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1916 Rising is something to be angry about, not celebrated

Ceremonies will be held throughout Ireland to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising this year but we should look back at 1916 with anger, not celebrate it, writes historian Liam Kennedy

Patrick Pearse
Liam Kennedy

THERE are many northern strands that connect to the 1916 Rising in Dublin, including the roles of James Connolly, Seán Mac Diarmada and John Bulmer Hobson.

Hobson, who came from a Belfast Quaker background, became a leading member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB); it was he who recruited Patrick Pearse into the organisation. He was, however, opposed to the Rising because it did not have democratic support. For his qualms he was kidnapped and held at gunpoint.

Shortly before this he had warned "of the extreme danger of being drawn into precipitate action". In an appeal considered traitorous by some of the leadership, he said that "no man had a right to risk the fortunes of a country in order to create for himself a niche in history".

The two major organisations involved in the Rising were the IRB and the Irish Volunteers. Pearse, Clarke and Mac Diarmada proved proficient not only at dying for ‘Ireland’ – their Ireland – but lying for Ireland as well. Denis McCullough, president of the supreme council of the IRB, based in Belfast and thus conveniently sidelined, was excluded from the planning for the Rising, while every effort was made to hoodwink Eoin MacNeill, the head of the far more numerous Irish Volunteers.

The increasingly dictatorial James Connolly also committed his tiny force, the Irish Citizen Army, to the fray.

When the insurgents charged into the General Post Office on Sackville Street on Easter Monday 1916, their actions were not authorised either by the leadership of the IRB or the Irish Volunteers. This was in effect a coup by a small band of conspirators.

Figures like Pearse had already shown their contempt for masses of the Irish people: "There has been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation." We might be tempted to wonder if the Irish Famine might have merited consideration.

On another, more poetic occasion he spoke of the shame brought on Mother Ireland whose own family had sold her into bondage.

These warped sentiments and conspiracies within conspiracies are an integral part of the making of Easter 1916. Its moral bankruptcy and its malign legacy were to haunt Irish society, north and south, for another century. The Rising copper-fastened Partition and helped bring into being the Northern Ireland state.

Once the United Kingdom was attacked from within, while tens of thousands of Ulster unionists were fighting and dying on the battlefields of Europe, there was little hope of persuading Ulster unionists of the merits of an all-Ireland state.

One of the ironies of modern Irish history is that those who claimed most stridently to be anti-partitionist, turned out to be those whose actions, in an objective sense, did most to reinforce partitionist mindsets.

As the Ulster-born historian, JC Beckett, pointed out many years ago, the real partition of Ireland is not on the map "but in the minds of men’".

Once the precedent of armed insurrection had been established by a tiny unrepresentative cult within Irish nationalism, any group of Catholic nationalists with a gun or two could claim to be acting on behalf of the mystical ‘Irish Republic’, as proclaimed in 1916. This is the doctrinal justification for the various IRA groupings down the years, culminating in the quarter-century long ‘war’ pursued by the Provisional IRA.

In the 1910s politics in Ireland underwent a giant lurch to the right. First the Ulster unionists, and their covenanting bands, and then ‘the men of 1916’ ensured that henceforth appeals to the ‘gun, the drum and the flag’ would dominate political discourse. And so they have to this day, at the cost of concerns for inequality, social class and individual liberties.

The Proclamation of the Republic itself, often viewed as an iconic text, is replete with evasions, silences and bad history. It deserves to be read carefully and critically, and this is the year to do it.

We should look back on the Great War with anger – a slaughter in which Pearse gloried. We should look back on Easter 1916 with anger.

:: Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of history at Queen’s University, Belfast. His new book Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? is published by Merrion Press.

If your family has any old letters, photographs or stories connected to the Easter Rising 1916 please email digital.editorial@irishnews.com

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