1916, the birth of modern Ireland

Posted: March 28, 2016 in 1916, Democracy

History is not a straight line. Events do not simply evolve one after another. Periods of apparent stability are riven with antagonism. Tensions accumulate. Crises erupt. New moments are born.

These new moments are the turning points in history. They are moments of great instability and opportunity. They are moments when people can truly shape their own future.

Easter 1916 was one such turning point. It was the apex of a period of enormous social, political and cultural ferment. It was not only a rising, but a moment of profound rupture with the past. After the Rising Ireland would never be the same.

One of the difficulties for those of us who want to understand the events of 1916 is that we risk reading those events through post-Rising eyes, what historians term reading history backwards.

To fully appreciate the significance of the Rising we have to understand the period from which it emerged.

Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century was experiencing a period of social, economic, political and cultural decline. The tragedy of the Great Hunger was a living memory. Parnell was dead and with him so too were the political hopes of an entire generation. Ireland, as a distinct cultural and political place, was literally disappearing into the morass of the British Empire.

In response to this sense of loss and decline emerged a new generation. From the 1890s through to 1916 there was a proliferation of ideas and actions, organisations and initiatives all with the same aim. To revive the idea of Ireland as a distinct social, cultural, political and economic reality.

The Revival was a movement in the truest sense of the term. It was not led by any one organisation or individual. It was a multitude of voices and spaces. It was vivid and exciting. It was seeking to revive the past in order to create a new, modern future.

Gaelic revivalists, Fenian democrats, suffragettes, trade unionists and socialists all rubbed shoulders in the meeting rooms of the Gaelic League, on the streets campaigning against Empire, and in the growing demand for a Republic.

There were heated debates and furious arguments. Friends were made and lost over points of principle and strategy. The demands of women and workers, the role of religion, the use of force, the timing of the Rising – these were the fissures along which the moving parts of the multitude coalesced and fractured.

This was the moment of Milligan, Hobson, Jacob & Sheehy Skeffington as much as it was of Pearse, Connolly, Markievicz and Clarke.

The Republic, the demand for a self governing Ireland, became the repository for the hopes and aspirations of all of these disparate groups. It was more than just a stand against Empire and monarchy. It was the assertion of a different kind of Ireland, a break from a shameful past and an expression of a free and equal Ireland.

All of this took place in a pre democratic era. The government in London had no mandate to rule Ireland. Redmond had no mandate to send tens of thousands of Irish men to their deaths in the imperial adventure that was the First World War. The Military Executive of the IRB has no mandate to rise on Easter weekend.

We can not judge the actions of these political forces against twenty first century norms. We should, however, judge them against what they sought to achieve. The perpetuation of Empire or the creation of an Irish democracy.

The Rising of Easter 1916 was at its heart a democratic rising. It was asserting the right of Irish women and men to determine their own affairs. It was also egalitarian – guaranteeing religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all, and resolving to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts.

In an era of deep rooted poverty and economic inequality the commitment enshrined in the Proclamation of the Provisional Government to cherish all of the nation equally was truly radical.

These ideas of democracy, liberty and equality –ideas which we take for granted today- were a profound break with the norms in Ireland and Britain at the start of the twentieth century.

While the Rising was a military failure it’s real triumph was in the popularisation of these radical republican values. The democratic and egalitarian impulse of the 1916 Proclamation displaced the old Victorian attitudes of late nineteenth century. 1916 represents the birth of modern Ireland.

As we commemorate and celebrate the triumph that was 1916 through this centenary year let us also pause for a moment and ask ourselves a simple question. Do we live in the kind of Republic declared from the GPO one hundred years ago?

For this writer the answer is negative. Partition and poverty are the great betrayals of our time.

So as we stand and listen to words of the Proclamation this weekend spare a thought for the children who will sleep another night in emergency accommodation or in Direct Provision and ask yourself what would Pearse and Connolly think of the Ireland that has been created in their name. Or even better ask yourself what are you going to do to help realise the Republic that the women and men of 1916 fought and died for.


This article was originally published in the Sunday Business Post on 27.3.16

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