One of the great, populist myths on the right and far right of German politics during the 1920s and ’30s was the claim that the country had been “stabbed in the back” during the closing months of World War I by a cabal of left-wing agitators and Jewish financiers. Without that betrayal at home and the conspiracy abroad the empire would surely have overcome its enemies to emerge victorious from the battlefields of Europe. Certainly the humiliating defeat coupled with post-war reparations and territorial losses would never have happened. Or so the legend goes. A similar myth exists among the apologists for British rule on the island of Ireland, who claim that the nation’s peaceful development within the United Kingdom towards some sort of local autonomy or even independence was thwarted by a tiny, unrepresentative group of radical republicans and nationalists working against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people. This tale has been taken up by the academic and journalistic ideologues of the so-called revisionist movement in recent decades with all the pernicious effects on a contemporary understanding of Irish history that we might expect. Indeed no single event has been more subject to counterfactual speculation than the foundational Easter Rising of 1916.
The historian Brian Hanley touches upon these matters in a recent speech republished by the Cedar Lounge Revolution:
“Neo-Redmondites, nostalgic for an Ireland that never really existed suggest that the majority of nationalists were content to wait for the conclusion of the war and self-government; that it was only the Rising and the British reaction to it that produced support for republicanism.
I think the story is more complicated. Was it the case that nationalist Ireland was content with Home Rule? And what did Home Rule mean to ordinary people? What was the Home Rule party promising?
…by 1916, with Home Rule looking increasingly distant, the context of the war was crucial. Well before that conflict was over, most Irish people regretted that John Redmond had promised nationalist support for the war effort.
It was support for the war that fatally wounded Redmondism, not just the reaction to Easter 1916.
Anti-war sentiment was growing in Ireland well before then.”
While Hanley’s overall arguments in relation to the era of 1916 are far more complex and nuanced than the short excerpts above allow, they do indicate the importance of historical denialism amongst certain classes in modern Irish (and British) society, one that was being expressed by supporters of the redundant Irish Parliamentary Party as early as the 1920s. Whether it is a condemnation of the establishment of a Provisional Government of the Irish Republic in 1916 (a terrorist coup d’état) or a refusal to recognise the Sinn Féin electoral victories in the general and local elections of 1918, 1920 and 1921 (rigged or lacking plurality), the conspiracy theories grow with every telling.
One of these tall-tales, and one nearer our own time, is the belief that the celebrations around the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 were the spark that lit the north-eastern conflagration. No matter that the only militarist violence witnessed that year came from the British terror groupings, notably the murders of two Roman Catholic men and a Protestant woman by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). No, it was the staging of official parades in Dublin and the broadcasting of TV dramas on RTÉ that brought the radical republicans and nationalists to the fore once again (albeit a factually inconvenient four or five years later). Brian Hanley opens his speech by criticising the fears of those I have labelled the “1969 Truthers“:
“It is fairly certain that when those charged with developing a programme of commemoration for the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ first met it was how to remember Easter 1916 which above all else caused the most angst. It is unlikely, to say the least, that anyone thought that commemorating the Dublin Lockout would lead to a surge in trade union membership or a wave of sympathetic strikes. But in the build-up to 2016 there is a real sense, among some commentators at least, that in one historian’s words, we are ‘entering dangerous territory.’ Much of the discussion about how the events should be remembered seems predicated on the idea that too much commemoration, let alone (God forbid) celebration, could lead directly to a popular revival of militant armed republicanism.
Journalists such as Stephen Collins of the Irish Times for example, have warned about the centenary being used ‘as a cover for those still wedded to violence’ and claimed that previous commemorations (especially 1966) were a ‘simplistic glorification of violence.’ Partly this is a result of a misreading of how the 1966 50th anniversary events resonated north of the border. It also reflects a curious pessimism about the ability of post-Agreement Northern Ireland to withstand debates about an event that took place 100 years ago. This sense of fear seems to have inspired the at times vaguely ridiculous attempts at ‘branding’ Easter 2016 as some sort of tourist marketing opportunity. The fearful approach encourages the bland, as the assumption seems to be that too much politics will frighten people off.
The issues that deeply divided Irish people a century ago are simplified or glossed over and the role of Britain virtually ignored. That Ireland and Britain share a history is a historical fact but they did not share an equal history: only one was conquered by the other and only one became a global empire. Ultimately, and allowing for all the complexities and nuances that British rule in Ireland involved, in the last resort the Crown depended on force to hold this country. Attempting to commemorate 1916 and avoiding mentioning this lest it give offence will ultimately satisfy nobody.”
Hanley has plenty of strong words for Irish republicans and their own cherished myths of 1916 that deserve greater prominence. Unfortunately the negative reaction to the myth-peddling, academic censorship and outright lies of the revisionist school has had a detrimental effect on the critical faculties of some republican-leaning authors. Meeting British apologisms with a form of super-republicanism is not the answer, at least not in the long-term.
Related to the above is this interesting study of Michael Collins by the historian John M. Regan. It’s likely to raise a certain amount of ire amongst the Collinites and Neo-Redmondites who both fetishize the questionable politico-military “legacy” of the Chairman and Commander-in-Chief of the Provisional Government. In the case of the latter faction their grudging admiration principally focuses on his role as the Irish “strongman” who usurped an all-Ireland republic with a southern free state, thus securing partition and the UK’s continued stranglehold of the north-east (whatever his future plans may actually have been). That these actions involved, at least latterly, the initiation of a wholly self-destructive civil war seems to weigh in his favour on the scales of revisionist judgement rather than against. When all is said and done, the slaying of revolutionary republicans is the one form of killing most British apologists continue to greet with perfect equanimity.