Saturday, 16 April 2016

Rubicon 2016: ‘1916–2016: Before, Between
and Beyond … Ireland: 100 Years On’

The GPO in O’Connell Street, Dublin … neither Sinn Féin nor the IRA was involved in organising the Easter Rising in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Rubicon 5th national gathering,

Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines,

11 a.m., 16 April 2016.


This year Easter has been dominated, some would say hijacked, by events marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. The programme has dominated the life of Church and State, dominated the news on television and newspapers. It is as though there is no pressing political problem on our doorstep, such as the refusal of elected politicians to form a government, the threat to our economic stability by a Brexit vote later this summer, or the problems of homelessness on our city’s street, the failures in our health service, or the continuing problems of a younger generation finding access to housing, healthcare, higher education and meaningful employment.

This political, social and cultural obsession has obscured, even mocked, the fact that Easter is the most important Christian festival. The Easter Rising in 1916 did not begin on a Sunday, did not begin in March; in fact, it began on Monday 24 April 1916. But the churches allowed Sunday 29 March 2016 to be hijacked. The bank holiday weekend was supposed to mark the weekend that is central to the Christian faith. The state could quite conveniently have created another holiday weekend centred on Monday 25 April 2016.

Imagine the uproar in Tunisia or Turkey had major military parades marking a key state anniversary had forced mosques to close during Ramadan or at the height of the Eid celebrations. Or imagine the international outcry if Churches and Christian centres of worship in Cairo or Baghdad had been forced by the state to close this Easter. We should have insisted our churches and cathedrals were going to be open, not as normal, but as Easter celebrations that Sunday. Now, how can we object when we are asked to close our churches and cathedrals for a Saint Patrick's Day parade, an All-Ireland Sunday, the Dublin City Marathon?

As a 14-year-old in 1966, I remember the 50th anniversary commemorations with distaste. They excluded any questioning, any alternative views, and I have no doubt that the way they were organised was a contributing factor in rekindling the IRA and the eventual emergence of the Provisional IRA in December 1969. Their first public statement on 28 December 1969 began: ‘We declare our allegiance to the 32 county Irish republic, proclaimed at Easter 1916 ...’

Fifty years later, some of the commemorations have been more tasteful and more inclusive. If you have not been to see them yet, I draw your attention to the Surgeons and Insurgents exhibition in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, the exhibition ‘Tales from the Other Side’ in Marsh’s Library, and the monument in Glasnevin Cemetery that lists the names of all 488 dead people in the 1916 Rising.

Sinn Fein and others have been energetic in projecting images of the signatories of the 1916 proclamation as Green, Gaelic and Catholic working class heroes. But these are such false and manipulative images. Pearse was the son a Birmingham Unitarian, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.

Sinn Fein and the IRA were not involved in the events in Easter Week 1916. Sinn Fein was bankrupt financially, struggling to pay rent on its premises in Harcourt Street, and under its leader Arthur Griffith it was a monarchist party, supporting the concept of a dual monarchy modelled on the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ireland would be a kingdom, and Britain would have remained an empire, both under the same monarch.

The IRA did not come into existence until long after the Rising. It is not mentioned in Proclamation, where the three organisations named are the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army. The IRA was formed after the 1916 Rising.

Both Sinn Fein and the IRA would not be happy today to be told they were not on the streets in 1916. But, as Patsy McGarry pointed out in an opinion column The Irish Times recently, to challenge the received myths of 1916 is in some way to challenge our images of Ireland today, to leave those who question open to the accusation that we are not fully Irish. When we also be members of the Church of Ireland, then to contribute in this way to the debate runs the danger of continuing and perpetuating the divisions that equate Catholic with Nationalist and Protestant with Loyalist.

The grave in Whitechurch of the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen Army (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We should not forget the involvement of members of the Church of Ireland in 1916: the Revd Professor Robert Malcolm Gwynn, Professor of Divinity in Trinity College Dublin, used his rooms in TCD for the meeting at which the Irish Citizen Army adopted its name in 1913.

The main participants in the Howth gunrunning were active members of the Church of Ireland, including the historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), Sir Roger Casement, Bobby and Molly Childers, and the first cousins Conor O’Brien and Mary Spring-Rice (1880-1924). Waiting for them on the pier were Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde, Harry Nicholls and Darrell Figgis. The Kilcoole gunrunning was planned by Sir Thomas Myles, who would later become an honorary surgeon to King George V in World War I.

The key figures in the Rising itself included Countess Markievicz, who was Constance Goore-Booth, the trade unionist Harry Nicolls, and Dr Kathleen Lynn, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Rathmines all her life. The historian Martin Maguire of Dundalk Institute of Technology has counted at least 45 Protestants – 21 women and 24 men – who were active in the Republican movement between 1916 and 1921.

The cultural climate that laid the foundations for a new nationalism in Ireland was created by the literary movement, with poets and playwrights like WB Yeats and Sean O’Casey, the Abbey Theatre, with Lady Gregory and AE George Russell, and the revival of the Irish language, encouraged by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector – all of them members of the Church of Ireland.

The Children of Lir … part of the monument to the 1916 leaders in Parnell Square. But what about the Children of the Rising? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A popular rant in political debate in Ireland is embodied in question: “Is this what the men of 1916 died for?” The controversy over Moore Street projects the idea that Sinn Fein and the IRA were to the vanguard of the Rising and that they alone showed courage and heroism. In fact more children, more civilians and more soldiers and policemen in what were – and we must remember this – what were our army and our police forces, died in the Rising than the number of rebels. The majority of the dead in Easter 1916 (268) were civilians, 119 were soldiers, many of them Irish. Almost one in five of those killed was under the age of 19. The RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy tells the story of the 40 children killed in the Rising in his book, Children of the Rising. Indeed, the Glasnevin monument shows us that those involved in the rebellion account for a fraction of the deaths in 1916, 16 per cent (58).

But what did those 58 die for? What they died for is a mixed bag. The 1916 Proclamation is sexist when it refers to Ireland in the feminine and the Irish people in the masculine, and hails “her manhood.”

The reference to “gallant allies in Europe” is cringing in the cold light of day when we realise that these “gallant allies” are not the Irish soldiers in the trenches in Flanders and the Somme or being mowed down at Gallipoli and in Suvla Bay, but Germans plundering Belgium, the Austrians treating the Balkans as colonies and the Turks who had recently engaged in the genocide of the Armenians. How could Roger Casement, who condemned slave labour in Belgian Congo ally himself with the Germans who had carried out the genocide the Herrero people in South-West Africa (Namibia)?

They claimed that Ireland’s rights had been usurped by “a foreign people and government” and “an alien Government.” Was Grattan’s Parliament “a foreign … government” or “an alien government”? Were Irish-born Prime Ministers like Lansdowne and Wellington foreign or alien? Were men like my grandfather to be denigrated as alien and foreign along with their fellow comrades in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Gallipoli and in the trenches?

On a positive note, the proclamation states that the Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. Would that all governments, in all countries, cherished these ideals.

They are revolutionary when they promise a government representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.

But I am unhappy that violent revolution defines to this day how we see the foundations were laid for the identity of this state. The proclamation describes this recourse to violence as a “fundamental right.” I am deeply uncomfortable with the blasphemy in the proclamation that invoked the blessing “of the Most High God” “upon our arms” and that speaks of the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves.

The Easter Rising enshrined Patrick Pearse’s almost pathological obsession with blood sacrifice in part of the Irish psyche. It was a political appropriation of a theological concept that I am often uncomfortable with, but that has continued to be invoked by suicide bombers, those who have attacked civilian targets include pubs, hotels and restaurants, that has inspired the collective suicide of the hunger strike in 1981, all for what has been called a “fight for freedom.”

Of course, neither side in the conflict observed the Geneva Convention or the principles of a just war enshrined in international law. They made no distinction between between military and civilians targets, or between combatants and non-combatants. Firing into the Shelbourne Hotel or bombarding O’Connell Street are not gallant acts of heroism, they were war crimes. Imagine our horror today if Isis were to take over the equivalent in Damascus or Baghdad of a major food supplier such as Boland’s Mills, or, worse still, the College of Surgeons.

No wonder Yeats could write:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Home Rule had already been achieved in 1914. If anything was achieved in 1916, if there is one lasting legacy, then it is this: the 1916 Rising guaranteed the partition of this island.

The state we live in today owes origins less to the “men of 1916” and more to the real revolution began after World War when democratically elected MPs from Ireland decided to sit in the first Dail rather than in Westminster. From then on, all revolutionary action was subject to democratic decisions. Democracy trumped violence, did during the debate on the 1921 Treaty, and still does to this day.

Unfortunately, all the children of the nation were not treated with equality. Very soon WB Yeats was speaking in the new Senate about legislation that he thought was not respecting Protestant sensibilities. He declared: “We … are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country.”

Despite its many failures, the Irish Free State demonstrated its commitment to democracy. This democracy was secured at the next stages with Eamon de Valera’s decision to take most of his Sinn Fein supporters into the Dail as Fianna Fail in 1926, and then with the democratic handover when de Valera won the election in 1932, and there was a smooth handover, with Cosgrave going into opposition, and the courts, the civil service, the army and the gardai accepting this democratic transition.

Democracy was enshrined in the 1937 Constitution, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to de Valera. It enshrined the rights of religious minorities, and the major decisions were to be made by the people in referendums. Despite the presence of Blueshirts, we did not see the rise of popular Fascism in Ireland in the 1930s, at a time when it was sweeping across Europe in Italy, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Spain and Portugal. The Blueshirts were even more a damp squib that Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts in Britain, the latent fascism that is a hidden poison in all nationalisms posed no formidable threat to democracy in this state.

Douglas Hyde (centre), with Eamon de Valera and Oscar Traynor at the Ireland v Poland match at Dalymount Park in 1938

Of course, there was still the sort of nationalism that remained Green, Gaelic and Catholic, accepting the false mythology created by Pearse. Douglas Hyde, a member of the Church of Ireland and the principal figure in the revival of the Irish language, became President of Ireland in 1937 under the new constitution. But a year later he was dismissed as a patron of the GAA because he attended an Ireland v Poland soccer match at Dalymount Park. The Irish Times said in its editorial: “The belief that the national soul is injured by the presence of the Head of State at a game of this kind is cant of the worst kind.” Eamon de Valera and Oscar Traynor were also present at that match; indeed, de Valera had played rugby for Blackrock College and Traynor had played soccer for Belfast Celtic, but they were both Catholics and continued to be welcome at GAA matches.

Despite some incidents such as the Mayo Library Case, the Tilson judgment and the Fethard on Sea boycott, de Valera stood against sectarianism, was a personal friend of Archbishop Gregg of Dublin, and condemned the Fethard on Sea boycott in the Dail.

Archbishop JAF Gregg with Eamon de Valera

The society that has emerged values a free press and respects civil rights, in principle if not always in practice. At an international level, Ireland tried to save the League of Nations before World War II, and after World War II was singularly responsible for promoting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Our contribution to UN peacekeeping around the world is our singular and most distinguished expression of Irish foreign policy. As a pacifist, I am still proud and deeply moved by the recent role of our navy helping refugees in the Mediterranean.

Many people may not agree with the result, but the very fact that the people could make the choice about equal marriage, not the state and not the church, shows an admirable maturity in this society. This is a European society, and we are confident of our place in European culture, politics and society. Our pro-European culture is in sharp contrast to our neighbours who are debating Brexit. We, and they, should be thankful that Europe has guaranteed and enshrined women’s rights, children’s rights and workers’ rights.

We live in a society where there are no far-right parties, and although I am aware of currents of racism in Ireland today, Irish society generally finds this unacceptable, although we have yet to take our share of Syrian refugees.

Have I worries? Of course. They are many, and they include bankers, builders and speculators. I am worried about the high figures for homelessness, the high numbers on hospital waiting lists, and I am worried that we not cherishing all the children of the nation equally. There is a hidden class system in Ireland that means access to education, housing, the professions and politics is available not to those who would benefit from and contribute the best to our society because of this access. I am worried too that there is a growing desire for a secular society on the models of France, where religion is relegated to the realm of private expression and personal views.

In 100 years’ time, in 2116, will we be remembering the men of 1916? I hope we shall find more to celebrate and to be positive about. And if we do remember them, then I hope we remember them with a more critical approach, and that we remember all the men, all the women, all the children who make Ireland what we are on that day.

(Revd Canon Professor) is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. He was speaking at the 2016 Rubicon conference, ‘1916–2016: Before, Between and Beyond,’ in the Church of Ireland College of Education, on 16 April 2016.

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