”Why Grandmother, what big teeth you have’: Q&A on 1916 Commemorations

I received some questions from Ian Curran, an Irish journalist based in London, on the subject of the commemoration of the 1916 Rising in Britain and Ireland. My answers are below. Thanks to Ian for the questions.




1) With regard to the ‘Reclaim 1916’ project, what is it about the Rising, from your perspective, that has to be reclaimed?

I don’t know a great deal about the Reclaim 1916 project, other than what I’ve seen on its website, though I would be broadly sympathetic. For me, what marks 1916 out from what went before is the idea of rupture from the existing regime: you proclaim a republic and you set about creating it. In this sense ‘reclaiming’ 1916 feels slightly strange, this idea that you’re seeking to go back to what it was all about at its origin in order to begin anew. My perspective, I suppose, would be more along the lines of: what kind of institutions need to be built, what things need to be defended, what kind of struggles need to be fought, in the here and now, in order to make real the democratic ideals as expressed in the 1916 proclamation?

In another sense, however, I do understand the need to reclaim it. A few weeks back, on College Green in Dublin, there was a large banner hung as part of the 1916 commemorations. It featured four men who had nothing to do with 1916: Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and John Redmond. It turned out that the idea had come from the Office of the Taoiseach, the Irish prime minister. They were featured because they represent what is called the ‘constitutional nationalist’ position, which basically holds that whatever is to be achieved in terms of Irish freedom must emerge from established political and legal institutions, that is, the ones that England has allowed. The idea that the ‘constitutional’ path was the one to follow is often proposed in Ireland, in certain elite political and media circles, as a sort of counter-history to 1916. It proposes that had there been no violent uprising, had everything been conducted within the rule of law, then Irish freedom and independence could have been achieved without bloodshed.

This is the idea proposed, by Bob Geldof among others, and it has been round for more than a century. Roger Casement, for example, thought differently, though. If I mention him here it’s because he was recently described on an Irish state broadcaster news programme as ‘the Bob Geldof of his day’, which, in terms of an insult, is a great deal worse than urinating on Casement’s grave. His stance, as expressed from the dock in England, prior to his execution, is as eloquent a response as any to these circles: ‘We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand in the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country, and their dream and their deaths are phases of a dishonourable phantasy.’

So, there is a long thread of opposition to 1916 that continues to the present, and it rests, I think, on the idea that history is made by great men, notable statesmen -with the emphasis on ‘men‘, of course- and it is a matter for the rest just to obey, to choose their masters every now and again, and basically keep out of it. That idea is not confined to people who openly view 1916 as an abomination, however: even among those political parties who honour 1916, this view of history and politics -which is also strongly held in England- by and large prevails. It is a question for elite groupings to decide what’s what, and any challenge to this consensus is viewed, as Casement puts it, as a ‘dishonourable phantasy’. So if we’re talking about ‘reclaiming 1916’, I think it should be the sense that it is not simply the act of a small band of visionaries, but rather a key moment in a people’s history of Ireland: it arose as a consequence of popular agitation and struggle, notably women’s struggle, and the development of ideas, and it still remains that way in many people’s minds, however much others attempt to celebrate it as primarily the founding moment of the Irish State as it exists today.


2) How do you think that the ‘official’ commemorations of the Rising in Britain and Ireland have dealt with the legacy of the 1916? To what extent to you think that aspects of the Rising have to be fudged or de-emphasised to allow such a large programme of commemorative events to take place across Britain?

I know very little about how the Rising has been officially commemmorated in Britain. But at the heart of the Rising is the matter of the First World War, and the fact that Irish people were being called upon to go out and kill for Empire, as many had done in the past. One only has to look at the way the First World War is commemorated in Britain, with so much pomp and ceremony and so much of a sense that this slaughter was a righteous fight for the freedoms won in Britain today, to see that if there have been official commemorations of the Rising in Britain, and I assume they were organised by Ireland, they are unlikely to actually remind British people what the Rising was about. I do not think it likely that official Ireland will confront Britain with the bloodstains it created, or remind it of its blind imperial ignorance that continues to the present in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. There is also the question of the dirty war in the North, and so many people dying as a consequence of British forces using loyalist paramilitaries -when not the army proper- to inflict terror on the population. That ought to be as much a question for people who live in Britain -what does it mean to be a citizen of a state that commits such acts- as it is for people in Ireland, but it is given a wide berth by most people in both jurisdictions, not least because it gets so little official or media attention.

As for official commemorations in Ireland: central to the main ceremony outside the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street was a show of power by the Irish State: the army on full display. Behind this lay a need, I think, to articulate the idea that the true heir of 1916 is the State that exercises a legitimate monopoly of violence. There were lots of people who were quite content to see the army deliver tricolours to Irish schools, and show off their guns on the day of the ceremony, because it was a way of signalling that the day of other groupings -in particular the Provisional IRA- laying claim to the right to armed struggle on behalf of Ireland, had passed.

What was more, the ceremony, in contrast to the 50th anniversary in 1966, was fenced off to the wider public so that only a select few could witness the events first hand at the GPO. So from my view there was an ugly militarism with an emphasis on State sovereignty that sought to evacuate any sense that 1916 was a people’s event. I remember a letter from John Montague to the Irish Times some years back, urging a Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty, in which he warned portentously that Cathleen ni Houlihan -WB Yeats’s image for a sovereign Irish state- must not be a wallflower again. When I saw the pictures of the ceremony it was not so much Cathleen ni Houlihan but ‘why Grandmother, what big teeth you have’. Whatever the actual content of the Proclamation, however much the key figures of the Rising are proclaimed latterday saints, Irish elites have no commitment to democracy in any meaningful sense and I think the main ceremony expressed that quite well.


3) A few weeks ago I interviewed Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall. He said that commemorating the deaths of British soldiers in Dublin was part of the “pluralistic” approach to the commemorations that the Irish State has taken. This is obviously something you disagree with. Why, and can you think of any other examples of revolutionary commemorations which pay respect to the dead on both sides?

The ceremony this Sunday past in Glasnevin Cemetary -where many key figures in Irish history are buried- is a case in point. A ‘Remembrance Wall’ was unveiled, with political and religious elites looking on, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Rising and the events that followed. So you see James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army -who had been a deserter to the British Army and who had resolved to fight against everything it stood for- listed alongside soldiers from the South Staffordshire regiment that had massacred 15 civilians on North King Street. It looks like the great and the good think this is some sort of grand humanistic gesture, a recognition that any life lost in war is an awful loss. Well it’s one thing to recognise the dead, but it’s quite another to rid their memory of any kind of context or detail. Some people say that this thing could only happen in Ireland, but that is not really true. For example, back in 2004, in Spain, there was an official parade through Madrid’s main thoroughfare, and it included a member of Franco’s Blue Division, which fought alongside the Nazis, walking alongside a soldier from the International Brigades. From a standpoint that understands history and takes it seriously, this is completely absurd. But from a standpoint that seeks to eliminate any room for real political dispute and difference, it is quite logical. And what it says is that political dispute -which is a necessary element of democracy- is in and of itself violent and unacceptable. We are all in this together, and we cannot allow ourselves to fall prey to ‘dishonourable phantasy’. It just so happens that the kind of things that now fall into the category of ‘dishonourable phantasy’ are questions such as universal health care, the power of the financial sector over the rest of society, and public services as a matter of right.


4) Mulhall also asserted that part of the importance of commemorating the Rising in Britain was to raise awareness of the “interconnectedness” of our two histories. He sees it as part of the “wider process of reconciliation” between the two countries. What do you think is the status of this reconciliation today and how do you see the Rising commemorations interacting with that process if at all?

I think official ideas about reconciliation are mostly bunk and always have been. We need to distinguish here between the broad mass of everyday people on both islands on the one hand, and the machinations of the British and Irish States on the other. Like a great many Irish people, I have spent years living in England. I have friends there and family there. I don’t need any reconciliation with English people. We get on fine, and I would venture that this is true of most people. I have political objections to the role of the British State in Ireland, but I also have political objections to the role of the Irish State in Ireland. Does that mean I hate Irish people? The problem is the conflation of genuine and principled political objections with atavistic animosities, and elite groupings -the Fenian Proclamation of 1867 referred to them as ‘the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields’- who always talk up the latter as a means of avoiding the former.

There was a video released, it was played at one of the official celebration events, I think, showing individuals all over the world reading excerpts from the Proclamation. It was like an Aer Lingus and Private Health Insurance ad rolled into one, with people on Wall Street, Hollywood and in front of the British Houses of Parliament. And it was striking that for all the American accents reading the lines, there wasn’t a single English or Scottish or Welsh accent. The guy standing outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster had an Irish accent. So there was no recognition whatsoever for the generations of Irish people who had emigrated to Britain and had worked at building the place or staffed its hospitals. It doesn’t matter whether it was by accident or design: I thought it was sad and disgraceful. Why is it apparently inconceivable that an accent from Birmingham or Liverpool or wherever could read out the Proclamation?


5) Mulhall claims that it is “fundamentally unsound for anyone 100 years after an event to claim possession of that event.” He said that for any groups to claim political descent or credibility from the rebels is “flawed” and “must be resisted at all costs.” To what extent do agree with this and why? Do you think this is something that the Irish Government has been engaged in throughout this commemoration process?

In what sense do people claim ‘possession’ of an event? A large part of the world has long considered a crucifixion that took place thousands of years ago on a hill in the Middle East as ‘theirs’: it is an event that appears to them as true and in turn they commit to remain true to it, in a whole variety of ways, sometimes diametrically opposed. Clearly there are people who see in the Easter Rising something that holds true in their own lives, for whatever reason, and they identify with it. Whatever claims are being laid to political descent from the 1916 rebels, the most strident claim was made by the Irish State in its military procession. Should we resist that “at all costs” too? If so, the ambassador is really spoiling us with his calls to armed insurrection in the present.


6) Do you have any hope that the Rising centenary has revived republican sentiment in Ireland to any extent?

If it were to ‘revive Republican sentiment’, then we should ask: what kind of Republican sentiment? I think there is an interconnectedness of histories now that goes way beyond those of just people in Ireland and people in Britain. There are a lot more people living in Ireland now whose own personal histories stretch back to other parts of the world, whether Africa, India, Latin America, or other parts of Europe. And it is here I am slightly wary of the republican sentiment that sees things primarily in terms of State sovereignty, rather than a popular sovereignty that has at its core the extension of democracy to all areas of life and the active participation of all. The opening address of ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in the Proclamation was undoubtedly radical at the time, but not so much now, except in one respect: women in Ireland are still not considered as autonomous citizens, as evidenced by the country’s draconian abortion laws. This is not only a vital matter for women, but also, I think, a vital matter in terms of how we see ourselves bound by the State. I have no interest in any republican sentiment that treats this kind of State, this kind of State sovereignty, as legitimate, and I am thinking in particular here of the carceral regime of Direct Provision, whereby certain people who come to this country are held in the most degrading conditions and denied basic rights because the State finds they do not fit the bill of desirability. No-one has the right to exercise such decisions over others. If there is a Republican sentiment to be revived, it is that part of Irish republicanism that finds common cause with the Universal Republic of the Paris Commune. I am hopeful, but I wish I could say it was likely.

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