Tag Archives: Wolfe Tone

Martin McGuinness & dispelling sectarianism

On my way back to Dublin with a parcel of other 13-year-olds from a three-month stay in the Gweedore Gaeltacht in 1961, I paid my first visit to Derry to switch from bus to train.

Even for a boy who was well used to seeing the Dublin tenements, Derry was like something out of the distant past. No sign of development or modernisation but all the signs of poverty. I particularly remember a street of single-storey cottages of the sort featured in old photos of 19th century evictions, maybe mud-walled. Hovels. Ragged children, and ragged mothers. Another country.

My parents had told me about that other country. During the war, freshly married and with no ready employment in Dublin, my father had got work with Thompson & Nutt’s motor works in Garvagh in Derry, reconditioning truck bodies at a time when no new trucks were available because of the war effort.

Son of a 1916 Volunteer, and a committed republican, he worked with a mainly Protestant work-force without any problems at all. When he was the subject of a serious external death-threat, it was his Protestant workmates who sent out the message that not a hair on his head was to be touched, and that was the end of the matter.

He stayed in touch with Thompson, Nutt and his workmates for decades after, and he and my mother made regular trips north of the border from then on.

So, they made sure their children knew from an early age what the set-up in the Protestant State for a Protestant people was, and the conditions I saw in Derry in 1961 confirmed that there was no place at the table for Catholic nationalists.

The six-counties didn’t have to be a sectarian state. That was a choice, and it wasn’t made just by six-county unionists, it was a choice made in Westminster, and sustained by Westminster. And it was a choice made in Dublin and sustained through studied neglect by Dublin. Better a hegemonic conservative Catholic 26-county state than a 32-county state in which Protestants would have to be accommodated.

When the civil rights marchers were assaulted by the RUC and Loyalists at Burntollet Bridge in 1969, no surprise. When Sammy Devenney died as a result of a gratuitous beating from the RUC in Derry, no surprise. When Bombay Street in Belfast was burned to the ground in the same year by a Loyalist mob with RUC support and we had a refugee family living with us in a normal three-bedroomed house in Dublin, no surprise. When Harold Wilson sent in the British Army and it turned on the nationalist community, no surprise. When that army slaughtered civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry, no surprise. When internment of nationalists, and torture, were carried out, no surprise. When the RUC, British Army and Loyalists colluded in the murders of nationalists, no surprise. When the Orange Order repeatedly paraded their bigotry on the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree Church year after year, without state sanction, no surprise.

When Martin McGuinness and others stood up to that repression having, of necessity, armed themselves to defend their people, no surprise.

And there is no surprise either in the brutality that ensued. That is war, wherever it occurs, and civilians always bear the brunt of it. The real crime is that it lasted for decades. That was the politics of failure. Or, more exactly, it was the politics of imperialist obduracy. Westminster was going to beat Irish nationalists back come hell or high water. Hell came and went, and high water too, but the republican movement was still standing its ground, still undefeated but without the possibility of fighting the sort of decisive battle that would drive the obdurate imperialists from Ireland. And even if that had been possible, full-blown civil war would have ensued, and the imperialists would have stoked that. They have form on this island in doing that.

Stalemate is not a solution. Achieving your ultimate ambition is a solution. For republicans, that ambition is the establishment of a true 32-county republic.

Every year republicans go to Bodenstown, to the grave of Wolfe Tone, one of the principal architects of Irish republicanism. They don’t go as a single body of republicans, but in separate groups because they have fallen out with one another. Internecine disputes become more important than realising the republican ambition.

Wolfe Tone, and the other Protestant men who founded the republican movement in Ireland, left a fundamental tenet of republicanism for us to follow. The constitution of the Society of United Irishmen stated in its first article its intent as “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”.

There is no other way to create a true republic encompassing all of this island than by following that tenet. No republican could over-ride the will of unionists by imposing a republic on them without their assent. No republican could even contemplate expelling the unionist population from the land so as to create a republic. If they did either of those things it would be self-defeating. It would not be a republic. It is therefore necessary to persuade unionists that they have nothing to fear from the sort of republic that their Protestant ancestors laid out in Belfast in 1791, but that they have much to gain from it.

That is the project that Martin McGuinness and the rest of the willing republican leadership and rank-and-file set out on over two decades ago. Others had and have a right to a different opinion and a right to resile from that decision. Many of us have had to swallow very hard when symbolic gestures were made by republicans that went against the grain, other than as part of an overall strategy of moving towards a ‘brotherhood of affection’, or to put it the other way a ’parity of esteem’.

As Sinn Féin engaged with the political process, the party was rightly criticised for not being sufficiently ‘of the left’. Republicanism is intrinsically of the left. James Connolly stated that to be republican was to be socialist and to be socialist was to be republican, that the two are the same in terms of the social, economic and political outcomes that they should produce if they are true to their doctrines.

But political progress depends on public support, and the fact is that on either side of the border the population is conservative in outlook and cautious in the face of change, the result of a century and more of exposure to right-wing, anti-republican, anti-socialist propaganda from church, state and press. Many of the social and economic problems that people on both sides of the border endure would be solved by the left, but still the left struggles for support.

One reason for that is the presence of often bitter internecine disputes across the left, between socialists and republicans but also within socialism and republicanism. The right unites to hold power, the left fractures all over the place to avoid power. Another crucial reason is the absence of any form of progressive national media, not just now but since the imposition of partition and the creation of two sectarian states. Solving the latter is probably far easier than solving the former.

Has progress been made north of the border over the past two decades? Have attitudes changed? Has sectarianism diminished? Have the two sides moved towards better accommodating one another? Has Brexit made a difference to the question of the border? Could Scottish independence play a part in moving the border question on? Would the English ditch the six-counties to concentrate on their own post-Brexit situation? Has the 26-county political class been forced to engage with the border question in a realistic way for the first time since 1922? Is it within the left’s capability, republican and socialist, to make significant political advances over the next five or ten years on either side of the ridiculous border? Is it more possible than it was twenty years ago to imagine that republican vision that Tone and the other Protestant republicans had, coming into being?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is yes.

Are we significantly closer to “forwarding a brotherhood of affection, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of every religious persuasion”?

Yes.

His detractors will not acknowledge Martin McGuinness’s contribution to that progress, but I do.

That snapshot I saw of a filthy sectarian six-county state in 1961, and the filthy sectarian 26-county state that I was going home to, are memories.

It is a very different country.

And I am grateful for that.

Work done, Martin McGuinness. Rest in peace.

Work to do, for the rest of us.

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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:

*****

(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)

*****

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.

*****

(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.

*****

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.


Republicanism Versus Nationalism(s) 1

In Ireland, and abroad, Irish  republicanism and Irish nationalism are often taken to be interchangeable terms, and both are frequently assumed to be the preserve of catholic Ireland. These assumptions are incorrect, and are damaging to the prospects of reunifying the island of Ireland through reconciling the people of Ireland with one another across religious and political divides.

Irish nationalism is motivated by by a love of Irish culture, history, language but not necessarily, historically, by a demand for national independence from English/British domination. Those who pushed for Home Rule described themselves as nationalists, and were content to seek autonomy but not a break with rule from Westminster and the British monarch as Head of State. Even Patrick Pearse, who pushed for Home Rule before he came around to republicanism, was in favour of independence from Britain but with the German Kaiser’s son as constitutional monarch of Ireland. Arthur Griffith, a committed nationalist, proposed that Ireland be independent from Britain but that it would share the British monarch.

Irish republicanism, from its first incarnation in Ireland in the 1790s through to today, is based on the demand that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. That republican ideal comes straight from the European Enlightenment and particularly from the French Revolution and its ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

What republicans share with nationalists is a love for Irish culture, history and language. Where they differ is in their ideal of a unified Irish republic, and in terms of the right-left political divide. Republicans by the nature of their ideology tend to be left-wing, whereas nationalists tend to be conservative ranging from the political centre to the right – and sometimes to the extremes of the right.

Republicans are, by the nature of their ideology, often avowedly secularist and certainly anti-sectarian. Nationalism, while containing a cohort of Protestants at various stages, tends to be widespread among Catholics, and indeed the Irish Catholic Church has associated itself strongly with nationalism while reviling republicanism at all stages since the 1790s. That outright rejection of republicanism is one that the Church shares with Unionism, which itself is mainly Protestant and is an expression of a different nationalism – a far more extreme British nationalism than most English, Welsh or Scottish nationalists would express, or even understand.

While the Catholic Church’s rejection of republicanism is in a way understandable – the Church is after all monarchical itself, the rejection of republicanism by Northern Protestants, who tend to be non-conformists (Dissenters) – Presbyterians and Methodists, is paradoxical. After all, the American Revolution, fueled in the main by non-conformists, did not set up an alternative monarchy, but a republic. And when republicanism was introduced into Ireland in the 1790s it was by Northern Dissenters and conformist Protestants initially, later joined by Protestants and Dissenters and Catholics from the South. The myth that it was introduced by returning Catholic seminarians from their studies in French colleges who had been influenced by the French Revolution is largely just that, a myth, carefully constructed to place the Catholic Church at the heart of the 1798 rising and to displace the unifying ideal of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter of the United Irishmen. The myth was founded on a lie.

The truth is that Unionists, in the main non-conformists – Presbyterians, Methodists, etc., should be, because of the values of their faith and belief-system, more naturally republican than monarchist. Nationalists on the other hand should be, due to the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church with the Pope as monarch and a strong code of obedience to authority, more naturally monarchist, although since independence they are not, in the political sense.

If it seems confusing, it is not. Many of the myths are lies, the paradoxes can be explained. There’s a clue in the words of Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, one of the principal leaders of the United Irishmen:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connexion (sic) with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objects.  To unite the whole  people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter – these were my means.”

There it is – “England, the never-failing source of our political evils…”. More on this another day.


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