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14 Mar

Before the Split

Bank of Ireland College Green, displaying banner © Paul Reynolds, with permission

A banner has appeared on the Bank of Ireland in College Green (pictured above) provoking reactions from bemusement to annoyance. One of a series of banners being erected in advance of St Patrick’s day it depicts four faces: Henry Grattan (of Grattan’s Parliament), Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond.

Part of the reaction stems from the fact all but one of those depicted were dead by 1916, and that one, Redmond, expressed “detestation and horror” at the Rising and suggested it was a German plot1. Dublin City Council deputy city librarian Brendan Teeling defended the banner, saying that the majority in 1916 supported parliamentary nationalists and it would be “unhistorical” to leave them out. “It is not making a grand claim,” he said2

But it looks like it is making a big claim.

The banner is not showing parliamentary nationalists who might be included in a history of 1916 (Redmond might have been joined by John Dillon and Tom Kettle, for instance), but displaying the parliamentarian tradition in Irish political history. The people chosen all worked for change via political means, whether obtaining an independent Irish parliament from 1782-1801 (Grattan), working for Catholic Emancipation (Grattan and O’Connell), land reform (Parnell), or trying to repeal the Act of Union and obtain Home Rule (O’Connell, Parnell, Redmond). All were MPs in Westminster at some point. None openly espoused physical force. None aimed at establishing an independent Irish Republic.

Putting the history of parliamentarianism on a banner labelled 1916 suggests that 1916 was in the parliamentarian tradition. That suggestion is very far from the truth. If Pearse was choosing historical figures for a banner they would include Wolfe Tone, Lawlor and Mitchel, all republicans and all convinced that physical force was the only way to obtain Irish freedom 3:

Tone is the intellectual ancestor of the whole modern movement of Irish nationalism, of Davis, and Lalor, and Mitchel, and all their followers; Davis is the immediate ancestor of the spiritual and imaginative part of that movement, embodied in our day in the Gaelic League; Lalor is the immediate ancestor of the specifically democratic part of that movement, embodied to-day in the more virile labour organisations; Mitchel is the immediate ancestor of Fenianism, the noblest and most terrible manifestation of this unconquered nation.

The Fenian Brotherhood and IRB as mentioned by Pearse also fit into this tradition. The IRB were central to the organisation of the 1916 Rising, particularly long-term member Thomas Clarke.

Some might argue that the leaders of the Rising saw themselves as part of a history including the parliamentarians. Of those whose opinions we know, James Connolly was unimpressed with Grattan’s parliament and scathing about O’Connell’s voting record as regards labour issues4, and Pearse repudiated the constitutional path in his Graveside Panegyric for O’Donovan Rossa. For Pearse, only the definition of freedom given by Tone, Mitchel and Rossa was valid5.

It’s easier if we don’t think about this too deeply. It’s nicer to think that, “In 1916 we were all one, before there were any splits” 6. But it’s not true. There were differences between the Volunteer/IRB side and the ICA, with Connolly allegedly advising the ICA to keep their arms, since “those who are our comrades today we may be compelled to fight tomorrow” 7. The Rising, as we’ve heard many times, was supposed to be held on Easter Sunday, but was countermanded by the Irish Volunteers chief-of-staff Eoin MacNeill8.

Further back, the Irish Volunteers had been supported by constitutionalists and physical force separatists alike when founded, but split when Redmond attempted to dictate policy for them9. Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had seen William O’Brien, whose United Irish League had revitalised the party a decade after the Parnell split, leave to form the All-For-Ireland League in 1909. O’Brien detested the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a specifically Catholic group who were effectively an organisational arm of the IPP, but it was infighting at the top of the IPP that led to his departure10. Sinn Fein was a movement rather than a party, and its leader Arthur Griffith rejected both parliamentarianism and physical force, advocating passive resistance and an arrangement for Ireland similar (he claimed) to that of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire11

In other words, nationalism in the early 20th century was complicated, fragmented and fragmenting, with different groups having different ideas of the nation they hoped to see in the future and how to achieve it. 1916 did not give the parliamentarians what they hoped for. Redmond pleaded in vain for the execution of the rebels to end, aware of the effect on moderate nationalism. He concurred with John Dillon that his life’s work was being wiped out in blood12 Tom Kettle, soon to die in the Somme, recognised that the rebels of 1916 would “go down in history as heroes and martyrs”, while he would be remembered as “a bloody British officer”13 Given that history, putting their faces on a banner labelled “1916”would seem a cruel irony.

Banners are not the answer. The way to deal with this history, complex as it is, is to explore it and untangle its complexities, not simplify it. It might mean more “remembering” and “reconciling” than “celebrating” (to take three of the themes for the government 1916 commemoration14) but it should increase our chances of adding a new one: understanding.

References

  1. Michael Laffan (2009) “John Redmond” in Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press
  2. Ronan McGreevy (2016) “Dublin City Council defends College Green 1916 banner” in Irish Times, 14 Mar 2016 (online)
  3. Pádraic H. Pearse (1924) The Sovereign People in Political Writings and Speeches Dublin, Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp 331–372. Originally published 1916. Quote on pp. 371-2. (UCC Celt online)
  4. James Connolly (1987) “Labour in Irish History” in Desmond Ryan (ed) Collected Works, vol. 1 , pp 17–184. See chapters 5 and 12. (UCC Celt online)
  5. Eleanor Hull (1931) A History of Ireland, Vol 2, Appendix 2: “Oration of P. H. Pearse over the Grave of O’Donovan ‘Rossa'”. (Book online at Library Ireland)
  6. Mary O’Rourke, Sunday Tribune, 22 August 2010
  7. Liam O Ruairc (2015) “‘Hold on to your rifles’ and ‘Let no shot be fired in Ulster’: notes on two remarks attributed to Connolly”, The Irish Revolution (online)
  8. Charles Townshend (2006) “Making sense of Easter 1916” in History Ireland, Vol. 4, Issue 2. (online)
  9. Peter Brown (2013) “How revolutionary were the Irish Volunteers?” in History Ireland, Vol. 21, Issue 6 (online). Conor Mulvagh (2014) “Statement to the Irish Volunteers, 24 September 1914” on History Hub (online)
  10. Diarmaid Ferriter (2015) A Nation Not A Rabble, Profile Books, pp. 117-8. Fergal McCluskey (2012) “‘Make way for the Molly Maguires!’ The Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish Parliamentary Party, 1902–14” in History Ireland, Vol 20, Issue 1. (online)
  11. Donal McCartney (1973) “The Political Use of History in the Work of Arthur Griffith”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 3-19 (JSTOR)
  12. Michael Laffan (2009) “John Redmond” in Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press.
  13. Donal Lowry (2009) “Kettle, Thomas Michael (‘Tom’)” in Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press.
  14. Arminta Wallace (2016) “Commemorate or bust: How 1916 will be remembered through the year” in Irish Times, 9 Jan 2016.

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