairobi where he is is international director of policy, research, advocacy and campaigns for ActionAid, an NGO working to tackle inequality and injustice. He has lived and worked in four continents and 11 cities. He has led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, Save the Children, the Children’s Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. Ben tweets at @benphillips76.

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