The Irish are no more given to myth making than anyone else, but having been on the losing end of a lot of things over the course of the last six centuries, it’s hardly surprising that myth and legends have come to play an outsized role in the Irish political imaginary.
This is especially true given the breadth of the Irish diaspora, since the disconnection from the familiar and homely often creates a space easily filled by narratives of heroic pasts and futures. In the Irish case, the role of myth has also all too often been to be the bulwark of nationalist utopias which, when combined with the ideological power of a particularly hidebound version of Roman Catholicism, have preserved and strengthened the hegemony of capital.
Few events in Irish history fit this particular bill in the way that the failed rising of Easter 1916 does. The story of a band of romantic revolutionaries taking to the streets to awaken the national spirit of their countrymen through the sacrifice of their lives continues to compel, if the effusion of new books that came out to mark its centenary last year is anything to go by. Yet, as Ireland has gone from conservative European backwater to haven for neoliberal financial projects, the need for serious interrogation of that narrative has grown ever more acute.
Kieran Allen’s 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition endeavours to do just this. Allen, a lecturer in sociology at UCD and the author of a monograph on the political views of James Connolly, does a yeoman’s work in his analysis of the story of the Easter Rising and its place in the national consciousness as it developed throughout the 20th century. Allen, quite, refreshingly, sticks the boot into a large number of romantic and overly complacent common views about the rising, most prominently the idea that the rising itself was meant as a “blood sacrifice,” an act of noble suicide undertaken by the participants in the hopes of sparking the regeneration of the nationalist idea.
Allen notes that a great deal of planning actually went into the military side of the Rising, which in and of itself argues against the idea of romantic self-immolation. Further, while the traditional narrative holds that the Easter Rising was horribly unpopular, only achieving its end when the British inadvisably executed the leaders, Allen points out that the story is rather more complicated. More recent historical research suggests that there was, at least to some degree, a class character to the way that it was received. While those in more middle and upper class sections of the city were vocally unsympathetic, in working class areas there was at least a modicum of support.
This leads to a broader issue in Allan’s narrative: the degree to which class militancy played a role in the republican movement of the 20th century. Looking at two of the three leading figures in the rising, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly (Thomas Clarke being omitted for the sake of thematic clarity), Allen takes issue with the long held view that the Connolly moved decisively in the direction of Pearse’s Catholic nationalism in the last period of his life.
Rather, Allen argues, a more nuanced analysis of Pearse’s views shows he had rather more sympathy for Connolly’s views on social justice that had previously been appreciated. While never a rabble rousing revolutionary, Pearse seems at least to have believed that the problems of inequality in Irish society were matters of concern, but that they would be resolved in time once the republic was achieved.
Allen’s book provides a salutary look both backward and forward from the rising itself. He notes elements of class politics that arose in the bosom of 19th century Irish republicanism, especially the demands for redistribution of land on which the early organizational roots of the Land League were built. If this project was later co-opted by landowners as much interested in preserving their own positions as in the achievement of a broader nationalist agenda, this nonetheless illustrates the threat posed by the militancy of the lower order in rural Ireland.
A further challenge posed by Allen to the standard narratives of Irish history is his tracing of the influence of labor agitation and activism during the revolutionary conflict in Ireland from 1919 to 1921. Rather than focusing on figures such as Michael Collins and Éamon De Valera, Allen points out that the struggle benefitted from an upsurge in labor militancy that, along with the guerrilla war undertaken by the IRA, made Ireland functionally ungovernable.
For much of the 20th century, Ireland was governed by two right of center political parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) whose politics were those of the remnants of the organizations from the revolutionary era (the pro-treaty IRA in the case of the former and anti-treaty IRA and Irish blue shirts for the latter) and a Labour Party complacent enough to limit itself to filling out coalitions with the others.
The story of the last eight decades of the 20th century was the use by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of conservative Catholicism and the republican heritage to deflect attention from the class inequalities of the Irish state. Any movement for social justice was characterized by the leading segments of society as amounting to the influence of communism and thus destructive of the republic won so gloriously by the sacrifices of nationalist revolutionaries between 1916 and 1921.
The transformation of Ireland since the collapse of actually existing socialism (which had the unfortunate effect of depriving Irish conservatives of their favored stalking horse) has seen the country turned into a sort of tax haven for companies like Google, which maintains a vestigial headquarters there in order to take advantage of favorable Irish tax laws.
Although the space that this has opened up for broader politics has led to the regeneration of the early 20th century traditions of militancy, Allen points appositely to the grassroots struggle over water rates as an example of the way that people can gain an introduction to political struggle with the potential for wider application.
There is a great extent to which this book seems like a call to revive the true heritage of James Connolly (as opposed to the neutered romantic nationalist version). This is certainly an important message. Connolly was always clear that the problems of Ireland stemmed not only from British domination but from that of capital viewed as a whole.
While Irish self government was important to Connolly, it was only so as a stepping stone to the establishment of a socialist political and economic order in which the fruits of production and the power of political decision were distributed on an egalitarian basis. As such, this is a book that is valuable both to those with an interest in Irish history and to readers looking for models of the application of socialist principles to states outside the European metropole.
Photograph courtesy of DFArchives. Published under a Creative Commons license.