Monday, 4 April 2016

Easter 1916

Bob Geldof has apparently compared the 1916 rebels to Jihadists. He's not the first. Below is something I wrote in 2006 about a trinity of books on the Rising.


The rhetorical appeal to a reality that debunks our cherished myths is commonplace. I've been reading a number of recent articles on the 1916 rising in Ireland, the subject of a recent book by Charles Townshend. Although these reviews ranged from the frankly shrill and silly to the academically serious, they all at some point invoked the sobriety of reality against various dangerous imaginary intoxicants. (Always tricky move in the case of history, as the ‘reality’ in question no longer exists. )

First, the historian Mathew Kelly in the LRB. It’s a detailed and interesting review, but here is Kelly quoting from the Proclamation of the Republic:

“The Irish republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irish woman” .

‘The reality’, he adds ‘was much more complicated’. An odd remark for two reasons. It is surely obvious  that 'reality will be more complicated' than an engaged historical agent can grasp. Why would we need historians otherwise?. But more pertinently, the Proclamation was a political-rhetorical intervention of a certain kind, not a 'representation of reality'. Kelly's analysis is little more than a category error.

Undoubtely the worst of the articles on offer was Martin Kettle’s in the Guardian. Again, the usual device:

“At the heart of all recent refusals to bow the knee to the celebration of heroic violence has been a belated recognition of the reality of the Northern Ireland experience”.

1916 is an example of such ‘celebration’, ‘but’, he intones :

“there is a long and dignified tradition of resistance  to the fetishizing of 1916. it stretches in an unbroken line from Eoin Macneill’s original attempt to countermand the rising”

It is difficult to see how MacNeill could have been de-fetishizing what had not yet been fetishized, but in any case the point is wrong. MacNeill’s objections to the rising were strategic. He thought military action by the rebels must be in response to some provocation or clampdown by the British. (Does Kettle imagine that MacNeill thought 'I'd better countermand the rising before it gets fetishised'?). But once more, ‘fetish’ is there simply to suggest quasi-religious obsession. In terms of historical veracity or logic, it is nonsense. Kettle’s illogic and distortion result from his determination to see dangerous romantic myth on the one hand and sober reality on the other. He also telescopes the past through the present in an attempt to produce spurious journalistic relevance:

“It is also the legacy of a state born in martyrdom and violence, created around the romance of the deed, whose origins are steeped in the pseudoreligious cult of the transformative blood sacrifice and purging authenticity of the acts of a committed minority that al-Qaida or Hamas could recognise.”

This is of course absurd hyperbole. What modern state has not been 'born in violence'? (and gone on to celebrate its violent inception). But it's worth noting how many writers stress the 'blood sacrifice' stuff when writing about the rising. (Kettle also throws in 'cult' to suggest some kind of brainwashed messianism). In fact the only rebel who uttered such rhetoric was Pearse, and though this rhetoric may have proved effective in certain respects, it would be rather silly to think this represented a common ideology. James Connolly, and the Irish Citizen Army, for example, certainly had no such belief in 'blood sacrifice'. And mention of Connolly should remind us also that that Rising comprised an alliance between two groups, the IRB and the Citizen Army, not knitted together by a single political doctrine but by the belief that only force would effectively end British Rule. The elevation of Pearse's peculiar Christological speeches and poetry to some kind of representative status is, then, itself a transparently political manoeuvre, which would have political violence (when used by one 'side') inevitably tagged as regressive, irrational, romantic and, more to the point, pathological.

Finally, even the eminent Roy Foster is not exempt from a weaker variation of this kind of ploy. Here he delivers a killer punch:

'Nowadays, the icons of 1916 are features on the Dublin tourist trail, which includes a "Rebel Tour" -even if the "bullet-holes" on the GPO's pillars have recently been declared to be nothing more than weather erosion'

What exactly is the force of that ‘even if’, other than a meaningless bathos? Should the tour now be abandoned? I have read at least one historian make a persuasive case for the bullet holes thesis – why is this automatically trumped by the anonymous ‘declaration’? Presumably because weather erosion is a factum brutum, whereas bullet holes are an ‘interpretation’ - one is simply present in reality, the other a sentimental projection; ‘weather erosion’ has the prosaic certainty of science and nature on its side, bullet holes form part of some mythological narrative..blah. (The ‘rebel tour’ is in fact conducted by a published historian, and is certainly no exercise in icon- or hagiography)

Were the rebels inspired to violent action by Romantic myth, or was a certain rhetoric enlisted (by some) in the service of a violence already deemed necessary. In any case, the ease with which phrases like ‘romantic myth’ spin off the tongue should be sufficient grounds for caution. Such clotted, automatic phrases are themselves  the symptoms of real 'myth' at work. It would be convenient if myths always resided in the past rather than the present, if they belonged to the pre-modern rather than the contemporary, it they were never on the side of liberal democracy, if the latter were simply synonymous with enlightenment.. But this is just wishful thinking. The significant (and toughest) myths are the ones so embedded in our present that they can pass themselves off as the wide-eyed presentation of the real.

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