Myth & Countermyth

Alfie Gallagher responds to a piece by Ruth Dudley Edwards in which she challenged republicans to consider perceived weaknesses in the 1916 Proclamation and the dangers of leadership cabals. Alfie Gallagher is a Sligo blogger @ Left From The West.

Flag of the Irish Republic, GPO, 1916

I like Ruth Dudley Edwards a lot. We became friends in recent years through email and the internet. In my experience, she is a very kind person and is remarkably generous with her time. Politically speaking though, we are poles apart. I also find her analyses of Irish history deeply problematic. This is especially true of her perspective on the Easter Rising. Indeed, it seems to me that in challenging the ambiguities and contradictions of 1916, Ruth engages in some anachronistic myth-making of her own.

Ruth rightly complains about the conspiratorial nature of the Rising and the fact that its leaders were unelected. However, it is daft to suggest -- as she often does in her opinion pieces -- that Ireland was a democracy in 1916. On the contrary, most Irish adults could not vote in general elections until the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Before then, only about half of all Irish males over the age of 21 were wealthy enough to qualify for the right to vote, and of course, women could not vote at all. Instead, Ireland was governed from Dublin Castle by unelected administrators appointed by the British cabinet. They were not answerable to Irish MPs.

Furthermore, general elections in Ireland before 1918 were not real contests. The strong-arm tactics of the Irish Parliamentary Party and their heavies in the Ancient Order of Hibernians made it very difficult for rival nationalist parties to develop. Those who complain about Sinn Féin's victories in uncontested constituencies in 1918 neglect to mention that there were far more uncontested constituencies in previous general elections. In the 1910 general election for example, 63 of the 101 Irish constituencies were not contested. There were 25 uncontested constituencies in 1918 and most of them were in areas where Sinn Féin was already dominant. Had these constituencies been contested, a clear majority of the electorate in Ireland would almost certainly have voted for the party. Thus, the percentage of votes cast for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election grossly underestimated the party’s real support at that time. Most importantly, roughly 75 percent of Irish adults had the right to vote in 1918, as opposed to 26 percent in the previous general election in 1910. Thus, for all its flaws, the 1918 general election was far more democratic than the preceding ones.

Ruth condemns the 1916 Proclamation and its signatories as “anti-democratic”, but it is disingenuous for her to suggest that the Ulster Covenant of 1912 was a democratic exercise. By signing the Covenant, Irish unionists committed themselves not just to the exemption of Ulster from Home Rule, but to "using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland." They demonstrated the seriousness of their threat by forming the Ulster Volunteers within a few months of the Covenant being signed. That particular phrase from the Covenant ironically foreshadowed the pledge in the Sinn Féin 1918 general election manifesto (the widely-circulated, uncensored version) to "use any and every means available" to achieve a 32-county republic. Ruth herself made a similar observation at the centenary of the Covenant in 2012 when she remarked that “without Edward Carson there might not have been an Easter Rising.”

Apart from all that though, the biggest weakness in Ruth's analysis is that the period in Irish history from 1912 to 1922 proved that the British government was in fact more likely to be swayed by force (or the threat of it) than by constitutional means. It abandoned 32-county Home Rule in response to the threats of the UVF and British army officers in the Curragh. Three decades of constitutional campaigning by Irish nationalists for a legislatively independent Irish parliament achieved only the offer of a very limited Home Rule assembly for the South. Ruth may not like the means by which an independent Irish state in the 26 counties was achieved, but that does not mean they were ineffective or unnecessary.

Like John Bruton's pious pontifications about Home Rule last year, I think Ruth's argument is not so much an historical analysis about early 20th century Ireland as it is political posturing for a 21st-century, post-nationalist Irish audience. I would find her proclaimed aversion to violent nationalism far more credible if she was not such a steadfast supporter of Israel’s brutal, bloody and unnecessary wars in Gaza. Israeli Defence Forces probably killed more civilians last summer than Irish republicans did in the whole of the twentieth century, but Ruth excuses the former killings while condemning the latter.

In my view, such double standards are far more likely to close minds to critical reflection on 1916 than to open them to it.


  1. Great piece Alfie that does not fall short of the high standards you have set with your writing. I am going to be a spoiler and steal some credit for, not getting you to write it as such, but to put it out as an article.

    Ruth looks at these things with a huge red, white and blue lens. However, she challenges republicans on the seeming deification of the Proclamation and on their at times essentially anti-republican reliance on cabals. Anyone who looks back over the history of republicanism is hit with the nefarious role played by cabals and caudillos.

    I think your point was good about the anti-democratic nature of the Covenant crowd which she contrasted with the seven signatories. At the same time there was a greater input from the demos to the Covenant than there was to the Rising, even though we regard the Rising as being towards democratic ends and the Covenant designed to subvert them. That was something that interested me from her piece.

  2. I helped free one thousand slaves ,i could have freed a thousand more if only they knew that they were slaves.

  3. Thanks, Anthony.

    Though I disagree with Ruth on a great number of things, engaging with her arguments is always constructive. At the very least, it forces me to critically examine my own views, which is never a bad thing.

    I don't subscribe to republican orthodoxy (or any kind of orthodoxy for that matter). I'm not sure if I ever really did. There are many aspects of the revolutionary period in Ireland that trouble me, not least the conservative Catholic nature of the independent state that resulted from it.

    However many their faults, it must be said the vast bulk of the revolutionary generation of 1916-23 did not slavishly follow cabals or caudillos. However disillusioned they were with the outcome of the revolution, most IRA volunteers had accepted it by the end of the Civil War. Even the late Peter Hart recoiled from the "anti-democratic" tag:

    "The Volunteers were ademocratic, not anti-democratic. They typically felt themselves to be above the political process, but they never sought to change it or to end it in the name of a fascist, communist or militarist alternative, or even in the name of a national emergency."

  4. "It abandoned 32-county Home Rule in response to the threats of the UVF and British army officers in the Curragh."

    No it didn't. It abandoned 32 county home rule in response to the IRA murder campaign which was being waged at the time. They could hardly abandon the unionists, of what is now Northern Ireland, to the whims of people who were murdering them on their own doorsteps after they had just sacrificed thousands of their people in defence of the United Kingdom. That would have looked pretty shitty.

  5. My American cousin and his Irish wife told me a few years ago that the centennial of the Easter Rising would be problematic in the extreme, attracting the kind of warring interpretations that make satisfactory commemoration next to impossible. They weren't wrong apparently.

    Watching the fireworks well in advance of the anniversary and witnessing the reaction to Ruth Dudley Edwards's piece, I'm both encouraged and saddened: encouraged by Ireland's engagement with history and saddened by my own country's general indifference to the past. 150 years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, our local paper in Louisville did not even deem the anniversary worthy of note or reflection. The near silence was not restricted to Kentucky. In contrast, or maybe just because I've tuned in to the right stations, 1916 seems to be kicking up all kinds of debate and discussion. Many people in Ireland seem to care. And so they should.

    Alfie's contention that the RDE piece was designed more for political posturing than for historical analysis is certainly validated by the Jean McConville reference (a parting shot) and the almost scrupulous avoidance of the 1916 executions. Holding up the signatories of the Proclamation as visionaries and prophets with wisdom applicable to contemporary Ireland is probably foolish. Fair enough. But what happened to them is far more important than what they said. Even Roy Foster admits, "The fifteen grisly executions in early May created as many martyrs. The case in law, given the German connection, was conclusive for the death penalty: but in the circumstances of Ireland during 1916, the decision against commutation was inflammatory."

    That the cabal had no real political blueprint for a new and independent Ireland seems almost insignificant when placed beside the impact of blindfolded men riddled with bullets in Killmainham Gaol. Pearse had some bizarre ideas, even frightening ones, but he wasn't a total crackpot. He understood the power of the martyr in Ireland. I don't see how you can examine 1916 without grappling with the undeniable potency of martyrdom in Irish history.

    Thanks Alfie and AM for keeping the debate on the boil.

  6. Cue Bono,

    why is armed rebellion against British rule and repression a murder campaign? Unless all war is murder the term is more a propagandist than an analytical one. The question was once asked by republicans why every country Britain enters is filled with criminal types?

    The British were quite willing to abandon the unionists. None knew it better than the unionists which helps explain their conditional loyalty to Britain. Their preferred solution was a unitary state under a right wing government in Dublin but the unionists would not allow that.

    The unionist strategy of threat worked.

    But that then begs the question of republicans as to why they see the dynamics for partition coming from within the British state more than they did from unionism.

  7. Alfie,

    I think the volume of resistance to the Treaty shows the level of dissent and the unwillingness to slavishly follow cabals. If you compare that to the response within the Provisionals to the 1998 Treaty which had no anti-partition substance and was in essence rooted in the intellectual and political tradition of the previous Treaty, the contrast is pretty extreme.

  8. "But that then begs the question of republicans as to why they see the dynamics for partition coming from within the British state more than they did from unionism".

    A major fault in republicanism in my humble opinion. In the last census 68% said they were either British or Northern Irish, only 26% said Irish. We are the British presence in Ireland and the reason for continued partition.The British didn't want partition and both Churchill and Wilson tried to get rid of us but couldn't. Republicans have tried to ignore us and mark us as deluded Irishmen, a certain mistake.

  9. Anthony,

    As John Regan points out, their were authoritarian cabals on both sides of the Treaty debate. Indeed, the greatest caudillo of all was probably Michael Collins himself.

    Your comparison of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty with the GFA is a perceptive one. From my perspective today, both settlements strike me as altogether shoddy and I can't see how republicans could be expected to endorse either of them. But, as you rightly observed, far more republicans slavishly followed the cabal in 1998 than in 1922.

    That does not imply, however, that armed resistance to those agreements was a sensible or justified course of action. Indeed, reading about the Civil War today, it is striking how haphazard and unplanned resistance to the Treaty was. To quote John Dorney's astute observation, the anti-Treaty IRA "almost sleepwalked into civil war".

    As for the GFA, I think you, Richard O'Rawe, Dixie Elliot, and others have shown that republicans can support peace while opposing and scrutinising Sinn Féin's corrupt politicking, perpetual processing and bullying authoritarianism. Perhaps similar non-violent dissent and intellectual scrutiny was the best course of action in 1922, though that is of course said with almost a century of hindsight.

  10. Alfie,

    the GFA fits so neatly into the Treaty tradition that it sort of makes SF criticisms of the Treatyites ridiculous. Ernie O'Malley and Co were the dissidents of the day opposed to the peace process.

    As for cabals and caudillos, militaries invariably produce them

  11. Anthony,

    Dragging a family out of their house and shooting them dead is murder. It is not warfare. Shooting a police officer in the back of the head is murder. It is not warfare. The British could not abandon 800,000 of their loyal citizens to a heavily armed lynch mob after those same citizens had sacrificed thousands of their best men in defence of the United Kingdom.

    It would have been a disgusting, shameful thing to have done. The exact same principle applied during our Troubles.

    I think that republicans have a big problem recogniing that, because they have been brainwashed into always thinking of British motives as being evil or self centred. Actually they are pretty honourable people in comparison to others.

  12. Cue Bono,

    the first family that comes to mind is the McMahon family dragged out of their home by the state forces and slaughtered. We all have our own memories of, or perspective on these things, our own preferred shroud to wave.

    Even if we presume for the sake of discussion your point has merit, by the same token massacring unarmed civilian populations in Ballymurphy or Derry is murder, administering the coup d'grace to unarmed prisoners is murder but you seem not to refer to the IRA opposition to the British murder campaign. If you referred to both murder campaigns I would find more substance to your point but is murder only murder when carried out by those fighting the state?

    Don't look through rose tinted lenses at what the British would have done to the unionists had the unionists not had British balls in the vice. I think your fellow unionist Peter has addressed that more soberly. As if disgusting, shameful things are beyond the British - torture and war crimes fit into that category and the British did not balk from it.

    Were the debate to be reduced to whataboutery, the point could be easily flipped to assert that unionists have been brainwashed into thinking that they were the law abiding community and therefore have to maintain their myths. But if we want to score a point rather than make a point what then is the point in any exchange?

    I know republicans were culpable for horrible atrocities. Do you know the same about the British?

  13. Cue Bono

    You are correct to say that republicans have been brainwashed by listening to the same lies oft repeated, like their prosecution of 'the war' was honourable; or that they can foment a socialist revolution in the most conservative place in western Europe; or that loyalist-state collusion was widespread. However, you are wrong to think that the British are here for honourable reasons. There are many within the British establishment who support partition but also many who would love to be shot of us. Churchill and Wilson tried to get rid but on both occasions it was the Dublin establishment that turned down any chance for a UI right at the beginning.
    The British and us unionists also carried out atrocities and injustices against innocent people based on their religion. Surely with a touch of honest and hindsight you can recognise that not all of the bad guys were in the IRA?

  14. Anthony/Peter,

    A lot of points, but I will try to take them on.

    The people who murdered the McMahon family did not claim to be at war. The people who murdered the Hornibrook family did. Likewise the Paras at BS and Ballymurphy did not claim to be engaging in an act of war whilst the Provos who bombed pensioners in Enniskillen did.

    You talk about 'both urder campaigns' as if the British were waging a similar campaign to that of the Provos. That is a nonsense. The British security forces bore the brunt of the IRA murder campaign, but did not reply in a like for like fashion. Despite the propaganda their restraint in the face of some sordid, disgusting and provocative brutality from the Provos etc was pretty damned commendable. There were no My Lais or Ballyseedys here.

    I don't see how you conclude that the unionists had the British by the balls. The original contention was that Ireland was divided because of the threat of the Curragh officers and of the UVF. In fact both groups were largely buried in Flanders by the time partition came about. The UVF had handed over the bulk of their modern weaponry to the British government in 1914 to help with the war effort. Britain could easily have walked away and left us to it.

    I would contend that Ireland was partitioned because of the IRA violence which proceeded partition. Had it not been partitioned then there would have been a bloody civil war which would very likely have resulted in the ethnic cleanising of the unionist/British people from Ireland.

    How would Britain have looked around the world if they had allowed their own people to be butchered on their doorstep?

    Yes Churchill offered us up during the darkest days of WW2, but he did so in desperation, and there is no guarantee that he ever intended to keep his word. Harold Wilson is regarded by many as having potentially been an agent of the KGB.

    I know that not all the bad guys were in the IRA and that there were plenty of bad guys in the security forces. The IRA and the loyalist terrorists however were exlusively bad guys. You can't join an organistaion which is formed on a policy of mass murder and not expect to be regarded as anything else but a bad guy.

    The soldier or policeman who joins up with the intention of protecting people has every right to the expectation that he will be regarded as a good guy. Unless he lowers himself to the same level as the terrorist in which case he very much is a bad guy and quite a few were just that, however only a very tiny fraction of the whole.

  15. I think Paul Bew was closer to the mark than the above analysis which seems to rely too heavily on British altruism in respect not unionist interests rather than strategic calculation of British,

    The British on the other hand, might actually have preferred an all-Ireland dominion with a large unionist minority reinforcing the imperial bond but since the Ulster unionists could command enough sympathy within the Conservative Party to endanger the whole settlement if they were not accommodated, the Treaty emphasised that partition derived from the decision of the Ulster unionists for self-determination (as provided in Article 12) with the hope of insulating the British political system from future Irish conflicts.

    Who was going to ethnically cleanse the Unionists? Certainly not the Treaty government, which Britain looked upon favourably and regarded as the potential hegemon (in alliance with unionism) to safeguard its preferred outcome. In such a situation the anti republican forces would have been armed by the British to ensure any attempt at cleansing unionists would be put down. The republican side would have suffered an even greater defeat had they been so inclined to cleanse the unionists.

    As for desperation driven Churchill this seems a benign view of a man who was quite indifferent to the suffering he inflicted not out of desperation or military necessity. I am quite sure he would have reconciled what conscience he had with abandoning the unionists. Churchill in my view ticks all the war criminal boxes who, even if he did not allow Coventry to be bombed, certainly carpet bombed civilian populations in Germany in acts of British state terrorism.

  16. Cue Bono,

    I think the people who killed the McMahon family actually did believe themselves to be at war with republicans and justified their role on special circumstance. The B Specials very much saw themselves at war with the IRA. The Paras who committed war crimes in Ballymurphy and Derry (what else is the slaughter of unarmed civilian populations by standing armies – on the same moral par as Kingsmill?) if they did not believe themselves to be at war are even more reprehensible in that they mowed down civilian populations outside of the hell of war.

    There is no excuse for Enniskillen, no mitigation, no diluting what it was.

    My point about the British murder campaign is simple: if those who govern society will not refrain from murdering the citizens they govern, what position are they in to demand that the governed desist from murdering?

    Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy were not as vicious as My Lai but more vicious than Ballyseedy. The Provos were a force that evolved over time rather than being some force conjured out of the mists and myths of republican tradition: their membership rose exponentially in response to British state atrocity.

    I don’t really know anybody who thinks all the IRA and loyalists were exclusively bad guys. Life is never like that. I have spoken to many unionists over the years which will hardly surprise you including DUP members, Orange Order officials at conferences and other events. I have also spoken to cops, former SAS, British Army and so on. They have a much more nuanced view than you do. Take Derry for example: after the war crime on Bloody Sunday the IRA ranks swelled. Your argument would seem to suggest that all these bad guys were swarming around Derry waiting their chance to get murdering. How plausible is that? It seems more mythical. If an Irish army regiment walked up the Shankill tomorrow and slaughtered 14 unarmed civilians, I imagine the people of the Shankill would take up arms against them and I would not be describing them as criminals for doing so. I would think it bizarre were they not to fight back. And I would be tempted to join them only I am past it.

    The solider or policeman who joined up only to protect people could indeed be expected to be regarded as a good guy. But so too could the person who joined the IRA after Bloody Sunday if they did so out of a desire to protect people from the British murder gang. But motives are never that simple or one dimensional.

    If I look at say Bobby Sands I see a good guy. I look at the police torturer Bill Mooney and I see a bad guy. You probably see it the other way round. I can never see a torturer, any torturer, as a good guy.

    I think the only thing we can agree on here is that the security forces had plenty of bad guys.

  17. Anthony

    Too many points to address from a phone but I will come back to you on this tomorrow.

  18. Cue Bono,

    the second para of the first comment is a direct quote from Paul Bew - it should have been in quote marks

  19. "Who was going to ethnically cleanse the Unionists?"


    The IRA. They demonstrated that after partition when the butchered Protestants for no other reason than that they could do so with immunity. Little wonder so many fled.

    Bloody Sunday and Ballymurphy are held up as huge outrages in the republican community, which causes a bit of head scratching in the unionist community. They wonder what makes them so special when massacres committed in much more deliberate circumstances are almost ignored. We don't have the propaganda apparatus you see.

    No one joining the IRA in 1972 could have been under any illusions about what they were signing up to. They weren't signing up to heroically fight against the dastardly British. They were signing up to murder people in often disgusting and invariably cowardly circumstances. That was very clear long before Bloody Sunday. How anyone could sign up to that and expect to be regarded as a good guy is pretty hard to fathom.

    I get that you guys see Sands as a hero. He did after all willingly die for what he believed in and that is undoubtably brave. The same of course could be said about the people who flew two jet aircraft into the Twin Towers, but you won't find many outside of the Jihadi community commending them on their heroics.

    In most people's eyes they were dangerous fanatics who murdered a lot of decent, innocent, people and who set off a chain of events which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands more.

    That view would be closer to how unionists see Sands and co.