1916 And Ireland’s Revisionists – A Counter Blast From Justine McCarthy

Ed Moloney @ The Broken Elbow discuses and shares a riposte from Justine McCarthy against the anti-Easter Rising lobby.

The Irish edition of The Sunday Times lurks behind a paywall and so, many of my readers – especially those not able to afford the newspaper – may not be aware of, much less have read this significant piece on the 1916 centenary by Justine McCarthy, writer, broadcaster and adjunct professor of journalism at Limerick University, which appeared at the weekend.

So here it is, below, reproduced for your enlightenment and entertainment, with thanks to Chris Fogarty who brought it to my attention. I hope to be re-publishing more 1916 material as the anniversary approaches.

Justine McCarthy

I called Justine McCarthy’s article in the headline to this post, a ‘Counter Blast’ because it is just that: an articulate, factually based, strongly worded and compelling riposte to the coverage of the 1916 anniversary that so far has characterised much of the media commentary in Ireland, coverage of the rebellion that has, as she puts it, ‘spewed scorn on the Rising’.

Her point is that this view has constituted ‘the loudest (media) commentary’ on the Rising, characterising the rebellion as: ‘antidemocratic, fanatical bloodlust; Catholic fundamentalism; uncalled for and unwanted. The tone underlying each charge is one of communal self-abased apology.’

This is, in no small measure, because Ireland’s two premier dailies, The Irish Independent especially and, to a lesser extent, The Irish Times, are presenting a view of the anniversary not unlike the disapproving one they offered to the Irish people in the days and weeks after Easter Monday 1916: goodbye to William Martin Murphy, and hello to Denis O’Brien.

Since the unnecessary and bungled demise of The Irish Press twenty years ago, the Irish print media has been badly unbalanced and so a view of Ireland and its troubled relationship with Britain at odds with that of The Indo/Times, which is held by a large slice of the Irish populace, no longer finds an expression in the daily media.

How ironic is it then, that it is to the columns of one of Rupert Murdoch’s prized publications that one must turn to read an alternative commentary such as that provided by Ms McCarthy?

There are two other factors at play however, one of which Justine McCarthy touches upon in her article, to wit, Ireland’s ‘loss of economic sovereignty in 2010′, a reference to the forced austerity policies imposed on Ireland by European & US capitalism to deal with the disastrous consequences of the banks’ cavalier greed.

Thus, to celebrate in a positive way the bid for political, economic and social freedom represented by the audacious act of rebellion in 1916 would put in sharp and shameful relief the abject surrender of 2010. So, far better to belittle the former so as to disguise the extent of the latter.

The other is the impending general election in the South and with it the prospect – terrifying to many readers of the Indo and The Times – of a government that has in its ranks, members and leaders of Sinn Fein.

And so denigrating the republican militarists of a century ago is another way of having a bash at Gerry Adams and his buddies, a proxy sortie against the hordes at the gate.

The commentariat should calm down however and settle their nerves. The Shinners may not be everyone’s notion of ideal house guests, they will undoubtedly get up to all sort of roguery should they set up store in Government Buildings and whichever party or group of independents they choose to partner with in office are deserving of much solicitude.

But the simple truth is that in Mr Adams and his colleagues there really is much less for the Irish establishment to worry about than they imagine or fear.

These are not revolutionaries who wish to upend the social and economic order, despite their history of armed struggle; the willingness to use guns does not in itself signify anything more than a readiness to end another’s life.

As republicans go, they are more Pearse than Connolly, more concerned about changing the colors of the flag that flies over the GPO than challenging how the GPO does its business, more intent on attaining power than using it to transform society.

Their track record in government office in the North, from an almost instant acceptance of public-private partnerships and cuts in the health services, through to the recent negotiation of the viciously pro-austerity ‘Fresh Start’ deal tells us that.

Sinn Fein is a party which has elevated pragmatism and expediency to art forms, disclaiming a fixed economic and social ideology in the interests of attaining and keeping office, driven more by the polls than political doctrines, one day championing the victims of austerity against the banks, the next declaring it ‘has no problems with capitalism’.

Last March, on the margins of a St Patrick’s Day bash for Hillary Clinton in Manhattan, at a time when alarmed European bankers were comparing Sinn Fein to the then Greek radicals in Syriza, Goldman Sach’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein asked Gerry Adams for a private chat which lasted ten minutes or so.

Afterwards Blankfein confided to a fellow guest that he had come away ‘greatly impressed…..and re-assured’ by the Sinn Fein leader.

So relax, Dublin Four. Easter Monday 2016 isn’t going to be any bit as bad as Easter Monday 1916. If you don’t believe me, then trust the man who runs the most powerful and egregiously greedy bank in America! I don’t think Gerry Adams would lie to him.

Anyway here is Justine McCarthy’s article. Enjoy:

Historic revisionism means the truth is still a casualty of the Rising
by Justine McCarthy, “The Sunday Times”, 17 January 2016

The delectably named actress Perdita Weeks, who plays a classic English rose beauty in RTE’s Rebellion, has said it is “no wonder” that British school children such as herself were not taught about the Easter Rising, since England’s treatment of the Irish was “absolutely appalling”. In Ireland, this news comes as something of a thunderbolt, 100 years after the event. England was mean to Ireland? Some mistake, surely.

Since the dawn of this commemoration year, and in its bristling approach, the loudest commentary in Ireland about those five days that sowed the seeds of this independent Irish state has spewed scorn on the Rising. It has been variously disclaimed as antidemocratic, fanatical bloodlust; Catholic fundamentalism; uncalled for and unwanted. The tone underlying each charge is one of communal self-abased apology.

To whom are these apologists saying sorry? To the insurrectionists who were executed? No. To the people of Ireland whose country continued to be occupied for another six years? No. To whom then, as a baffled Weeks might wonder.

The commentariat, by and large, is mortified that England was caused bother while its back was turned, dealing with the First World War. Can you think of any other country that makes craven mea culpas to its former oppressor for exploiting an opportunity to gain its freedom? One of the glaring deficiencies of this commentary is its failure to imagine how different history might have turned out had the government in Westminster agreed to negotiate a peaceful handover of power without the need for bloodshed.

The night before he was executed in Kilmainham jail, Eammon Ceannt, one of the seven Proclamation signatories, wrote: “This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter 1916.” Ceannt’s valedictory prophecy proves that Ireland’s patriot dead were not right about everything. Their critics, however, would have us believe they were wrong about everything.

One of the most common refrains is that the leaders of the Rising had no mandate for it. What were they supposed to do? Commission an opinion poll from Behaviour & Attitudes or, maybe, hold a referendum? Remember, just 30% of men in Ireland (compared with 60% in England) and no women whatsoever were entitled to vote in the last election held before the Rising, in 1910.

While John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party won that election comprehensively, Ireland’s political landscape changed significantly in the intervening six years. Westminster had put Home Rule on the long finger once again. Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers, who had the support of the Tories, had smuggled in 25,000 guns, and 57 of 70 British army officers at the Curragh quit rather than take on Carson’s force.

Today’s commentators would have us believe that everyday life for the citizenry in Ireland mirrored England’s. This is a fallacy. The Rising came three years after the Lockout and its concomitant destitution, with civilians in some of Europe’s worst slums left dependent on soup kitchens. It was two years after Erskine Childers’s gun-running to Howth on the Asgard when, in response to jeering by a crowd on Dublin’s Bachelor’s Walk, British soldiers fatally shot and bayonetted four civilians and injured 38 others.

Ireland was not a benign, untroubled place. The Rising took place 68 years after a million people died in the Famine, during which Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the treasury, exported Indian rice sent to feed the starving.

Common wisdom has it that, if the British had not turned nasty and executed the leaders, the Rising would never have won popular support. This assumes that, until the executions started, the British had behaved impeccably. It is another fallacy, as evidenced by the fate of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist arrested while trying to stop looters. He was taken as a hostage by an army raiding party in Rathmines, which was ordered to shoot him if it came under attack. Afterwards, they shot him dead by firing squad and never bothered telling his wife, Hanna, who was left to search the city for her husband.

In the absence of elections that genuinely gave the people their say, the second-best medium for assessing public opinion in 1916 is contemporary media coverage. This is largely dependent on the pro-establishment Irish Times and William Martin Murphy’s Irish Independent. Murphy, a former Irish Parliamentary Party MP offered a knighthood by King Edward VII, was in the employers’ vanguard against James Larkin in the Lockout. He was, therefore, not ideally placed to know or to express the mood of the majority. Even after the executions had commenced in Kilmainham jail, he was still writing in the Irish Independent that more of the leaders ought be put to death.

Ireland had its own powerful conservative class at the time of the Rising. They were stolid, middle-class men who wanted to keep the status quo because it served them well. They were the guardians of the establishment, with an Irish accent.

The insurgents, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Eamon de Valera in America, Tom Clarke in Hampshire. Roger Casement and Constance Markievicz were Protestants, as were Grace and Muriel Gifford. Ceannt’s father was an RIC officer. John MacBride was a major in the Boer War. What bonded them was dissatisfaction with the status quo: they were nationalists, suffragists and intellectuals who yearned for a republic of equals. Their spiritual heirs still do.

To dismiss them as a handful of wrong-headed mavericks is a grievous fallacy. On Easter Monday, 1,200 men and women participated in Dublin’s Rising. More than 3,500 were arrested after it. Had Eoin MacNeill not countermanded the rebellion order on Easter Monday, and had Casement’s German guns not been intercepted in Kerry, who knows how many more would have taken part across the country.

Would the Rising have been the start of the Irish War of Independence? Most people do not glory in the deaths and injuries caused in 1916. Yet most people do ascribe to the right of a people to self-determination. It is a core principle of international law that a country should be free to choose its own sovereignty and political system, to set its own ethos and vision, to nurture its own culture and make its own mistakes. It is a principle rooted deep in human psychology, entangled in a mesh of self-respect and destiny, that no slanted history can undermine. When Ireland lost its economic sovereignty in 2010, the country better appreciated its hard-won self-determination.

Anti-imperialism was a growing movement around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century, but much of the analysis about Ireland suggests that independence was a mere bagatelle way down the list of a sane people’s priorities. I, for one, am happy to have grown up in a self-governing country.

In the 100 years since the Rising, Ireland has endured a war of independence, a civil war and 30 years of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The propaganda war alone is the one that endures. The truth continues to rank foremost among its casualties.


  1. great article from Justine....

  2. Agreed Niall, enjoyable article. The only criticism I'd make is that it's somewhat partitionist to talk of an independent Ireland and Ireland's independence when only part of the country meets the definition of independence. Ireland has 32 counties and not 26