Historian criticises 1916 generation


THE CONTEMPORANEOUS regard with which the lord mayors of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtain, who was murdered, and Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike – both in 1920 – were held in their native city can be gauged from the acknowledgment given them by their political opponents, a debate on their legacy has heard.

Prof John A Murphy said Mac Curtain and MacSwiney attempted to improve the lot of Corkonians during their short tenures as lord mayor. Their good faith was recognised by their unionist opponents on Cork Corporation.

“When Mac Curtain died, the expressions of sympathy came not least from the unionist representatives on the corporation and it was unionists on the corporation who seconded the motion for the election of Terence MacSwiney,” Prof Murphy noted. “That proves that what they were doing for the city in that short period, when they set out to explore the social problems of poverty and poor housing, was accepted in good faith by people who didn’t have any political sympathy for them.”

While both men were cast in a heroic mould, he added, it would be wrong to think of MacSwiney’s hunger strike as being undertaken out of some kind of pacifist idealism as it was simply part of a wider strategy, including armed struggle.

Prof Murphy was speaking at a debate entitled Mac Curtain and MacSwiney: A Legacy Squandered or Fulfilled?chaired by former MEP Pat Cox.

It was organised as part of a series of events to mark the 200th anniversary of their school, the North Monastery.

Dr Ruth Dudley Edwards told the debate, attended by 500 people at Cork City Hall, that while they were men of “high ideals and courage”, she believed their legacy was a bad one as a result of the direction their lives took.

She questioned what mandate both men and others in the Irish Volunteers had to stage the 1916 Easter Rising and then engage in the War of Independence – two conflicts which she described as Ireland’s first and second civil wars of the 20th century. She also wondered what mandate had those who engaged in the Civil War and the Northern conflict.

Many involved in all those conflicts had been inspired by both Mac Curtain and MacSwiney but had disgraced their memories with their brutality.

Another historian, Dr John Paul McCarthy, likened Mac Curtain and MacSwiney and others of the 1890-1916 generation to Lenin’s theory of the vanguard, where a small unrepresentative elite dictates the pace of change through the momentum of violence.

He criticised this generation for its limited capacity to think in the abstract and said their approach to politics and public administration cast a long, dark shadow over the Irish State until the 1950s, when it essentially collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

“We need this 1890s-1916 generation like we need a hole in the head given our current difficulties . . . this generation have nothing to teach us in terms of our current predicament,” Dr McCarthy said.

Author Tim Pat Coogan said MacSwiney by his death on hunger strike brought “a moral integrity” to the struggle for Irish freedom but he believed that the legacy of both Mac Curtain and MacSwiney had been squandered in a modern Ireland blighted by corruption.

Mac Curtain’s granddaughter Fionnuala Mac Curtain said she believed strongly that but for the Irish Volunteers and men like Mac Curtain and MacSwiney, “we would not be sitting here today with the possibility of a free and just Ireland”.