Tuesday, November 24, 2015

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Robbing Events Of Their Meaning

Liam Ó Ruairc reviews a recent book on the Easter Rising.

James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney have produced an interesting, valuable and timely short book on the 1916 Easter Rising and how it has been commemorated since 1966. The authors are clearly sympathetic to the republican insurgents of 1916. They provide a fine account of the Easter Rising and its context, emphasizing that it was a historical event in global terms. They locate the 1916 Rising in the context of inter-imperialist rivalries and labour unrest,and how it resonated from India to Burma, from Lenin to Ho Chi Minh.

This is a welcome progressive alternative and counter-narrative to the standard official accounts of the period. But the book is especially valuable for its discussion of the issue of historical memory and its connection to the peace process. Heartfield and Rooney provide an excellent critique of the so-called 'Decade of Centenaries', clearly influenced by some of the most creative insights of Frank Furedi (1992) Mythical Past, Elusive Future: An Essay in the Sociology of History.

The authors first examine how the Rising has previously been commemorated, and how central taking ownership and control of anniversary commemorations was. Eamon de Valera 'owned' the 50th anniversary of the Rising in 1966, celebrating it as the foundation of the 26-Counties state. Liam Cosgrave tried to ban the 60th anniversary in 1976, only succeeding in losing control of it. In 1991 Charles Haughey clamped down on the 75th anniversary, choking it. But for the 100th anniversary in 2016 "the Decade of Centenaries has given up on trying to control the event, and chosen instead to decentre it and dilute it, by putting it alongside other events, of supposedly equal significance." (150)

The 1916 Easter Rising is being 'decentred' and 'diluted' by being put on par with the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the 1913 Dublin lock-out and the battle of the Somme; all the dead should be equally remembered and respected, be they insurgents in Dublin or Irishmen in the British Army - a kind of 'lowest common denominator' type of history. This has the effect of downgrading the Easter Rising and its significance.

Heartfield and Rooney point that there are three major flaws with this decentering and dilution of history. Firstly:

The plurality of the Decade of Centenaries, by seeking to build cohesion through recognition of mutual suffering, is robbing events of their meaning. Seen only as suffering bodies, the mean and women who took part in these conflicts are being denied the motives that made them take up arms.(149)

Secondly, not only are events robbed of their meaning, but there is the problem of moral equivalence. The Decade of Centenaries being committed 'to respect all traditions on this island equally' refuses to make any moral distinction between those who fought in the British Army, the Easter Rising or in the UVF. For the authors, "to suspend critical judgement on the rights and wrongs of this historical period is to lose oneself in non-judgementalism and relativism." (5)

Thirdly, the Easter Rising and other historical events are being used to promote 'peace and reconciliation', 'promoting respect and mutual understanding' :

in other words, we have the discipline of history being manipulated to suit a contemporary political imperative. In short, history is to be bastardised when it suits, in order to underpin the politics of the peace process ... It contrives an ahistorical, manipulated and retrospective consensus about the legacy of 1916 and other events in order to bolster, in the crudest of ways, the contemporary peace process. It is worth remembering the words of historian Roy Foster when he said 'for all the well-meaning government rhetoric about 'our shared history', revolutions are about antagonism, not reconciliation'." (5-6)

The fundamental flaw in this 'shared history' concept as Brian Hanley has shown elsewhere is this:

That Ireland and Britain share a history is a historical fact but they did not share an equal history: only one was conquered by the other and only one became a global empire. Ultimately, and allowing for all the complexities and nuances that British rule in Ireland involved, in the last resort the Crown depended on force to hold this country. Attempting to commemorate 1916 and avoiding mentioning this lest it give offence will ultimately satisfy nobody. » (Brian Hanley, "Who Fears to Speak of 1916?" - History Ireland, March-April 2015, 10)

There are however a number of points Heartfield and Rooney make that the present reviewer has issues with.  One gets the impression that the authors see Rising as "founding event of the Irish state" (ie. p. 147) It is however a mistake to assume that the 26-County state is a continuation of the Republic that was proclaimed in 1916. The founding act of the 26-County state are two Acts of the Westminster parliament: the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, both of them passed in opposition to the Republic proclaimed in 1916.

The authors seriously downplay Connolly's pro-German stance during the First World War. (115-116) Whatever the internationalist propaganda written during the first six months of the war, or the initial slogan of serving neither king nor kaiser, Connolly's position rapidly moved from a declared stance of neutrality to an intensely partisan, pro-German position. Connolly welcomed German victories because, the weaker Britain became, "the stronger became every revolutionary force". German victories for Connolly were the victories "of the most enlightened nation in Europe " whose democracy is most feared by the cunning capitalists of the world". The German working class "had advanced nearest to the capture of the citadel of capitalism" (Irish Worker September 5 1914).

Connolly's opinion did not change later. In Workers' Republic he published an extraordinary article by an American, Frederick C Howe, which ran two full pages of the paper, praising the virtues of "German state socialism" (February 9 1916). It was this "state socialism", Connolly claimed in his article, 'Secrets of Germany's success - state socialism', that explained Germany's advance in the war. In one of the last articles written by Connolly, he argued that the German empire was "a homogenous empire of self-governing peoples", which contained "in germ more of the possibilities of freedom and civilisation" than the British (Workers' Republic March 18 1916). Indeed in the final issue of Workers' Republic a week before the Easter Rising, Connolly hailed "the wonderful fight being made by the Germans against odds" and inclined to the conclusion that "the German nation is incomparably superior to any nation in Europe".

It was not Lenin who appealed to Connolly, but rather Lenin's life-long opponent, the Polish socialist leader, Joseph Pilsudski, who also had allied himself militarily with Germany and Austria and against Russia in order to fight for an independent Poland. Connolly applauded Pilsudski's Polish Legion for fighting alongside Germany against Russia as a contingent on the Austrian army (see Workers' Republic April 15 1916). (for more on all this see in particular: Brendan Clifford (1985) James Connolly: The Polish Aspect: A Review of James Connolly's Political and Spiritual Affinity with Joseph Pilsudski, Leader of the Polish Socialist Party, Organiser of the Polish Legions and Founder of the Polish State, Belfast: Athol Books and Brendan Clifford (2004) Connolly and German Socialism, Belfast: Athol Books.) Some weeks ago SIPTU has produced a facsimile edition of the 39 issues of Workers’ Republic which should settle the issue for any reader still in doubt about Connolly's pro-German stance.  

There is something quite 'dated' about the authors' critique of historical revisionism in the current Irish context. (and their case is not helped by presenting the C.D Greaves school of falsification and works as dreadful as those of Tim Pat Coogan or P Berresford Ellis as an alternative!) This is 2016 not 1989.  Columnists in the Irish Independent aside, the dominant ideology today is 'post revisionism'. If revisionism was a tragedy then post-revisionism is a farce. At least Roy Foster was more interesting and thought provoking than Diarmaid Ferriter.The book would have been better had the authors delved into the 'post-revisionist' swamp.

Those differences apart, republicans, socialists and other progressives should very much welcome James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney's relevant intervention in the debates regarding the 'Decade of Centenaries'.

James Heartfield & Kevin Rooney (2015), Who's Afraid of the Easter Rising? 1916-2016, Winchester : Zero Books, 160pp.


Henry JoY said...


Who robs events of their meaning more than those who ardently adhere to the revolutionary rhetoric a different time?

"Myths are politically vital to the process of nation-building, but there has to come a time when, to complete the process of national emancipation, their elisions and fabrications are recognised, and less flattering aspects of the story can be confronted. In place of a linear, teleological story of national liberation, there needs to be awareness of the complexity out of which an alternative story could have emerged."

Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Allen Lane, 2005).

As you previously advocated, a celebration in the context of its influence on anti-imperialist struggles and on the emancipation of subordinated racial groups gives far more positive meaning and validates the contribution of those who fought in 1916.

Sure, we didn't get the republic as defined in the Proclamation but we did make significant, albeit very imperfect, moves towards an independent homeland in 26 of our 32 counties.

As I said previously 13/16 of a loaf is a hell of a lot better than no bread.
And a shoddy peace settlement is better, as far as most are concerned, than continued bloodshed and death.

Maybe its best to sometimes re-evaluate previously constructed meaning than it is to rob people of their lives.

AM said...

from Liam O'Ruairc

Henry JoY:

I have no problems with "elisions and fabrications (being) recognised, and less flattering aspects of the story... confronted". Any serious person will think the same. I am very much in favour that "in place of a linear, teleological story of national liberation, there needs to be awareness of the complexity out of which an alternative story could have emerged."

Similarly one has to abandon the idea of some "unbroken continuity" - discontinuities are very much important. I am working on another article on the bicentenary commemorations of 1798, and what could be learned from them for the 1916 centenary. I am already going to put my cards on the table here and say that in for 1916 in 2016 one should try to creatively emulate what Kevin Whelan did for 1798 in 1998.

AM said...

From Liam O'Ruairc

I was not aware of this article (pasted here as paying access) when I wrote mine. LOR

1916 Rising an event of world importance, conference told
Ronan McGreevy IRISH TIMES Thu, Jan 22, 2015
Russian Bolsheviks and Indian nationalists among those inspired by seminal revolt
The Easter Rising was a “world historical event”and not just an Irish affair, a conference has been told.
Prof Luke Gibbons of NUI Maynooth said the perception the Easter Rising was a mere sideshow to the first World War needs to be addressed in the forthcoming commemorations to mark the centenary of 1916.
Both Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin, the architects of the Russian Revolution, understood the significance of the Rising, and its implications stretched far beyond Europe, he suggested.
Prof Gibbons, professor of Irish literary and cultural studies at NUI Maynooth, was speaking at the Theatre of War symposium in the Abbey Theatre in which he quoted numerous sources abroad who understood the significance of the Rising.
British empire
The Rising blasted “the widest breach in the ramparts of the British empire since Yorktown”, according to Piers Brendon, in his The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997.
The Times of London blamed the Amritsar massacre in April 1919, when the British Army shot 380 Sikh civilians dead, on the agitation which had begun in Ireland.
Historian Keith Jeffery held the Irish experience “played a crucial role in the disintegration of the British empire”.
Prof Gibbons said the determination of the Easter Rising participants to challenge the British empire had to be seen in the context of the time.
Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond had stated that the principle of Home Rule had made the British empire “our” empire.
In supporting British involvement in the first World War, Redmond explained: “Our representatives on the floor of the Imperial parliament in Westminster [will do] everything in our power to increase the strength and glory of what will then be our empire at long last.”
In this, Redmond was supported by The Freeman’s Journal, then a voice of nationalist Ireland, which stated: “[His decision] has vindicated the empire’s share in the present great war of liberation. Ireland has spread its roots into the British empire. From India in the east to Canada, from the southern ocean to the northern seas, the Irish race has had its share in the making and in the defence of the colonies.”
Roger Casement
Roger Casement said the cause of Ireland was also the cause of India, and the Irish rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilisations of the Earth”.
Prof Gibbons said traumatic events were often not understood until long after they finished.
This phenomenon was identified by Sigmund Freud as “belatedness” or “Nachträglichkeit”.
This was the notion that an experience is not fully registered at the time, but has to await memory or representation particularly in artistic form.
For that reason, for instance, Francis Ford Coppola had made Apocalypse Now after and not during the Vietnam War.
Prof Gibbons suggested there were many books,pamphlets and plays from the aftermath of the Easter Rising that should be republished to give people the context of the time.
He criticised the official programme for the decade of commemorations for concentrating on newspaper accounts and State papers, rather than on the testimonies of “novelists, dramatists and poets - the surveyors of back-stage society”.
The emphasis should be on how events are understood and how memory is passed on not, just on what happened during the events themselves, he explained.