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.