I remember writing an essay many years ago where I stated that the Irish revolution was the making of Ireland’s language revival and the Irish counter-revolution was its breaking. Nothing in the last ten years has altered that opinion. The internecine victory of the reactionary forces of the old Catholic Nationalist bourgeoisie in 1923, with the establishment of the so-called Free State and its perpetual coalition of conservative politicians, business leaders, press owners and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, blocked the progressive forces that had been unleashed in the first two decades of the 20th century. It was to take another eighty years and the first decade of the 21st century before we saw the toppling of one leg of that unholy quadruped (unfortunately the right-wing political, business and media classes continue to limp along, albeit badly bruised by the death spasms of their Celtic Tiger offspring).
Everything that is, or was, wrong about the modern island nation of Ireland can be traced back to the fatal struggle between a pluralist Irish Republic and an authoritarian Irish Free State in the dark months of 1922/23. One side represented the freedoms spelled out in the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and all that came before it, Fenian and Gaelic traditions intertwined. The other side represented the diktats of Ultramontanism, of faith before citizenship, the values of the pacified Pale over the values of those who lived beyond the Pale while paying lip-service to the latter. It seems, judging by Brendan Ó Cathaoir’s article in the Irish Times, that I am not the only one who feels that way:
“The 1916 Proclamation is our charter of liberty. Yet there was a disconnection between its noble aspirations and the realities of life in the new State, as the latest sordid chapter to emerge from our past, regarding mother and baby homes, reminds us. Fratricidal strife severed the link.
Instead of using the Treaty as a stepping-stone to the republic, as Michael Collins argued, we descended into civil war.
We achieved statehood but failed to create a new society. It was not the state envisaged by those leaders – now dead – who had vowed to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. The carnival of reaction predicted by Connolly irrupted, with institutionalised discrimination in the North and unbridled clerical power in the South.
Pearse’s literary executor, Desmond Ryan, wrote: “Beneath the debris of the Civil War the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried. It was the hour of reaction, of the place-hunter, the intriguer, the hopeless, the mediocre, the superstitious… Never had the pride and self-respect of a nation been so deeply wounded.”
The vacuum created by the eclipse of civic republicanism was filled by an authoritarian church.
Limited resources were spent on restoring basic infrastructure; the institutional church was left in charge of schools, hospitals and a rudimentary welfare system.
Women were for the most part sidelined in the Free State.
Regarding the revival of Irish, the scholar patriot Edward MacLysaght said the Treaty split “resulted in our throwing away what may prove to have been the last chance” of saving Irish as a vernacular language. “The split blew that spirit to atoms as surely as the explosion at the Four Courts made dust of the archives in the Public Record Office.”
The tragedy of Ireland is a Free State that should never have been and a Republic that should have been.