Current Affairs History Irish Republican Journalism Military Politics

Andrew O’Hehir On The 1916 Easter Rising

I regularly lambaste American journalists on ASF for their piss-poor knowledge of Ireland and its history, a phenomenon made worse by some writers casual empathy for all things British which makes for some bizarrely negative views of this island nation. That confluence of ignorance results in situations like the acclaimed US author, Paul Theroux, expressing quite repugnant opinions on the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013 because of that city’s Irish veneer, or Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly enthralling us with his adventurous – if unlikely – tales of war reporting in Belfast. More recently the Vox writer, Dylan Matthews, imbibed a hefty dose of the anglophiliac Kool-Aid before launching into a tirade against the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who also received a far more restrained if similarly intended treatment from the stodgier New Yorker magazine in 2015. The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising has allowed a minority of the Stateside press to indulge their baser anti-Irish instincts, the New York Times taking the opportunity to deny the very existence of the Irish as a separate people, while also lecturing us on the supposed evils of our revolutionary past. In some of these cases the tone and language used in the articles could have come straight from any right-wing, dyed-in-the-wool British nationalist hack working for the likes of the Sun or Daily Telegraph newspapers. The comparisons are eerily exact.

Of course there have been exceptions, notably Rory Nugent’s decision to embed himself with an Active Service Unit of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army for an article with Spin Magazine in 1994. Though the fact that one has to go back that far to come up with something even remotely unbiased simply gives proof to the lack of journalistic integrity by much of the American media on Irish-British affairs. Thankfully things are not all bad, as the upcoming Jacobin Magazine edition, “Between the Risings“, will aptly illustrate. Indeed, the avowedly left-wing publication has expressed some interesting views on Irish politics, from Ireland’s unfinished revolution to the mischievous, press-circumventing tweets of Gerry Adams. In contrast supposedly “liberal” internet media like Vox and others have shown a distinct free market and authoritarian take on matters which stray too far to the left, like Irish republicanism, which says much about the libertarian culture of the “Silicon Valley” communities (gay marriage, good, union membership, bad).

On the plus side of the ledger I would very much add the writing of the journalist Andrew O’Hehir, who produces some wonderful work on a whole range of subjects, not just insightful movie reviews (his description of previewing the polarising film, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”, is an insightful commentary on the politics and culture of the contemporary United States, and one that does much to explain the rise of the Little Caesar, Donald Trump). His latest piece on Salon takes a timely look at the meaning of the Easter Rising, both in 1916 and 2016, and though I don’t agree with all of his interpretations it is still very much a welcome break from the usual American press fare.

“Does any other nation on earth honor a failed revolution, conducted by a poorly armed, fatally disorganized and ideologically incoherent band of rebels with little popular support, as the supposed moment of its birth? For that matter, does any other modern nation feel such profound ambivalence or uncertainty about its own origins?

In a 2014 speech, former Irish Taoiseach (or prime minister) John Bruton described the Easter Rising as “completely unnecessary” and suggested it had “damaged the Irish psyche” and “led directly to the brutal violence” that afflicted Ireland in later decades. Granted, Bruton is something of a political outlier and a known “West Brit” (to use an Irish insult), but it’s still striking to hear those views expressed by someone who headed a government that traces its ancestry to the event in question. Imagine a former U.S. president expressing the view that maybe the American colonists should just have laid down their guns at Lexington and Concord and walked away. Surely we could have worked out that taxation dispute through nonviolent means!

But from this historical distance Easter 1916 also looks like a global phenomenon, a tiny event with a long tail that shaped much of the 20th century and beyond, and whose repercussions extend much further than a damp little island on the western edge of Europe. …If the Easter Rising possesses unique and intensely contested significance in Irish history, one reason for that is because it’s also an important chapter in world history, whose meaning has not been easy to perceive through the mind-altering mists of Erin.

No historian would propose that the Easter Rising marked the first instance of urban guerrilla warfare, or the first time women served as military combatants, or the first illustration of the maxim that one man’s terrorism is another man’s patriotism. It might not have been the first time that the forces of nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism (along with currents of feminism and trade unionism) coalesced into one revolutionary movement, although I can’t think of an earlier example that reflected the same degree of self-consciousness. But the fact that those things all came together during the botched six-day existence of the Irish Republic, which never controlled more than a few square miles of central Dublin, had an explosive impact around the world.

These are the true lessons of the Easter Rising, which remain profoundly uncomfortable in contemporary Ireland, as in most of the Western world: First of all, a seemingly pointless and pathetic act of resistance provoked a vastly more powerful opponent into disastrous mistakes. Second, confrontational and theatrical violence proved capable of transforming political reality, and achieved rapid results in a context where 40 years or more of respectable parliamentary politics had completely failed. Do I really need to point out how clearly we can hear those lessons resound through the post-9/11 world, especially in the American superpower’s relentless campaign of self-destruction in the Middle East?

Lenin and Trotsky perceived the Easter Rising as the opening salvo in a wave of European revolution that would overthrow bourgeois imperialism. As you may recall, they staged a somewhat more successful version 18 months later, and while the relationship between the two events is not linear, it’s also not accidental. Ho Chi Minh, who was quite likely living in Brooklyn in April 1916, reportedly wept at the news of the Irish rebels’ execution. Marcus Garvey cited the dedication and self-sacrifice of the Irish Volunteers as an inspiration for his own movement, and named his meeting hall in Harlem after theirs. Those examples led in various ambiguous directions, not all of them necessarily positive. We could say the same about the modern nation of Ireland, a cautious and conservative society that seems partly European, partly American and partly British, and in no way resembles the glorious cultural rebirth imagined by Pearse and Connolly. The Irish people know that we’re supposed to remember Easter 1916, and commemorate those who died. But we’re still not quite sure why.”

A few excerpts but you really should read the whole thing. It explains in many ways the unease felt by a political establishment in Ireland that worries about the ideological contagion of an unfinished revolution (or worse, the “unfinished business”), anxieties that lead to ambivalence towards those who were its insurrectionist forbears.


1 comment on “Andrew O’Hehir On The 1916 Easter Rising

  1. Seamus Mallon

    as you have said yourself sionnach,where there is revolution there is counter revolution,great blog again as usual.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: