The Rising of Easter 1916 is ‘live’ and politically radioactive
Government betrays the Republic in its fearful desire to placate the ghosts of 1916
The bombed buildings at the corner of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) and Eden Quay on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin. The buildings were shelled by the British admiralty gunboat, the Helga, during the Easter Rising. Photograph: Getty Images
The ethics of the Rising is an important but hindsight issue. The ethics of how we commemorate the Rising is contemporary and pressing. A general ethical rule is respect the dead – of all sides. Respect is not hero-worship, and good historical writing is not a heroes-and-villains tale.
Second, be cautious in judgment, forgive the actions that led to unforeseeable evil consequences, and hold the dead accountable for actions they should have known were wrong. Third, all history (personal or national) has good and bad parts, all ‘part of who we are’.
Saying it is ‘part of who we are’ cannot justify the Rising. Honesty requires facing the full story: commemorating the achievements, and owning and learning from the wrongdoing.
To that, psychotherapy adds: do not scapegoat, blame the world for not understanding you, or assume inherent superiority to others. Christian teaching adds: in conflict, deal first with what you contributed to causing it.
Parts of the Rising’s current commemoration are acceptable, but its totality is deeply disturbing. Let’s acknowledge the bravery and discipline of the insurgents. Acknowledge too their irresponsibility in starting a rising in a city-centre that foreseeably would (and did) lead to far more civilian than combatant deaths.
As for having no realistic prospect of success, while it won’t pass the just war criteria, we can laughingly forgive a gloriously hopeless battle.
Far more serious is the attempt of the Rising’s leaders, without authority from the living Irish people (as opposed to the imaginary authority of the dead generations), to establish a new state and themselves as its government with power to start a war and execute citizens. That can’t be laughed off.
Furthermore, the Rising is not like the Battle of Clontarf (1014), a ‘dead’ event with no contemporary political relevance: it is the template for the two-headed monster run by the IRA Army Council, and for its feral children, the Real and Continuity IRAs. The Rising is ‘live’ and politically radioactive.
The Republic of Ireland is not the Rising’s ghost republic of the dead.
A real republic is created by voters, is established in structures of representative democracy and the rule of law, and lives in the people’s democratic practices and culture which in Ireland’s case go back to Daniel O’Connell’s mass mobilisation of the people.
A group of unrepresentative gunmen can only create a pretend-republic.
First, no other event in Irish history is celebrated in comparable fashion. President McAleese once expressed the hope that we would visit our history not to find what divides and scapegoats but what unites and reconciles.
Wasted words, alas: today’s Government elevates an event violently anti-British and intensely anti-unionist.
Second, praising the Rising as the defining event in Irish history implies that it was justified and is a model for political action. A democratic government speaking thus undermines its own legitimacy.
Third, the excuse often made is that ‘we must reclaim the Rising from the men of violence.’ But the Rising’s leaders were men of violence: the ring of Sauron cannot be turned against its master.
To celebrate the Rising is to celebrate their anti-democratic elitism and bloodlust. One cannot have the Rising without having its meaning, and that meaning empowers Provo-land.
Third, if the Government wants to be ‘inclusive’, the Garden of Remembrance should also commemorate those who, like O’Connell, worked for Irish freedom but didn’t shoot anybody.
Are not Garda Jerry McCabe and others who died under the bullets of the Rising’s imitators while defending the real Republic more deserving of commemoration than Pearse?
Fourth, the Rising was a shriek of protest at the prospect of constitutional nationalists compromising with unionists. But the real Republic committed to such compromise in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. To be serious about the Agreement’s project, Irish governments must treat it as providing the norm for remembering the Rising.
Not the Rising, but the Good Friday Agreement is the defining event of contemporary Irish identity.
Fr Séamus Murphy SJ is an Irish Jesuit priest who is currently teaching philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.