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27 Mar

A Right to Rebel?

Constance Markievicz

I wrote some time back that discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Easter Rising seemed to be entirely focused on Just War Theory, a theory probably not best suited to judge a rebellion. The discussion still seems focused there, even though the best known proponent of Just War Theory, Thomas Aquinas, draws a distinction between war and sedition (conflict between parts of the state), and states that there is no sedition in disturbing a government which is not directed towards the common good1.

Philosophy of Rebellion – a brief history

This idea has roots in Isidore of Seville’s suggestion that an unjust ruler was no ruler at all, and John of Salisbury’s endorsement of killing tyrants under specific circumstances2. In the natural law tradition the validity of tyranicide was still argued into modern times. Some argued that only judges or the pope could intervene, but others such as Luis de Molina SJ (1535-1600) said that a tyrant who was an usurper or invader ‘can be justly killed by any member of the commonwealth’ as long as the action would not cause greater evil3.

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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.

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08 Mar

Writing History, Making History, Rewriting History. Women in Ireland 1888-1938.

Painting portraying the 1916 Rising in the GPO, including Pearse, Connolly and two nurses.

In this year in which the 1916 Rising is to be commemorated, some have expressed concern about its history being rewritten 1. This suggests that there is a complete and perfect history in place that should never need revising – an idea that is clearly mistaken. History is always being rewritten as new perspectives and new data emerge, and this has always been the case for Irish history. Since at least the 17th century there have been different accounts of Irish history conflicting with each other, reflecting different understandings. And even when women weren’t mentioned in those histories, they were still there.

Writing History
When Maud Gonne first came to Ireland in 1888, she met with John O’Leary with the aim of working for Ireland, but found that all the nationalist groups were closed to her. Arguing that women should be involved and citing the work done by the Ladies Land League, Gonne was told that “they did too good work and some of us found they could not be controlled.”2

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15 Feb

Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman

Sophie Bryant

Sophie Bryant (née Willock) was a true renaissance woman – suffragist, educationalist, mathematician, psychologist, theorist and “one of the most sophisticated and perceptive of the revivalist thinkers” 1 Born in Sandymount, near Dublin, on 15 February 1850 to Revd William Alexander Willock, a mathematician and fellow of Trinity College Dublin, and his wife, daughter of J. P. Morris of Skreen Castle. The family moved to London when Bryant was thirteen.

She married in 1869, but her husband died the next year. She was appointed to teach mathematics in North London Collegiate School, confounding the popular idea that girls were not suited for mathematics by sending a succession of girls to study the subject in Girton. She studied for her own degree at the same time, taking a BSc (London) in 1881 with a first in mental and moral science and a second in mathematics. Three years later she became the first woman to be awarded a DSc (in psychology). She became headmistress of the North London Collegiate in 1895, and was active in the development of education, including teacher training 2

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14 Feb

The Composite Irish Nation

It must contain and represent the races of Ireland. It must not be Celtic, it must not be Saxon—it must be Irish. The Brehon law, and the maxims of Westminster, the cloudy and lightning genius of the Gael, the placid strength of the Sasanach, the marshalling insight of the Norman—these are components of such a nationality.

Thomas Davis, quoted by Sophie Bryant in her 1913 Genius of the Gael (London:T. Fisher Unwin, p. 12), facing chapter 1: “The Composite Irish Nation of Today” (online at archive.org).

The original unabridged quote is from page 268 of:
Thomas Osborne Davis (1914) “Ballad Poetry of Ireland.” in D.J. O Donoghue (ed) Essays, literary and historical. By Thomas Davis. Centenary edition, including several pieces never before collected. Dundalk:Dundalgan Press, pp. 366–376 [online at UCC Celt].

29 Jan

1916 and Ideal Ethics

I have found few people in Ireland deeply concerned about the ethics of civil war or revolution. The majority accept the principle that it is lawful to use physical force in support of high ideals. Their questioning is about the justice of the cause; and if that be admitted, they seem to think the right to use physical force to secure its triumph follows in logical and unquestionable sequence. I will not discuss the morality of civil war or revolution. I remember a man, tired of ideal ethics, who cried out at a meeting many years ago: “Let us hear no more of the good man or the bad man. Let us speak of the wise man and the foolish man.” I am like that man.

Æ George Russell (1923) “Lessons of Revolution” in Studies Vol. 12, No. 45 (Mar., 1923), pp. 1-6 [JSTOR]

This piece was written just after the War of Independence, as the Civil War was looming. This opening paragraph gives Russell’s view of the majority opinion about the ethical status of the Rising and subsequent warfare. The rest of the article gives Russell’s opinion of how successful those events were in producing the type of state he and others had hoped for (not at all).

20 Jan

Debating the ethics of 1916

A painting depicting the GPO on fire in 1916.

Dublin 1916 Painting
(c) KMAN999/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2016 has started with a debate over the ethics of the 1916 Rising, primarily in the Irish Times. The first shot was fired by Patsy McGarry [1] who argued that the Rising was “an immoral and anti-democratic act organised by a minority within a minority, who, looking into their own souls, saw there what they deemed was right for the Irish people.” McGarry pointed to the messianic leanings of Pearse and the unilateral nature of the violence.

Diarmaid Ferriter wrote a reply [2] regarding Pearse’s self-image as a Christ-figure and pointing out its parallels in the 1966 (printed 1972) critique of Fr Francis Shaw [3]. But what of the suggestion that the Rising was immoral?

A piece from 2014 in the Unthinkable column had already featured an argument from James G Murphy that the Rising failed the “Just War” test, where to be justified wars must (have: “1) just cause, (2) competent authority, (3) comparative justice, (4) right intention, (5) reasonable prospect of success, (6) last resort, and (7) proportionality.” Murphy concluded: “Private individuals have no business or right to go to war. Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising take note” [4]. Murphy extended the case in 2016, arguing that aspects of the commemoration are deeply problematic, setting the Rising up as the key moment in the establishment of the Irish State, without questioning its violence and divisiveness. He reiterates the key issue regarding the legitimacy of the Rising [5]: Read More

06 Jan

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: Feminist Republican

Prof Bryan Fanning (2015) “Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: Feminist Republican”, UCD Youtube.

For more on Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, see Women’s Museum of Ireland: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (includes links to other resources), the review of the 1999 “Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a Life” by Margaret Ward on History Ireland, and Margaret Ward (on Hanna’s House) The Political Career of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – Challenging Feminism and Republicanism (pdf).

04 Dec

That Speech that Professor Tyndall Made

The scientific naturalists, especially Huxley and Tyndall, were able to dominate the politics of science when they were at the height of their power in the 1870’s and 1880’s. They were able to challenge the scientific, and even the cultural, authority of the Anglican clergy. Through their lectures and writings they encouraged the Victorian public to question widely held beliefs about the nature of society, the place of humanity in nature, and the role of religion in a modern, industrialized world. As a result, the Belfast Address was seen as a momentous cultural event well beyond the 1870’s. Almost thirty years later it seemed to symbolize how scientific naturalism had turned the Victorian world upside down. The playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up its enduring significance in his Man and Superman (1903). “It’s a very queer world,” remarks Mrs. Whitefield, who is bewildered by the complicated behavior of the younger generation. “It used to be so straightforward and simple; and now nobody seems to think and feel as they ought. Nothing has been right since that speech that Professor Tyndall made at Belfast” (4.237).

Lightman, Bernard. “On Tyndall’s Belfast Address, 1874.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, Dino Franco Felluga (ed). [online here]

10 Nov

This Man Had Kept A School – Pearse’s educational philosophy

St Éanna's hurling team

A hurling team from St Éanna’s
from “The Story of a Success” (1917)

Pádraic Pearse is, of course, best known as the leader of the Easter Rising in 1916, the man who read out the proclamation in front of the GPO. Born on 10th November 1879 at 27 Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse St) in Dublin, he gained a love of Irish from his mother and from his education from the Christian Brothers in Westland Row. He joined the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1895 aged 16, rising quickly through the ranks to become editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”) in 1903. He graduated from the Royal College Dublin (now UCD) in 1901 (Flanaghan, p. 276).

Writing in An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 to 1909, Pearse repeatedly emphasised the need for education reform to secure the intellectual and political independence of Ireland. The Irish language was key: Pearse believed that the personality of a nation is reflected in its language and “by coming into touch with the language, we come into touch with that personality” (Ó Buachalla, p. 73 quoted in Flanaghan, p. 276).
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