Cherishing all of the children of the nation equally?

Posted: January 4, 2016 in Uncategorized

The centenary of the 1916 Rising can be an occasion of great importance, but only if we use it wisely. The coming months provide us with the opportunity for reflection on our past and understanding of our present.

It would be a tragedy if we were to fritter away the year with vacuous homilies and superficial displays of supposed fidelity to the actors and ideals of the revolutionary generation.

Nor should we shy away from casting a critical eve over the events of a hundred years ago and asking uncomfortable questions about the origins of our own political predecessors.

It would also be unfortunate if those of us organising or participating in centenary events sought only to mobilise the past to legitimise our version of the present and plans for the future.

The Rising and its legacy do not belong to any political party or political tradition – they are national events and belong to all of the people of the nation.

But most importantly 2016 should not be about the past at all, but about the future.

The revolutionary generation of 1916 were not backward looking women and men. Their primary interest was the future and their actions were motivated by the idea that tomorrow can and should be better that yesterday and today.

We are incredibly fortunate to have access to an abundance of source material on the revolutionary generation. From the Bureau of Military History statements of participants in the Rising to the extensive diaries of activists such as Rosamond Jacob, there is a wealth of first hand historical record.

We are equally fortunate that the narrow horizons of both nationalist and revisionist historiography have given way to a more nuanced and sophisticated writing of history – exploring the social, cultural, economic and gendered aspects of our past.

The more we learn about that past the more it becomes patently clear that there was no consensus between the women and men of the revolutionary generation.

The first decades of the 20th century were alive with debate and disagreement. What was the purpose of the coming revolution? What should be its outcome? When should it take place? What tactics and methods should be used? What kind of society were its participants trying to create?

Even amongst the small group of radicals who fought on Easter weekend there were substantial differences of opinion.

And so it should be in 2016. We do not need a sanitised consensus on our past. It should be contested. All of us should be open to a year of rigorous debate.

For this writer the beating heart of the 1916 Rising was the Proclamation from the provisional government of the Irish Republic to the people of Ireland.

The short statement signed by the seven signatories and declared at the GPO on Easter Monday articulates, in distilled form, the values on which this section of the revolutionary generation sought to build their new republic.

From its opening words it breathed an idea of the Republic as inherently egalitarian. The significance of naming women as political subjects in their own right –‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’- may seem unremarkable today, but at a time when women could vote it was truly radical.

The core of the Proclamation states that; ‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally…’

This was the republic imagined by Pearse, Connolly, Sheehy-Skeffington and Jacob. But as Rosamond’s diaries so painfully show, it was not the republic that emerged after the war of independence, partition and the civil war. And as even a cursory look at contemporary Ireland demonstrates, it is not the ‘republic’ we live in today.

As we spend the coming months reflecting on 1916 two questions should preoccupy our thoughts.

Why did the revolution that emerged from the GPO in 1916 not give birth to the kind of republic imagined by women and men of Rising? How can we build that republic today so that tomorrow we live in a place that truly cherishes all of the children of the national equally?

Answering these questions and building that republic would be a fitting tribute to the women and men who gave their lives for Irish freedom one hundred years ago – more than all the homilies and displays of supposed fidelity that you can fit into a year.

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on 3.1.16

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