IF OUR displeasure concerning the paramilitary display at the funeral of the assassinated criminal Alan Ryan is confined to a moralistic outrage at the calculated affront offered to the State, we will have missed the point.
There is a far more ominous strand in this saga, captured most succinctly in an article in the Irish Mail on Sunday last weekend, in which reporter Alison O’Reilly recalled a 2010 meeting with Ryan, in which he castigated the current Sinn Féin leadership for selling out on republican ideals.
“Martin McGuinness is a Judas,” he said. “The nine hunger strikers who died for Ireland would turn in their graves if they saw what he has done.” O’Reilly pointed out that 10 republican prisoners died in the 1981 hunger strike. When she asked Ryan to name them, he simply laughed.
This remarkable exchange with someone whom journalists seem matter-of-fact about identifying as head of the Dublin branch of “the Real IRA” should provoke deeper questions than we have yet managed to articulate. It takes us beyond parody, beyond our worst nightmares, beyond the most fatalistic prognostications of the Jeremiah revisionists who warned us of the dangers of untreated nationalism.
Here was an unreconstructed thug who had strutted under the Tricolour – which finally draped his coffin as few honest citizens can hope for themselves – appropriating a solemn and sacred national historiography in order to reduce it to his own requirements, but feeling no necessity to know or understand it. Either this is the most ludicrous – and therefore harmless – pantomime, or evidence of something terminal.
I believe it’s the latter: possibly a sign of the imminent death of the Irish nation, certainly of the emptying-out of the patriotic chalice that has sustained Ireland through many centuries of strife and abuse. Unless we seize our flag and history back from thugs such as Ryan there can henceforth be no legitimate, authentic expression of a nationalistic sentiment or a patriotic idea.
For the revisionists, of course, the very idea of Ireland as an integral political concern had become corrupted, perhaps rendering Ryan inevitable. The main context of their prognostications was the bloody campaign of the Provisional IRA, to which most of the aforementioned hunger strikers belonged.
From this perspective, Irish nationalism was ugliness and thuggery from the start. The revisionists sought to demolish any distinction between the Provos and, for example, their 1916 antecedents – proposing, in effect, that the condition now represented by the late Ryan might yet become the naked and inevitable culmination of Irish nationalist endeavour.
In this schema, the whole of our history is junked. Unless we can establish a point of fundamental distinction, and draw a line across it, we must accept the logic the revisionists proposed, and should therefore furl up our flag and slip away into the post-historical night.
But, let us stop to think a little before it comes to that. In truth, surely, there are several lines we might draw across the map of our nation’s history. There is one, for instance, to be drawn between the signatories of the Proclamation and the movements to which the Maze hunger strikers belonged. This line separates a tradition that was overwhelmingly honourable from something that became dark, sadistic and evil. But there is a line to be drawn, too, between the hunger strikers and latter-day “dissident republicans” such as Ryan.
For all the nastiness of the PIRA and INLA organisations to which men such as Bobby Sands and Patsy O’Hara belonged, there was something noble and redemptive about the conviction and sacrifice of these men.
Their actions were born of an idealism that today has become inaccessible in our culture, either through subjective impulse or objective understanding.
The issue, then, is not some intrinsic corruption – or even progressive degeneration – of Irish nationalism, but something far more complex.
What requires to be contemplated here is a protracted historical unfolding, having to do with the increasing self-consciousness of modern culture. In the hall of mirrors that the mass media society creates for itself, it becomes more and more difficult to adopt a sufficiently “virginal” or “innocent” demeanour before the great questions of national realisation, something societies before the middle of the 20th century were able to take for granted.
We can evince a superficial admiration for men such as Patrick Pearse or Roger Casement or Sands, whom we may consider courageous or principled or idealistic, but we cannot today access the inner life of such men, because the self-centred obsessions of our culture render them alien.
Our collective thought processes tend increasingly to assume that this is because such perspectives as they arrived at were freakish by definition, some process of cultural evolution having rendered obsolete and ludicrous the passions that resulted.
Yet, rarely in our history have we required patriotism more than now, when it has become inaccessible to us.
The pervasiveness of a knowing cynicism has made impossible the evincing of an authentic nationalism, and yet the husk of this indispensable phenomenon remains to be misappropriated by a different and more lethal brand of cynic.
And this usurping, causing us to retreat even further from what we cannot understand, accelerates the process which leads to our destruction.