04 December 2005

The Rising revisited

The Boston Globe

"The Irish people need to reclaim the spirit of 1916," Ireland's prime minister, Bertie Ahern, recently declared. But not everybody in Ireland agrees on how to reclaim it.

By Kevin Cullen | December 4, 2005

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Click to view - From the ashes - British troops in the gutted interior of Dublin's General Post Office, virtually demolished by British shell fire during the 1916 Easter Rising (Time Inc.)

DUBLIN --WHEN BERTIE AHERN, Ireland's prime minister, recently declared it was time to reinstate the military parade that used to commemorate the Easter Rising, the quixotic and short-lived rebellion launched by a small band of Irish republicans against the British empire in 1916, the idea was both embraced and rejected here as revolutionary.

''The Irish people need to reclaim the spirit of 1916, which is not the property of those who have abused and debased the title of republicanism,'' Ahern declared at his Fianna Fáil party's conference in October, in a not too subtle dig at Sinn Féin, the party long considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and now a rising force in Irish politics.

The term ''republican,'' once meant to embrace anyone who wanted an independent, united Ireland, became synonymous in the 1970s with someone who supported the IRA's campaign of violence. But in recent years, and especially since the IRA announced last July that its armed campaign was over, there has been a concerted effort by Irish nationalists who didn't support the IRA to reclaim the republican mantle.

And yet, if everybody in the Republic of Ireland, as it seems, wants to be known as a republican these days, not everybody agrees on how to celebrate the country's violent birth-and many see the whole issue as having as much to do with contemporary partisan politics as with historical, deeply felt nationalism.

Crushed in five days, the Easter Rising of 1916 was unpopular with most Irish. But the British government (not for the first or last time) badly misread Irish opinion. They executed 15 of the Rising's leaders, and in doing so elevated an act of hopeless rebellion to that of selfless martyrdom. Within six years, a more popular and effective guerrilla war forced the British to sue for peace and grant independence to 26 of Ireland's 32 counties.

For nearly half a century, the idealism and sacrifice of the 1916 leaders were celebrated every Easter, as Ireland's small military forces paraded past the General Post Office, the rebel headquarters, on O'Connell Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare. But that patriotic display was mothballed in 1970, after conflict broke out in Northern Ireland, and the Provisional IRA, claiming to have inherited the role of the 1916 rebels, began an armed campaign against British rule in the six counties left out of the earlier settlement.

The IRA had little support in the Republic of Ireland, where most people were horrified by its bombings and assassinations. There is, here in the south of Ireland, a widely held view that the murder and mayhem carried out by the ''old'' IRA in the 1920s was noble and necessary, while the same sort of acts committed by the modern-day Provisional IRA were neither.

Ahern's motives in proposing the revival of the military parade are partly personal. Among the handful of paintings that hang in his office is a portrait of one of his heroes, Padraig Pearse, the Easter Rising leader. But, according to some analysts, his motives are also political: Once reviled in the Republic, Sinn Féin's political support is growing, and polls suggest it will add to the five seats it holds in the 166-seat Irish parliament at the next general election, which must be held by 2007, making it a potential kingmaker in the next coalition government. Ahern has ruled out Fianna Fáil, Ireland's largest party, having Sinn Féin as a coalition partner after the next election.

Maurice Manning, a historian and former senator for Fine Gael, Ireland's second largest party, sees Ahern's plan to reinstate the military parade, coupled with a plan announced last month to convert the General Post Office into a national monument, as ''a panic move by Bertie and Fianna Fáil.''

''This is all about short-term politics,'' says Manning. ''I wouldn't say the country is coming to terms with its revolutionary past. Irish people don't like to talk about this.''

Manning said there is a tradition of rival parties ''airbrushing'' each other out of the history of Irish nationalism. He said Eamon de Valera, the Fianna Fáil founder, had the words of the Irish national anthem altered in the 1930s, changing a reference to Fine Gael to one about Fianna Fáil.

''Sinn Féin is trying to do to Fianna Fáil what Fianna Fáil did to Fine Gael,'' said Manning. ''In Ireland, there is a tendency of history to repeat itself.''

It isn't just Fianna Fáil that wants to reclaim some of the revolutionary chic that Sinn Féin has used to raise its political profile in the Republic (and millions of dollars in the United States). Fine Gael last week held a ceremony to pointedly note that Arthur Griffith, who founded Sinn Féin in 1905, also founded a separate group that went on to become Fine Gael after the Irish Civil War in 1923.

''It is vital that we rediscover and celebrate the true, inclusive Sinn Féin, not the version of the party and its ethos that has been hijacked by a certain section of Irish nationalism to achieve its own narrow ends,'' said Enda Kenny, Fine Gael's leader.

Martin Ferris, one of five Sinn Féin members of the Dail, Ireland's parliament, scoffed at what he called Fine Gael's blatant attempt to hijack Sinn Féin's growing popularity. Ferris, a former IRA commander, embodies the remarkable transformation of the republican movement. In 1984, he was arrested on a boat off the Irish coast after it had taken on $1 million worth of weapons and ammunition that had sailed out of Boston Harbor, bound for the IRA. A few years ago, he stood on the deck of a boat sailing on Boston Harbor, the guest of honor on a Sinn Féin fund-raising cruise.

By announcing at his party's annual conference plans to reinstate the Easter parade, Ahern allowed his political enemies to dismiss the move as partisan. But even beyond those who see Ahern's moves as politically motivated, some are uncomfortable with the thought of using a military parade to celebrate the founding of a country that, for all its revolutionary roots, sees itself today as proudly nonbelligerent and nonaligned.

Mary Banotti is the grand-niece of Michael Collins, a 1916 leader who dodged execution, led the guerrilla army that won partial independence, and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty ending the war with the British, only to be shot dead as a traitor by former comrades. Sitting in a restaurant here last week, Banotti seemed torn when the subject of the parade was raised.

''I remember enjoying the parade as a child,'' said Banotti, whose great-uncle founded the Irish army. ''But I have grave doubts about the wisdom of bringing back the parade. My sense is that it will be divisive, rather than bring people together.''

Larry Murray, a Dublin taxi driver, was more enthusiastic. He always voted Fianna Fáil, until recently when, in his late 40s, he switched his allegiances to Sinn Féin candidates for the first time.

''I'm a republican, always was. It's only now that I can say that quite openly,'' said Murray, standing near Boland's Mills, the building that de Valera occupied while trying to hold off British troops in 1916. ''It's time the country celebrated its roots.''

Manning, the historian, doubts that celebrating the country's revolutionary roots is the same as debating and learning from them.

''If you called for a debate of 1916 today,'' Manning says, ''you'd have an empty hall.''

Kevin Cullen, the Globe's former Dublin bureau chief, is a projects reporter for the Globe.

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