Rising And Falling, Remembering And Forgetting

The text of a talk given by Anthony McIntyre at a Dublin Salon event on 13 November 2015. The panel discussion was a satellite event of the Battle of Ideas, and was around the theme:

Was it needless death after all? The ambiguous commemoration of the Easter Rising. 

It is hardly news. Memory wars have always taken place. In the blurb for the Erna Paris book Long Shadows: Truth, Lies And History, the claim is made that “how countries manipulate historical memory is one of the most urgent issues facing the world today.” Perhaps an overstatement given wars, refugee crises and climate change, but certainly in terms of our cultural and intellectual world the charge stands.

Which is pretty much what draws us together here this evening. In the Eventbrite flyer for this gathering the question was posed “is it possible to rescue the meaning of the Easter Rising from this one-size-fits-all commemorative mentality?”

That ascribes to the Rising an essentialism that overlooks the fact that meaning is often positional rather than fixed. Meanings as Derrida suggested are not endless. But there is never only one. And as suggested by Foucault often the extent to which a history might become dominant is the extent to which it manages to suppress alternative histories.

At the same time Derrida made the point that politics is “a privileged space for the lie”. And there have been quite a few lies told about the Rising. This has its roots in Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” The choice seems simple enough. Grasped by Camus it amounts to every revolutionary becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. And it invariably arises out of fidelity to today rather than yesterday. Which is frequently enough why history is, in the words of Paris, “managed to suit the perception of our present needs.”

Ultimately, revolutionaries promise so much, deliver so little and strive strenuously and censoriously to obliterate the gap between what was practiced and what was preached. Their heirs carry on in that not so venerable tradition. We don’t need to look as far back as the Rising to see that. It has happened in our own lifetime in relation to the Northern conflict, as was so wittily and subversively captured in the words of Glenn Patterson that the Provisional IRA armed struggle “was the war of devolution with a north-south dimension.” 

But, yes, there is much fear of the Rising and not just from the usual suspects. What is feared is not the Rising per se but to again cite Paris: who gets to decide what actually happened yesterday and then get to propagate the tale? It is about who controls the Rising. It is not about loyalty to the past rising but to the present not rising. Pearse’s blistering comment that the man who accepts as a “final settlement” anything less by one fraction of an iota than separation from England – is guilty of so immense an infidelity, so immense a crime – that it were better for that man that he had not been born, is not something any of the political elites will be clamouring to remind us of. Invariably manipulation of the narrative will occur to strangle that sentiment.

Through its commemoration of the Rising the state hopes to light the fuse to a damp squib. Because if the squib bangs they instinctively fear that there will be only one party to benefit - Sinn Fein. The armed activities of an unrepresentative minority deciding to ignore the views of a wider populace seem far too much to resemble the type of thing the Shinners were doing. Best to let that sleeping dog lie if at all possible. If it won’t sleep, then make sure it has had its teeth extracted before wakening it.

But to play with words it is falling rather than rising that is the real potent lesson of 1916. And because of its potency and efficacy as a moral force, it is arguably where the real threat from the Rising is seen to lie. What was done to the rebels rather than what the rebels did to others is what stirred and transformed the popular imagination. If the Rising in military terms was something other than a strategic failure, the Brigade O/C of the Provisional IRA in Belfast would not have chased Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofain, when he urged that Easter 1970 provided the opportunity to repeat the same.

Political violence from below in Western societies seems to have so little appeal that the violence of the Rising is not what primarily concerns the establishment given that the chances of it being repeated as a result of commemorations are so slim. There is enough inherited street savvy around to realise that Orwell was hardly far off the mark with his observation that nine out of ten revolutionaries are social climbers with bombs. 

The State’s fear is not that the armed Pádraig Pearse might share the pedestal with the Provisional IRA’s armed Bobby Sands, but that a connect might be made in popular consciousness between Pearse the unarmed fallen and Sands the unarmed fallen. Two heroic men who showed immense courage and stoicism when they stared into the abyss and refused to blink in the face of a malevolent British power intent on seeing them dead. The moral power flowing from that might just ignite beneath the cozy seat of officialdom a fire that is not viewed as a firebomb.

There is another question posed by how we might remember the Rising. At the heart of much commemorative culture is the notion of compulsion. Is there no space for the notion of the democratic right to forget or should how we commemorate the Rising be based on the British poppy template – wear it or be damned? Individual citizens should have the right to remember or forget. This confers no right on the state to obliterate or falsify. 

This ultimately goes to the nature of the nationalism at the heart of the Rising about which a stronger case can be made that it was of its time rather than having a timeless quality. It seemed blind to any right to dissent from the nation. Should citizens be any more subject to obligatory nationalism than they should be to obligatory religion? 

Whatever we commemorate the Rising for, it is not for its acknowledgement that any nationalism should be respected only insofar as it permits citizens to dissent from it. 


  1. Heroes and patriots reside 6ft under. There will be few patriots in Dublin this Easter. But hopefully there will also be a lot less scoundrels of the FG Labour variety.

  2. Thanks for including this AM, I think dissenting from Nationalism has been examined by you before, it seems a crucial point over the head of many, mine included.

    The Irish have proven to be amongst the least deserving of Nationhood due their own apathy, or worse, collaboration with other regimes (if these are determining factors) .Certainly no more Irish boys should die facing down the British,in the hope their sacrifice will stir their fellow countrymen to take their place. That is the lesson of both the Rising and Hunger Strikes to me. But as with the right to dissent,people should have the right to act on information asymmetry , and their methodology should not be determined by the uninformed or apathetic.

    PS is it possible for you to flag any speaking events on this site in the future? Id love to show you my full body tattoo of your face. I passed out 11 times getting it done. Thanks

  3. 1916 Republicanism certainly did not allow for dissent from 'the nation' but de-facto tolerance for dissent gradually evolved and found eventual expression in the ratification of the GFA.

  4. A Patriot as explained in dictionary.com is a U.S. Army antiaircraft missile with a range of 37 miles (60 km) and a 200-pound (90 kg) warhead, launched from a tracked vehicle with radar and computer guidance and fire control.

    The 1916 rising if anything was an expression of dissent.

    The GFA was no expression of dissent but one of political and physical force manipulation, a missile striking the heart of republicanism and I would argue the very essence of dissent and free thinking.

  5. BT

    Yes, the 1916 Rising was an expression of dissent ... dissent from colonial rule.
    However, in pursuit of that legitimate aim, Irish republicanism failed to acknowledge that a substantial section of 'the nation', the majority of whom where resident in the northern counties, had already expressed their dissent to inclusion in 'the nation'. Many of them having covenanted in their own blood their dissent from the proposed 'nation'.

    Eventually formal recognition and acceptance of that position of dissent from the nation was given in the GFA.

  6. Henry Joy,
    Those covenanted in their own blood dissented from the proposed nation on pure sectarian grounds.....they were quite happy with the 'nation' that existed beforehand when they were the dominant minority.

  7. Yes Niall,

    they had a declared and vested interest in opposing Home Rule. They dissented from that proposal and declared opposition to participation in it. So what reasonable expectation existed that 'a sovereign and indefeasible republic', i.e. a unitary state, was ever realistic and achievable?

    Motivational rhetoric (she strikes in full confidence of victory) is perfectly understandable and even legitimate in context ... sure you can promise a full loaf but if you deliver 13/16 of it its a substantial achievement too by any reckoning. The vast majority of citizens in the 26 counties have long accepted it and probably in deference to Northern Nationalist didn't often frame it quite that way. Through the GFA collectively North and South of the border we have recognised the right of dissent from the nation by Unionism. Continued opposition to the arrangement, is to effectively disregard any right of dissent from the nation, or at least could reasonably be presented as so.

    Once again here are the aggregated results of the GFA referenda; total votes cast 2,499,078 ... invalid or blank votes 18,807 (0.75%) ... votes essentially in favour of the agreement ... 2,119,549 (84.75%) ... votes essentially against the agreement 360,727 (14.5%). Six out of seven (6/7) of the people on the island who exercised their right to vote collectively supported the premise that there would be no change to the constitutional position of N.Ireland without the support of a majority of the citizens of that sate. That is to say the vast majority recognise the right of Unionism to continue to dissent from 'the nation'.

    I don't see much opportunity of success for those remaining few, who continue to refuse the right of dissent to Unionism, in forwarding their cause. Of course I afford them the right to dissent, by peaceful protest, from the general current consensus. But as another former republican said to me recently, 'If they have any value at all on their time and on their peace of mind they'd be as well off learning to suck it up'.