Tag Archives: centenary

State 1916 Commemoration: insulting the living and the dead

The hugely successful 19th century Irish theatrical impresario Dion Boucicault once said, “What the audience wants is spectacle, and by God I will give them that”.

That same thinking seems to have formed the basis of the state’s supposed commemoration of the 1916 Revolution.

“Let them have spectacle” is the new “Let them eat cake”. By God, spectacle is what they got, those who could see the giant screens, excluded as they were from the theatre that was O’Connell Street and the GPO. The barriers preventing them from being close to the action might well have borne signs stating “No riff-raff”, since that was what was intended.

O’Connell Street and the GPO were to be the exclusive preserve of the Irish political class, the self-styled ‘elite’ – politicians, both former and current; judges and lawyers; senior state functionaries; corporate kings and bankers; other wealthy individuals; and of course the propaganda wing of state, the media. In an attempt to attach some credibility to proceedings, relatives of 1916 revolutionaries were allowed to apply as supplicants for tickets from some committee or other, or not – a position some of us chose to adopt.

In my case it is because it stretches credibility beyond its limits to have dictating the nature of the state commemoration a prime minister (‘acting’ since the recent election) who has attempted since coming to office in 2011 to submerge the commemoration of the seminal event in modern Irish history, the 1916 Revolution which led to independence and self-government, in a sea of other often minor-by-comparison commemorations, a decade of them no less. Imagine, the state’s launch video for the 1916-2016 commemoration did not have a single image of a 1916 leader but featured a singer (Bono) and a queen (English)!

But the acting prime minister’s party, Fine Gael, has previous form. It is the 1930s iteration of the counter-revolutionary party Cumann na nGaedheal, whose central mission was to obliterate, via the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and a brutal civil war, the Irish Republic fought for in 1916 and sustained up to 1921. It morphed into Fine Gael in 1933 when the remnants of Cumann na nGaedheal joined forces with the fascist Blueshirts. Fine Gael has never moved from that counter-revolutionary corporatist-fascist ideology. During its kleptocratic five-year term since 2011 it forced the most swingeing austerity, often on the most economically vulnerable in society, while transferring huge amounts of wealth to the already wealthy.

In stark contrast, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic promised universal suffrage, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all citizens, to pursue prosperity and happiness for all, in a resolutely anti-sectarian, sovereign republic, owned by the people. Those ideas and ideals are anathema to Fine Gael values, and to those of its equally right-wing alternative, Fianna Fáil, as history shows.

And so to the commemoration (even if we can only see it on a screen).

In the first place, this ‘centenary commemoration’ was a month early. Instead of holding it on the actual anniversary, 24th April, the government chose to stick with tradition and hold it on Easter Sunday, thus tying it to a Christian religious feast. The revolution actually began on Easter Monday, not Sunday, 1916, but hey, let’s not be pedantic about that. Its association with Easter down through the years has been a handy way of associating the Catholic church with the revolution that that church opposed tooth and nail.

Being monarchic in its structures and practices, the Catholic church has always been antagonistic to Enlightenment secular republicanism and to the concept of the egalitarian and democratic republic.

That is why the counter-revolution played into the church’s hands, allowing for the creation of a state that combined Catholic theocracy with plutocracy and oligarchy, the so-called Free State. By creating a false official history, propagated in Catholic schools, the republican basis of the 1916 Revolution was extinguished in favour of one that presented it as having been a Catholic nationalist rising, not a progressive revolution.

That must have made it easy for the one clergyman called on to read the prayer during yesterday’s event. The Irish Defence Forces’ Head Chaplain is, of course, a Catholic priest. He delivered a heavily politicised prayer which very inappropriately at an event marking 1916 slyly referenced the Troubles. We can take that to mean the recent Troubles. Besides that, it was as if all present in O’Connell Street and beyond the barriers in Riff-Raff Street were Catholics, rather than people of all religions and none.

But worse than that, the absence of even an ecumenical prayer instead lumped all of the dead revolutionaries in together, as if Protestants, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, etc., had not formed part of the revolutionary forces along with Catholics, which of course they did. What of it that the inspiration for 1916 came directly from the United Irishmen of the 1790s, all initially of the Protestant faith, or that the 1914 gunrunning into Howth and Kilcoole was almost entirely a Protestant enterprise from start to finish? A Catholic prayer will be good enough for them, and they should count themselves lucky.

What does that say, in this centenary year, to the Protestants of Ireland, north of the border as well as south of it? We know that the Irish Republic of 1916 was proclaimed as a 32-county Republic belonging to all of the people. And we know that if the border is to be obliterated that we must negotiate with northern Protestants, not all of whom are unionists, as well as northern Catholics, not all of whom are republicans or Irish nationalists. But this state refuses to honour Protestant patriots of 1916 in an appropriate way – by acknowledging their existence or their immense contribution. That reveals the ingrained partitionist mindset that delights in a Catholic state on one side of the border and a Protestant state on the other. But this is the 21st century, time moves on, attitudes change, what seems fixed in stone shifts. That, though, doesn’t apply to Fine Gael, and only to a slight degree with Fianna Fáil.

The Proclamation was read. Yes, it was uncensored. Those passages which address issues that have real relevance to the plight of so many of our people today – sovereignty, equal rights and opportunities, happiness, prosperity, control of national resources – were read in full, without the slightest evidence of even a solitary embarrassed blush among the serried ranks of the political class. Perhaps they have inbuilt auditory filters, or perhaps sociopathy is part of their make-up.

Of course the acting prime minister couldn’t resist one more stab in the back for the revolutionaries of 1916. Rather than allow the customary wreath to be laid at the GPO in their honour he had to continue with one of Fine Gael’s much-contested methods of diminishing the men and women of 1916, something that smacks by now of extreme Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In directing the president, Michael D Higgins, to lay the wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland, the acting prime minister added ‘for all of the dead of 1916’, thus including the British forces who were sent to suppress the revolution by all means including murder of civilians and the levelling of the heart of one of the great cities of Europe using artillery.

By that action, the acting prime minister destroyed the notion that this was a commemoration directed at the men and women of 1916, and rendered it into nothing more than a very expensive fraud, a sham, a charade. No other prime minister in the history of independent Ireland has plumbed those depths, has offered such a gratuitous insult to the men and women of 1916 or to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who had assembled in Dublin to honour those men and women. The acting prime minister should be driven from office for that one act.

As for the defence forces, they were great. Most of us admire the role they usually play in the world as peace-keepers, less so the drift in the direction of active involvement with NATO and with US invasions of people with whom we Irish have no argument but have much empathy for their suffering. The same applies to the units from various first-responders too. No criticism is intended of any of them.

No, this is about the failings of the political class, and the failure of the government led by Fine Gael to demonstrate any respect for the revolutionaries or the cause of independence and a proper, modern, enlightened republic that they put their lives on the line to achieve for our benefit and not theirs.

And this is about the insults the government and the political class including the media offered in the run-up to and on what purported to be a 1916 centenary commemoration, to both the living and the dead.

What the audience didn’t need was the sight of the political class making a spectacle of itself. But perhaps we did need to see that, in its ugly naked elitism.

Couldn’t happen in a true republic. So let’s create one. That is the best honour we could pay those men and women of 1916. And it is the best thing we could do for ourselves and the generations still to come.

 


Tone, McManus, O’Donovan Rossa, and the Memory of the Dead

Today, August 1st 2015, is the centenary of the interment of the body of Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery, an event which was designed to act as the inciting incident that fueled the Irish revolution and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic less than a year later. Patrick Pearse’s graveside oration simultaneously invoked the memory of the dead and issued a call to arms in the fight for Irish freedom.

This was not a one-off, but simply the continuation of the use of funerals, memorials and commemorations to raise awareness of previous patriotic endeavour in order to fuel the drive to break the link with the coloniser and to establish an independent Irish state along republican lines.

The two extracts I use are from a thesis I wrote in 1996:

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(Extract 1)

‘The funeral of Terence Bellew McManus was one of the more momentous occasions in 19th-century Irish nationalist affairs. Patriotic memorialists have deemed it the effective starting point for the organization of the politics of separatism: the catalyst in the formation and expansion of Fenianism in Ireland and America’ (Bisceglia 1979: 45)

McManus had been exiled to Tasmania in 1849 for his part in the Rising, from where he escaped and made his way to San Francisco in 1851. Given a grand welcome by the local Irish community, McManus seems to have settled into a relatively quiet life until his death ten years later. He had refused, during the mid-to-late 1850s, to allow a petition for his inclusion in a general amnesty, stating –

“If the land that gave me birth – if the land sanctified to me by the graves of my forefathers – if the land of my love and affection, and for whose liberty I would cheerfully shed the last drop of my heart’s blood, cannot welcome me back without the consent of a foreign ruler, then my foot shall never press her soil”

On his death in January 1861, McManus was immediately buried in San Francisco. Within the year his remains had been disinterred by the local branch of the Fenians and placed in an ornate casket, and was the centrepiece of three major funeral processions, in San Francisco, New York, and Dublin. The final one, in Dublin, took an entire Sunday to wend its way through the streets to Glasnevin cemetery, making stops at points of nationalist interest, and accompanied or watched by many thousands of people. It was the largest event of its type since O’Connell’s funeral, and its like would not be seen again for thirty years, and Parnell’s funeral. In San Francisco and New York McManus’s body had been received into the respective cathedrals for full religious rites, but in Dublin –

‘Dr. Paul Cullen, the archbishop of Dublin, refused to bestow the clergy’s blessings upon the proceedings and closed the churches to the McManus funeral. The archbishop had been in Rome when the “Carbonari” under Mazzini had stormed the Vatican and ousted Pius IX during the revolution of 1848-9. He had spent much of his time since then in Ireland trying to swing the populace behind peaceful constitutional reform.’ (Bisceglia 1979: 59)

The McManus funeral demonstrated a number of things: the importance to nationalism of the memory of the dead; the popular support that the Fenians had both in Ireland and America; their organisational and fund-raising ability; and crucially, the degree of implacable opposition there was to physical force republicanism from the institutional Catholic Church.

‘Obviously there were at least two constituencies in Ireland: one embodied in the constitutional attachments to the crown and given expression by Archbishop Cullen; the other dedicated to a violent solution and given encouragement by the McManus funeral. It was to this latter group, this bedrock of anti-British feeling, to which the Fenians happened to appeal…Thus, with an eye on the future, they made a claim on the past.’ (Bisceglia 1979: 63)

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Thirty-seven years later on the occasion of the centenary of the 1798 Rising – the first manifestation of armed Irish republican resistance to British rule in Ireland – the use of memorials and commemorations were centre-stage. Worth noting was the presence among the organising centennial committee of socialist republican James Connolly whose uncles were Fenians and who would himself jointly-sign the Proclamation of the Irish Republic 18 years later and command the Dublin forces in the revolution, and pay for that with his life.

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(Extract 2)

The great mass of ordinary people played their part in the commemorations, with bonfires lit on important anniversaries, performances of centennial dramas in villages and towns, pageants, collections for the erection of permanent memorials, and so on. ‘A healthy rivalry developed between communities, each trying to outdo its neighbours in patriotic display.’ (O’Keefe 1992: 69) It was, however, their participation in the dedication ceremonies of memorials that was particularly impressive.

‘Only the monster meetings of Daniel O’Connell’s repeal campaign and the public gatherings connected with the Land League had brought so many people together for a single purpose over such a long period.’
(Owens 1994: 106)

As I have already pointed out, the raising of monuments in 1898 was both an act of defiance for the present and a symbolic connection between the past and the future. Coming just a year after large demonstrations held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, the `98 commemorations were important reminders that, as Owens says, ‘the heart of the country remained nationalist.’ (O’Keefe: 107) There was also an educative function attached to the monuments, and the process surrounding them.

‘Nationalists also believed that memorials to dead heroes could teach the country’s youth priceless lessons in history. As one monument promoter contended: “in [the] absence of the systematic teaching of our country’s history in the schools, these monuments will be to the child the illustrations of a portion of our national story”.’ (O’Keefe: 108)

This emphasis on the need to teach the coming generation the story of the nation is echoed by Brown some seventeen years later, just before the Rising in 1916.

‘…why not see to it that among the works of fiction put into the hands of Irish boys and girls there shall be found some that will imprint in their imaginations what of Irish history is best worth remembering, and that will help to fix their affections upon the country whose children they are.’ (Brown 1916: 95)

As Owens says, it is impossible to know what the young people themselves thought of the monuments, or if they took from them what the adults hoped they would. But in the main it would be the children of 1898 who would, eighteen years later, be members of the generation who were ‘out’ in 1916 and thereafter.

The sites where these monuments would be had relevance too. They needed to be highly visible, so were placed in a busy area. They might be positioned at one of the ‘stations’ on the ‘via Dolorosa’ I mentioned earlier, or even create a new one. They would also serve as a rallying point for meetings and demonstrations. The choice of site could also be used provocatively, as in the siting of the foundation stone for the Wolfe Tone statue right in the heart of unionist Dublin at the top of Grafton Street.

Where it was not possible to site the monument on what Owens describes as the ‘sacred spot’, then a piece of the spot might be brought to the monument site, for instance the use of stone from a battlefield to make the monument or foundation. (Owens 1994: 110) This emphasis on relics is tied into the way in which monuments were treated almost as sacred objects, and in the use of religious discourse about the monument in terms such as ‘shrine’, martyr’, etc. (Ibid: 111)

The Wolfe Tone monument provides a good example of these points. The foundation stone was quarried from Cave Hill near Belfast, where Tone and the Belfast United Irishmen had sworn to their course of action. Its choice of source also allowed the Belfast republicans to have an input into the commemoration. It would not have been possible for them to have their own commemoration in the sectarian Belfast of the late nineteenth century.

When the stone arrived in Dublin by train it was treated much as the body of a hero might have been, with a lying-in-state for two days on the site of the old Newgate prison, prior to its carriage through the ‘via Dolorosa’ – the route which took it past the places associated with Tone, Emmet and so on. The city had shut down for the day, and the huge procession took three hours to cover the three mile route. It was the largest public gathering since the unveiling of the O’Connell monument, with the crowd estimated to number one hundred thousand. (Owens: 111-3)

When the veteran Fenian John O’Leary had finished the ceremonial laying of the stone, he tapped the trowel, which had been donated for the occasion by one of Tone’s grand-daughters, six times on the stone, one for each of the four provinces, and once each for the United States and France.

‘Then, at a signal from the platform, a band struck up the theme song of the centenary, ‘The Memory of the Dead’. As they began to play, members of the crowd removed their hats and stood silently or sang the well-known lyrics that began, ‘Who fears to speak of `98?’ (Owens: 114)

This then was the centrepiece of the `98 commemorations. When a monument to Tone was finally unveiled, the independent state would have already celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising of 1916.

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The ‘independent state’? The Irish state doesn’t qualify as such since independence has been surrendered to the European Union and to the Eurozone. The nominal independence we ‘enjoyed’ prior to that was used for the benefit of an ‘elite’ class – the wealthy, professionals, the Catholic Church, and their political fixers and assorted useful facilitators including media owners.

The current Fine Gael-Labour government, driven by a hatred and fear of 1916 which challenges the corporatist nature of this state with an alternative set of higher ideals and promises, struggled to overwhelm the upcoming centenary of the 1916 revolution with a spate of other centennials until forced to change course through the weight of public opinion.

Today’s state commemoration of the O’Donovan Rossa centenary is a deeply cynical enterprise. The political class has been forced to swallow hard, to grin and bear it, conscious of the threat to its existence should the despised ‘non-elite’ mass element of citizens engage in a re-examination of the promise of the Proclamation and of the Republic so deliberately extinguished by the first Free State government and all subsequent governments

If the O’Donovan Rossa funeral was the inciting incident for the 1916 revolution, could it be that the centenary of that funeral, the first in a series of commemorations which will culminate in the Republic Day 1916 commemorations on April 24th 2016, will be an inciting incident leading to the preparation for a democratic revolution by the Demos?

If so, we might imagine a ghostly smile from Wolfe Tone, Terence Bellew McManus, Jermiah O’Donovan Rossa and James Connolly.

And their nods of approval.


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