Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Revolution in Thought or Feeling

Every revolution has a secret history difficult to discover and to disentangle. The Irish rising of 1916 is no exception.’                                 (F.S.L. Lyons 1971)

In 1992 in the course of a conversation with a friend, Barry Dunne, I remarked to him that my father, born in 1918, had been christened Patrick Pearse O’Rahilly Stokes as a tribute to two of the heroes of the 1916 Rising in which my grandfather, John Stokes,  had fought as a rank and file volunteer at Boland’s Mills. Barry expressed amazement and said that his father, born in late 1916, had been christened Joseph Pearse O’Rahilly Dunne, again in tribute to Patrick Pearse and The O’Rahilly. His grandfather, Joe Dunne had been a member of the GPO garrison in Easter Week. The possibility that this choice of names for their newly born sons was mere coincidence became less likely as more details emerged. Both were members of the Irish Volunteers, were about the same age and were interned in Frongoch prison camp after the Rising. Both worked as hackney cab drivers. The strong likelihood is that they knew one another well. Seventy-six years later, their grandsons would, by pure happenstance, partially rebuild the story, too late to verify the details since both men are long dead.

This, it seems to me, illustrates the secret history of the 1916 Revolution. Two young married men left their homes in working class areas of Dublin, said good-bye to their families, possibly, they must have thought, forever, and went to do battle with the mightiest imperial power in the world at that time. Several hundred other men and women did likewise, but their stories have been allowed to dissolve away over time.

The attention of academic historians has been concentrated on the leaders of the Rising, and on the elite group that surrounded them before the revolution and survived them after it. And even when dealing with the executed leaders, the details of their lives were rearranged where necessary to serve the needs of others. James Connolly’s birthplace was moved from Edinburgh in Scotland to Monaghan, one suspects to make him really Irish. His Catholic death was highlighted but his socialist life was obscured. The other leaders have been judged in different ways at different times depending, it seems, on the exigencies of the moment. In the process, the struggle has shifted from the GPO, and has become instead a battle between what Nietzsche describes as monumental and critical historiography, the former giving us positive images of historical figures, the latter concerned with dismantling the past so as to re-evaluate it from a ‘modern’ perspective. Even within these there have been shifts of emphasis. Writing in Eire-Ireland in 1994, Kathleen Nutt made this point:

‘The healthy condition of antiquarian history is not shared by monumental history. Because such figures in the nationalist historical tradition as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, have been hijacked by republican paramilitaries, academic historians have been quick to direct their passionate iconoclasm against them.’ 

Critical historians have played their part in this too. In a rush, it seems, to distance themselves from events in the six counties in the last quarter of the last century, some have tended to focus, for instance, on the language of leaders such as Patrick Pearse, and to judge it by the standards of today, thus removing it from its context.

Nutt, in pointing to the negative effects of this form of historiography wrote that:

‘Critical history… dismantles heroic deeds, crushes ideals, and displays goodness and altruism as mere egoistic hankering after self-interest… Thus, heroes of the past are demoted, models no longer exist to be aspired to, little is left to feel proud about, and a community may feel cut off from its past and alienated from itself.’

Nutt points instead to other approaches, instancing  Paul Feyerabend’s notion of ‘the partial, multi-perspectival characteristics of “mini-” or fragmented narratives’ and also to the materialist theory of Jurgen Habermas which recognises the notion of a critical hermeneutic ‘which would incorporate into the interpretation of the past an acknowledgement of and critical reflection upon the scholar’s own historical and geographical vantage point’.

It does seem to be perfectly reasonable that in offering an interpretation of historical periods or events the scholar would illustrate in some way the personal perspective which must in some way inform the work. It equally seems to be reasonable to present history, not as something which happens due to the presence of one monumental figure or other, but as the sum of many fragmented narratives. Those voices which have been lost or excluded need to be heard again so that we may more fully understand ourselves as a people. It is not good enough that we should define ourselves by the actions or reactions of an ‘elite’. Writing on the shortcomings of conventional historiography in 1991 Margaret Ward had this to say:

‘Who are the people who make history? The argument rarely seems to touch upon the human content of the narrative. Conventional historiography has given us kings, with the odd queen thrown in, and rebellious chiefs and politicians, with the peasantry popping in and out of the picture. In the last couple of decades the working class has managed to shoulder its way onto the scene and the history of the Irish working class is now rapidly unfolding, thanks to the diligence of a new generation of historians. But it is all strangely woman-free.’

Since Ward wrote that, much has been done to bring the women and the central role they so often played in the revolution back into the narrative. The other significant group left out of the narrative, the working class, are edging back into it although much more work needs to be done on both (often overlapping) groups.

Very often over the past thirty years or so it has been from within the area of cultural studies that much of the work to liberate the silent voices has come. Rather than concentrating on ‘High’ literature, scholars from the cultural studies area of sociology have foregrounded the importance of popular culture in shaping people’s view of themselves and their societies. As Desmond Bell put it in 1993:

‘Significantly the major re-excavation of our past and reassessment of its significance for contemporary sensibilities has been undertaken by literary scholars rather than by academic historians… Criticism has been first along the pathways where historical determination, cultural formation and popular experience intersect.’

In the past, great emphasis has been placed on the role of the ‘High Art’ of the cultural revivalists such as Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory and others, in impelling the Irish people towards independence from Britain. But the majority of those without whom the 1916 Revolution would not have happened, the working and lower middle classes, were more likely to be found in the stalls of the Queens Theatre partaking of Irish historical melodramas rather than in the Abbey Theatre, and more likely to get their information and ideas from the pages of some newspaper or magazine which they could buy for a halfpenny or a penny than in some leather bound volume of poetry, even if it carried Yeats’ name. Some shift in the imagination changed a sufficient number from being, at the end of the nineteenth century, broadly supportive of Parnell and the Home Rule movement, into participation in the early part of the twentieth century in a revolutionary movement, and prepared to fight and evidently to die for the republican ideals laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

As Peter Costello put it in 1977 in ‘The Heart Grown Brutal’:

‘Revolution, like tragedy, takes place in the imagination. A revolution in thought or feeling – that is, in what people know about themselves or imagine that they know – is the prerequisite for any revolution.’

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 revolution it is worth applying Costello’s assertion to the possibility, however weak, that today’s citizens might take on themselves the responsibility of completing the work of the stalled revolution – the re-creation of the Irish Republic, put into a state of suspended animation by the counter-revolution of 1922-2011. Do today’s citizens have the information to understand what is at stake and are they open to experiencing a ‘revolution in thought or feeling‘?

Over the past 30 years and more the project of historical revisionism has taken hold and has been paralleled by the active participation of many  of the senior academic historians involved in that project either as guests or very often as contracted commentators in the mainstream media. Too often the revisionist line has been used not for scholarly investigation but as a battering ram against republican activity in the ‘Troubles’, while at the same time these senior academics were engaged in the ‘education’ of future teachers of history to second and third level students.

The two byproducts of this have been the turning away of a significant number of citizens through distorted media coverage from the notion that 1916 was ‘a good thing’, or that it was even a ‘legitimate action’; secondly, by the teaching in our schools of  a version of the story of the revolution corrupted by the political exigencies of today. The very breath was taken out of the story, an element of shame was falsely attached to it, and the people that it should have inspired have been so uninspired as to leave school in large numbers ignorant of the part the 1916 revolution in both the forwarding of the ‘republic’ as a concept and of their own status as citizen, not subject.

Despite the presence of some good, professional historians  in the history departments of the various universities, it is too late for them to rescue the situation in time for the centenary. It will take as long to revise the revisionists as it did for the revisionists to create a corrupted historiography. Recent and imminent retirements of failed senior academic historians may help the next generation, provided care is taken in appointing proper historians in their place, historians who understand that ‘passionate iconoclasm’ should not be part of their tool-kit.

Despite the work of a small number of fine, ethical journalists and commentators, there is no chance, given the right-wing media hegemony that it seems we must endure in the immediate future, that the citizens at large will be properly informed through that channel of the relevance, indeed the central importance of the 1916 revolution in their lives, and of the need to investigate and understand its core meanings and significance.

The ‘revolution in thought or feeling’ can only come about outside of the mainstream media and despite a corrupted academia. We cannot rely on any more that a couple of Presidential candidates, most likely Martin McGuinness and Michael D Higgins, to engage the citizens with the notion of a ‘republic’ and what it should mean.

It falls, therefore, to artists, activists, trade unions,  social media users, working class and women’s groups and so on to engage with the centenary of the revolution, and with what that centenary will celebrate – the establishment of a genuine, progressive, enlightenment republic, the Irish Republic.

It is time for that ‘revolution in thought or feeling’.

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