I wasn’t expecting much from Ireland’s 1916 centenary commemorations, and I’ve paid little attention to what has been written and broadcast about it. This is in part because I haven’t had the time, and in part because I just prefer to look at these things in my own time. It is also because my head has been poisoned for decades now by the kind of rubbish that by all accounts is being pumped out with renewed vigour by Ireland’s media, with the usual suspects given pride of place.
The Rising is not beyond criticism. It would be absurd for any democrat to suggest that it is. But it’s one thing to call into question this or that aspect of it, or assess its legacy dispassionately, and quite another to disregard any kind of serious historical thinking as a means of suppressing real thought and debate. In this regard it’s no coincidence that plenty of the prominent voices most critical of the Rising, its aftermath and present day ramifications, are not only supporters of Ulster unionism and contemporary British and American imperialism, but also Islamophobic bigots and longstanding supporters of the murderous racist and colonialist state of Israel. Such people are more than happy to give full-throated support to acts of violence in the here and now that far surpass anything that the 1916 rebels engaged in. What’s more, their concern for the victims of such violence here in Ireland does not extend to anyone brutalised or murdered by the British State in the 100 years since the Rising, nor for what it might mean to live as a citizen of a State that perpetrates such atrocities.
Nor is it any surprise that their explications of the event resort to crude ahistorical caricature about ‘tribes’, ‘the Irish DNA’, ‘blood sacrifice’, ‘terrorism’ and so on, or that they leave unquestioned the right of Britain to rule Ireland through force of arms and to crush rebellion with all the brutality it saw fit to administer. On top of this they have the gall -and the platform- to lecture others about democratic mandates.
At the bottom of it all is the idea that the savage and backward brutes need to have obedience beaten into them if it cannot be bred, and that the last thing one could wish to happen would be for the Rising commemorations to become an opportunity to rile up the rubes. And so they are presented as contrarian voices, the vital counterpoint for a pluralistic debate, in largely the same way as the fanatical Iona Institute weirdoes are the go-to people for a debate on any issue where religious sensibilities might have to be discussed.
Their intended function is not so much to see Ireland rejoin the British Commonwealth amid mass displays of chest-beating atonement (though no doubt such thoughts bring them a shiver of excitement) but rather to keep public debate within the narrowest of parameters.
Questions about whether the Rising was justified overall are intended as a cue for tedious counterfactual exercises and fruitless deliberations over just war criteria.
Questions about whether Padraig Pearse, say, was a fanatic, or a repressed paedophile even, are intended to psychopathologise any kind of radical political action or thought. They are intended draw attention away from consideration of the real material conditions and political considerations that produced the Rising, lest they might be used to draw the wrong kind of parallels in the present.
(Of course, parallels with jihadist suicide bombers will be entertained with great interest.)
On a more upbeat note, it is a happy coincidence that Ireland has no government at the minute. This means that Ireland’s political establishment is entering the main days of the Rising commemorations without any notable figures parading the power vested in them by Ireland’s wondrous political system.
It bears emphasising that this moment of ungovernability would not have come about were it not for the huge and unprecedented social mobilisation in response to the imposition of water charges and all it represented.
For all it might be denied and glossed over by the print and broadcast media, for all its participants might have been denigrated, demonised and patronised, when not simply ignored, it is as a consequence of this movement that Ireland’s political elites appear so diminished, so venal, so artless.
The fact that this is such a gloomy moment for Ireland’s political establishment, means we should also see it, if not as a golden moment, then a golden opportunity at least, for politics in Ireland. Fuck the begrudgers. Up the republic.