Sunday, 1 October 2006

Remembering the past. The Easter Rising and World War One

The anniversary of WWI Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, has once again been observed in Ireland with yet more ruminations and hand-wringing on how we should observe the event and commemorate those who died in the First World War or as some would call it, 'The Great War'.

Of course no reasonable person could object to remembering the dead - what would be the point? Really the debate is about whom they were fighting for, why and for what cause they died. We cannot correct the past only learn from it and move on. History is confusing because it presents itself back to front. The task of the historian is to look at facts in the cold light of day and to be able to perceive events with the eyes of the past, as well as with the benefit of hindsight.

What then are we to make of the recent comments of our government conveyed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Dermot Ahern TD, in an article in Irish Times (11/11/2005 - 'Shared History Can Help Build a Shared Future'). Of course it should be taken into account that Dermot Ahern, in his ministerial capacity, has governmental responsibility for the Northern Ireland Peace Process and, therefore, his comments are quite probably influenced and tempered by diplomatic considerations of national reconciliation etc. So in offering my personal opinion nothing that is said is intended, necessarily, to impugn or castigate government policy, which might well be operating on a different level, with different considerations in mind.

The Minister calls for a 'national debate on the issues raised by both the [Battle of the] Somme and [the Easter Rising of] 1916'. He goes on to say that both the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Battle of the Somme, which took place in the same year, were 'concomitants of a wider European movement of national awareness which came with the rise of democracy'. Here I must part company with the Minister - not necessarily because I disagree with what he is saying - rather because I am at a loss to know what he is talking about. I seems to me that the Minister is waxing lyrical without seriously addressing any fundamental, historical issues. In other words he is not comparing like with like.

It is true, as the Minister suggests, that many who marched to their deaths in the battlefields of WWI, did so in the belief that theirs was a fight for the freedom of small nations. But did belief and reality co-incide on this occasion? I personally don't believe that they did and this is not intended to be disrespectful towards anyone. Indeed I would strongly argue that my views on this issue are borne out even, for example, from listening to the testimony of surviving WWI British servicemen in the current BBC documentary series 'The Last Tommy'.

The reason why we cannot, in truth, categorise the act of serving in the British Army in WWI as an act motivated by the same spirit and ideology as that of the Easter Rising of 1916 is because, the aims and objectives of the two events (WWI and the Rising) were, in fact, diametrically opposed. And Minister Ahern's attempt to obscure this truth simply does not stand up to scrutiny. WWI was an imperialist war, a war of conquest, of colonial division and re-division. It was a pointless and futile blood sacrifice. The fact that Irishmen were motivated to enlist on the basis of the promise of Home Rule really only illustrates how little we have advanced despite our pretence of 21st century sophistication. If anyone wants an contemporary example of how war-mongerers in our midst are able to cajole and fool public opinion one only has to think of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that never materialised.

As an historical aside, it is worth mentioning that some accounts of the Easter Rising suggest that, among the insurgents, there would have been British army servicemen who found themselves at home on leave from the front when the Rising happened. It is hard however to estimate their precise numbers because, with the defeat of the Rising and the ensuing military round-up, the only safe way to escape incarceration would have been to re-don their uniforms and return to duty on the war front, where many would subsequently have met their deaths. It's grim, I know, and probably why they don't teach this history in schools.

There are some who characterise the Easter Rising as a doomed, militarist adventure and will draw attention to Pearse's 'blood sacrifice' speech over the graveside of O'Donovan Rossa. However these same elements fail to mention that Pearse made those comments in the context of a global atmosphere of militarism, jingoism, bellicose utterances and world conflagration. So in fact Pearse's utterances, along with the rising itself, was the sanest possible response in a world gone mad. The Rising of 1916 was a militarist act that had a non-militarist agenda. Furthermore it was a spanner in works and a slap in the teeth to the imperialist agenda. It was a constructive first step in the programme of Irish nation building against an international background of war, chaos, greed and destruction. And it has to be said that it was a proposal that caught the imagination of a substantial section of the Irish people. Precisely 89 years on from the Rising we are continuing to follow the programme set out in the Proclamation of the Republic, despite detours, diversions and set-backs that are all the stuff of life itself.

So to return to the question of how we remember the past and in particular those who died - a fate that will befall us all someday. I think it is to be welcomed that An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, at the most recent Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis announced that from next year the anniversary of the Easter Rising will be officially commemorated with military parades in front of the GPO. It was wrong that the practice was discontinued in the first place. Nevertheless a doubt lingers in my mind. With all due respect to the nation's Defence Forces it must be remembered that the 1916 Rising was primarily a civilian uprising. James Connolly's followers even styled themselves 'The Irish Citizen Army'. It was an insurrection against the existing authority in Ireland at the time. Those who occupy that position in the Ireland of today should take care to remember that, if a similar event to the 1916 Rising were to happen tomorrow, it would be their unenviable task to implement the crackdowns which could range from anything from martial law, curfews, internment, suspension of civil and legal rights, maybe even executions perhaps? So the question perhaps, hypothetical at any rate, that those in positions of authority should be asking themselves is - do they really want to be cast in the role of 21st century John Redmonds and General Maxwells? Personally I do no believe that there is an Irish man or woman alive today who seriously harbours aspirations in that direction.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that, just as the Easter Rising was an event that took place in the context of wider international developments, so too the question of how we mark the event today is also being influenced by global considerations? Maybe it is not a simple, localised issue we all suppose it to be. The present government has failed to date to clarify Ireland's role in the Anglo-American led 'war on terror'. It is interesting to note that in the same week when the Government announced the gradual phase-out of the Shannon stopover there has been no talk about withdrawing the services of Shannon Airport as a facility for US warplanes en-route to the Middle East. This is an issue that the present Government has stuck its head in the sand over. If there is good cause and reason why Shannon Airport should be used in this manner, the Irish public has yet to be informed.

The clock may well be counting down to some kind of regional, or even global, conflagration in the very near future. If the youth of Ireland are being conditioned to fight in future wars it is imperative that we start to publicly debate the issues and demand answers from our elected representatives. The most pertinent questions, I believe, are those to do with what these wars are about, and what end they seek to achieve. And our foreign policy should be directed towards the end of averting war as a priority.

13th November, 2005

A version of this post was published as a 'Letter to the Editor' in Village Magazine (Issue 60, 17-23 July 2005).

Copyright © Oscar Ó Dúgáin, 2005

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