Felix M Larkin



Black Magic of 1916

The black magic of the Easter Rising


Inaugural Conference @ Centre for Public History, Queen’s University Belfast

8 December 2017

Conference theme: “Why public history?”



Let me begin by saying that the commemoration of the 1916 Rising last year was not as bad as it might have been. Most people take the view that it was a “Goldilocks moment” – whereas the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1966 were too hot and those for the 75th anniversary in 1991 too cold, 2016 was just right. I do not agree, however. At a time when democratic values are under threat from Brexiteers in Britain and Northern Ireland and from Donald Trump in the US, there is something indecent – in my opinion – about honouring men and women who set out to impose their extreme nationalist agenda on an unwilling population in Easter Week 1916 by force of arms.

In this regard, I recall the words of Eoin MacNeill addressed to his fellow officers in the Irish Volunteers in February 1916, two months before the Rising. I quote:  ‘... we believe that we think rightly on national matters, and even if we do not all agree on every point, we believe that the consensus we hold among us is right as far as it goes ... [It is] our duty to so act that our country itself, i.e. the Irish nation, shall learn, as far as may be secured, to think in the same way ... In other words, if we are right, it is our duty to get our country on our side, and not to be content with the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong.’

Many in the senior ranks of the Irish Volunteers rejected this very reasonable proposition – and, as we all know, they would defy MacNeill’s authority as their Chief of Staff in Easter Week. Their disregard for basic democratic values – ‘the vanity of thinking ourselves to be right and other Irish people to be wrong’ – is what Professor John A. Murphy of UCC referred to, in a characteristically acerbic assessment of last year’s commemoration, as ‘the magic (sometimes black) of the Easter Rising’. It is the reason why I believe that we need to jettison from our public history what Professor Murphy calls ‘the fantasy world of “the Republic as in 1916 established”’. It is a myth, and we cannot hope for a humane, healthy and stable polity built on fantasy and myths.

Patrick Pearse himself quite deliberately fashioned the fantasy of 1916 in his writings, and the myths were then endorsed and propagated by the independent Irish state through its education system and in many other insidious ways – right up to, and including, last year’s commemoration. Thus, in his poem ‘The Mother’, written shortly before his execution, Pearse put these words into the mouth of his mother:

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed ...

Pearse was right about later generations remembering the men and women of 1916. But it is simply not right to regard the rebellion which he and a very few others instigated as a ‘glorious thing’. I suggest that it would be more correct to regard it as an example of ‘altruistic evil’, a concept developed by the former British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in a book published last year, Not in God’s name. He writes, by way of explanation:

Only in fiction are the great evils committed by caricatures of malevolence: Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron or the Joker. In real history the great evils are committed by people seeking to restore a romanticised golden age, willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others in what they regard as a great and even holy cause. In some cases, they see themselves as ‘doing God’s work’ ...  That is how dreams of utopia turn into nightmares of hell.

Sacks adds that we need a term to describe how ‘ordinary, non-psychopathic people’ can be turned into ‘cold-blooded murderers’ for ‘a great and ... holy cause’, and so he gives it a name: ‘altruistic evil: that is, evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals’. We must, I believe, face up to the awkward reality that ‘altruistic evil’ may be an apt description of the Easter Rising. Instead of celebrating it, we must try to neutralise its ‘black magic’.

I accept, of course, that the leaders of the Rising were men and women of high ideals, but their actions were profoundly undemocratic and morally suspect. The Rising was conceived as a ‘bloody protest’: that was how Pearse described it in the poem quoted above, a quixotic gesture intentionally involving the loss of life – his own, and that of others. It did result in the loss of many lives – and the majority of the victims were non-combatants, innocent civilians (including children). But the Rising was carried out in furtherance of what the rebels regarded as a noble cause. It is, therefore, a classic instance of ‘altruistic evil’ as defined by Jonathan Sacks.  

The Rising had no popular mandate at the time – nobody can deny that. The priest-historian, F.X. Martin, writing in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary, characterised the Rising as ‘a conspiracy of a conspiracy of a minority’. He pointed out that the leaders of the Rising ‘were not deterred by the fact that they were a small minority’, and he went on to say:

On close examination it will be found that they were a far smaller minority than is usually supposed ... The Easter Rising was a coup d’état against the British Government, it ran flat counter to the wishes of Redmond and the majority of Irish Nationalists, it was a mutiny against MacNeill and the constitution of the Irish Volunteers, and it usurped the powers of the IRB [the Irish Republican Brotherhood].

And, as already noted, the case against the Rising on democratic grounds had been eloquently stated by Eoin MacNeill in a memorandum to the officers of the Irish Volunteers just two months earlier – but it was disregarded by most of them. In that memorandum, MacNeill also asserted that ‘the only reason that could justify general active military measures ... would be a reasonably calculated or estimated prospect of success, in the military sense ... [and] not merely some future moral or political advantage which may be hoped for as a result of non-success’. Thus he disposed of Pearse’s ‘blood sacrifice’ ideal.

Pearse’s view of the Rising – blood sacrifice, leading to the redemption and resurrection of the nation, modelled (some would say, blasphemously) on the Easter story in the Christian tradition – is undoubtedly seductive. It has weaved its black magic, and coloured the popular imagination. Historians, and others, have had great difficulty in countering it with the unadorned facts and stripping away the rhetorical baggage – an effort generally referred to, sometimes disparagingly, as ‘revisionism’. To again quote Fr Martin:

The academic historian may knowingly shake his head, confident that Pearse and his followers have misinterpreted Irish history, but it has not been the academic historians ... who have directly influenced the political views of Irish youth since 1917. The Pearse view of Irish history may be inaccurate ... but it has sent and is sending young men out to die more certainly than did [Yeats’ play] Cathleen ni Houlihan.

That was written in the journal Studia Hibernica in 1967, before the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It shows that Martin anticipated the concern that later influenced the writings of Conor Cruise O’Brien and others when the Troubles did break out. Simply stated, this concern was that the 1916 Rising, the foundational event of the Irish state, could be used as a precedent for subverting that very state and for violence in Northern Ireland – in other words, the memory of 1916 keeps the cult of political violence alive and well in Ireland.

            And note that Fr Martin claims in the passage just quoted that Pearse and his followers were responsible not merely for a misinterpretation of 1916, but also for a misinterpretation of Irish history generally, His point is that, while the story of the Rising has been idealised, our understanding of the prior history of Ireland has also been distorted in order to portray the Rising as the culmination of a splendid heritage of fighting, dying and killing for Irish freedom. Martin argued that the 1916 proclamation had put forward ‘a historical interpretation of over seven hundred years of Irish history’ which, though misguided, subsequently took hold of the public mind. He wrote:

It began with the resonant assurance that the insurgents were acting in the name of God and of the dead generations of Irishmen; it went on to insist that England’s long occupation had given it no right to the country, that in every generation the Irish people had rebelled against the usurpation of their rights, that there had been six rebellions during the previous three hundred years, and that these rights were now once more being affirmed by the soldiers of the Irish Republic ... At the very outset of the Rising, therefore, the pitch was being queered for the historians.

Sadly, this queering of the pitch has continued apace – and was a feature of last year’s commemoration. One particularly egregious example was the three-part television documentary on the Rising and its background and legacy produced by the University of Notre Dame with the blessing of the Irish government and its advisory committee on the Decade of Commemorations. The production values of the documentary cannot be faulted – it is superbly well made – but it is not ‘history’. It is, to coin a phrase, ‘fake history’ – ‘alternative facts’ – simply a sophisticated rehash of the film ‘Mise Éire’, released on the eve of the 1960s before the ‘revisionist’ impulse in Irish historiography had borne fruit. Like ‘Mise Éire’, the Notre Dame documentary glorifies 1916, its violent antecedents and the violence that has flowed from it, down to the present day, to the strains of highly evocative music. If I may be allowed a pun on the sobriquet bestowed on Notre Dame’s famous college football team, it presents Irish history as the story of the ‘fighting Irish’.

The first episode begins with the arrival of Henry II in Ireland in 1171, thereby perpetuating the myth of 700 (or is it 800?) years of English occupation in Ireland without any attempt to contextualise the Anglo-Norman presence in Ireland in the twelfth century by reference to the medieval world in which the concept of ‘nationhood’ was largely irrelevant. Then, in its survey of the nineteenth-century, the programme airbrushes Daniel O’Connell, the father figure of Irish democracy, out of the picture completely. There is no mention of him – the ‘Liberator’, who achieved Catholic Emancipation through non-violent means. That achievement represented real political, economic and social progress for the Catholic majority in Ireland – unequalled in modern times – but that counts for nothing in the Notre Dame pantheon. The other great popular leader of nineteenth-century Ireland, Charles Stewart Parnell, is reduced to a peripheral figure – a kind of Quisling, prepared to compromise with the ‘hated oppressor’, England. Meanwhile, there are paeans of praise for the dynamite campaigns of O’Donovan Rossa and Tom Clarke in British cities – campaigns which parallel terrorist incidents in London, Manchester, Paris and elsewhere in recent times. This privileging of the physical force tradition over the constitutional one is simply unhistorical – and it is devoid of a moral compass.  

Furthermore, the first episode makes reference to an ‘alien’ Protestant landowning class in Ireland without acknowledging that these families had been in Ireland for about as long as European settlers had been in North America – a significant omission given the American provenance of this documentary. And the model of American ‘liberty’ which, it is claimed, the Fenians and later the men and women of 1916 imbibed is not one that would be celebrated by Native Americans deprived, like the so-called ‘native Irish’, of their ancestral lands.

Such distortion of history is not only regrettable, it is reprehensible. It ignores the complexities of the past, and so has the potential to do great harm. The producers of that documentary, and the many others who abuse the historical record, may have cause to be troubled in future years by the concerns expressed by W.B. Yeats in one of his last poems, to which I have already alluded: ‘Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?’. It has become fashionable to pour scorn on Yeats’ conceit about the influence his work may, or may not, have had – hence these lines by Paul Muldoon: ‘If Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed’. But this is a trite and superficial response to a very real issue, and the fact that it is a real issue was brought home to me many years ago by my old history professor in UCD, the late Kevin B. Nowlan. In 1966 Kevin B. was the history advisor to Telefís Éireann (as it then was) on their programmes marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, and he was alarmed to find later on that the children in the area where he lived in Dublin were playing ‘Rebels and Soldiers’ instead of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ or ‘Cops and Robbers’. He realised that it had all gone too far. He was troubled by fears similar to those of Yeats.

1916 happened, and we cannot avoid that. We cannot alter the past, no matter how much we may regret aspects of it. The challenge for those of us who live in the independent Irish state is how to accommodate our past and prevent it undermining the democratic and genuinely republican character of that state. Can I suggest, for a start, that we should now date the origin of the state not to the 1916 Rising, but instead to the 1918 general election and the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in January 1919 – orderly political events, not wanton violence? By continuing to celebrate the Rising as the foundational event of the state, we signal approval of what the men and women of 1916 did, and we associate ourselves with values – profoundly undemocratic – which today we emphatically reject, and we are right to reject them. My argument here is that we should reject them also in our public history.

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