06 February 2006

Shark-infested pseudohistorical scholarship

Daily Ireland

Damien Kiberd

The poet Patrick Kavanagh once asked a most pertinent question. In the course of his poem Epic, he asked: “Who owns this half a rood of rock, this no man’s land, surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claimants?”

He was referring to an argument over a small piece of land in his native Co Monaghan. But the same question might be asked in relation to another, even more contentious matter — ownership of the “intellectual property rights” to the concept of the Irish Republic.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThe Dublin political establishment has been making a strong pitch for full ownership of these “rights” in recent months. (Click to view photo) Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has ordained that the annual “military parade” past the GPO in Dublin should be reinstated to coincide with the forthcoming 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. This annual event was abandoned in the 1970s by order of the Department of Defence in Dublin. It was always a hugely popular event in which the rather poorly equipped members of the army of the state — whose official title is Óglaigh na hÉireann — marched past the birthplace of the Republic, halting before an official reviewing stand laden with political worthies from Dáil Éireann.

Bertie’s newfound enthusiasm for the Easter parade is causing anxiety among letter writers to The Irish Times, who feel, somewhat bizarrely, that the notion of the armed forces marching down the capital’s main thoroughfare could somehow provide a retrospective validation of the IRA campaign waged from 1970 onwards.

Only in Ireland could such odd arguments be put forward. The objectors, for example, ignore totally the fact that the training given to members of the Irish army since 1970 has been entirely designed to combat people who are seen as subversives. The vast bulk of the military training given to recuits in recent decades equips them to tackle small groups of men armed with light infantry weapons, operating from “hides” in rural terrain. In parallel, the intelligence-gathering operations of the Irish army have, as recent state papers confirm, been directed largely at republican subversives and alleged subversives. The same army has, on a number of occasions, been involved in operations directed at the IRA.

The idea that a “national army” might be prevented from strutting its stuff through its own capital city is, by any standards, strange. Can you imagine, for example, French people suggesting that the annual celebrations of Bastille Day in Paris be abandoned? Or that the English queen should put an abrupt stop to the trooping of the colour on Horse Guards Parade?

Taoiseach Ahern was also attacked some time ago when he decided to exhume the remains of Kevin Barry and nine other republicans from their burial places in prison soil and thereafter rebury them in republican graves — eight in Dublin, two in Munster.

The decision, which was carried out by the Irish army with considerable aplomb, provoked a wave of hostile and inaccurate attacks on Ahern in the Southern media. A sustained effort was made to portray Kevin Barry (18 years old at the time of his hanging) as a blood-crazed thug and a would-be sectarian killer. The forensic detail of Barry’s trial was misrepresented completely. The fact that Barry’s gun had jammed during the shoot-out in Church Street or that the gun he carried was incapable of firing bullets of the calibre that killed the British soldier whom he was accused of killing was simply ignored. Earlier military activities carried out by Barry in west Wicklow and northeast Carlow — on the instructions of Michael Collins — were similarly misrepresented and distorted.

The latest member of the Dublin establishment to enter these shark-infested waters of pseudohistorical scholarship is no less a person than President Mary McAleese herself. Her recent address to a public meeting in University College, Cork was delivered in what seems to me to be a measured and even-handed way. But that has not insulated her from attack, again primarily from The Irish Times. The newspaper focused on her rejections of the assertion that the 1916 Rising “was an exclusive and sectarian enterprise”.

It is difficult to know why McAleese felt obliged to reject such an assertion. After all, the suggestion that the Easter Rising was a sectarian enterprise has never been made in any sustained way by historical scholars but by journalists and columnists of the modern period whose track record is well known. And what historian would claim that any of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic was animated by sectarian impulses?

Even Pearse, with his pietistic Catholic faith, had a pronounced sense of disrespect for the Castle Catholics of Rathmines and Rathgar and was a radical in areas like policy on education. Connolly was an international socialist. Clarke and his friends within the Fenian movement had grown sick and tired of threats of excommunication, the refusal of the sacraments and so forth over many decades. The most prominent surviving leader of the Rising, Eamon de Valera, is frequently attacked because of the allegedly theocratic (and Catholic) nature of his 1937 constitution but it is almost universally accepted that he was scrupulously evenhanded in his dealings with religious minorities when he held power and that his constitution has innumerable strengths that have stood the test of time.

There is some evidence that prominent figures within republicanism may have had associations with Catholic dogma and teaching that — with the benefit of eight decades of hindsight — are considered unwise or unduly close. William T Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins, for example, revealed their strong links with the Catholic hierarchy quite quickly in late 1922 when they enlisted the support of the bishops to procure the surrender of weapons across the country by those who had been involved in the War of Independence. (Today’s revisionists would probably approve of the letters read at Mass that again threatened excommunication, refusal of sacraments etc.) Arthur Griffith’s utterances in the early years of the 20th century contained some anti-Semitic sentiments. And of course, the facility with which members of the FitzGerald and O’Higgins families donned blueshirt uniforms in the 1930s, even wearing them in Dáil Éireann, demonstrated their perceptions of themselves as firmly rooted within the Falangist/corporatist tradition typified by Franco and Mussolini.

But as President McAleese and her media critics well know, any attempt to conflate republicanism and sectarian Catholic attitudes cannot be sustained. The vice-like grip held by the Catholic church on many schools and hospitals predated the 1916 rising by some 85 years and was won with the active backing of the British.

The Irish Times concentrated on a rather small part of the McAleese speech. Of far more interest was her claim that the administration of Ireland during the latter stages of British rule was “carried on as a process of continuous conversation around the fire in the Kildare Street Club by past pupils of the public schools. It was no way to run a country, even without the glass ceiling for Catholics.” Whatever could she mean by this? Will she elaborate further as her second term draws to a close?

Damien Kiberd is a writer and broadcaster. A presenter for NewsTalk 106 in Dublin, he was previously editor of The Sunday Business Post.

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