Bernadette On Ireland's Easter Rising – A Revolutionary Legacy

Thanks to the efforts of TPQ transcriber there is a now a transcript of  Bernadette McAliskey on the Centenary of the Easter Rising delivered at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church London on 7 March 2016. Hosted by Socialist Resistance and Pluto Books the speakers also included author Geoff Bell and film maker Ken Loach. Bernadette McAliskey addresses the conference and reminds us of the lessons of the 1916 Easter Rising. Thanks to Ed Moloney we can watch this event on his blog, The Broken Elbow.

Bernadette McAliskey: Thanks very much. A couple of random thoughts have just come into my head and I'll throw them out first while I'll try and think of something coherent to say. First of all is to urge you: Do make sure that you read Geoff's book and there are a couple of other books that have been published and you should make sure you read them. And the reason that I say that is that if you're old enough and you've been active enough you have an understanding based on your own experience – which many people in this room do - of struggle, of history passed down. And sometimes we make it up as we go along. I used to believe all the things that Trotsky said and then I discovered that Michael Farley and Eamonn McCann made them up! (all laugh) (inaudible) and they would say: As Trotsky said! And then I'd go looking for it in the book and I couldn't find it! He never said it! (all laugh) (inaudible) So read the book because it is important that we regain the history. It is important that when people and authors like Geoff on the left who recover our history for us from the places from which it has been lost that we re-claim it, re-know it and re-tell it to the next generations. Not simply because it would be the decent thing to do because within it is the understanding of the battles of the future we are about to fight. And also I would suggest if you haven't read it - it's a very small book that you should also read - a book called A Star Called Henry. Has anybody else read that?

You should read A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle because it also gives you the small person's view of the big things in the world and that's very important because the lost history of 1916 is in the telling of small stories and the depths to which the, never mind the British labour movement, the depths to which the founders and controllers of the Southern State in the Republic of Ireland buried and hid and distorted the history of 1916 verges on criminal. Verges on criminal! Because being in my usual moderate and responsible self, you can rest assured that nobody in 1916 died for the bundle of the Blue Shirts that took the place of over when the state was formed. You can rest assured that nothing in the vision of 1916 was about creating a neo-colonial state that would do the British work for them. And as people today would say of much more recent struggles: two things in moments of despair: it's a pity good men and women died for that. And there's that feeling in Ireland which makes, because it is unfinished business, makes The Rising difficult. Not just for those who would distance themselves from it and try and create a disconnect between the vision and the courage and the determination and the need for revolution in 1916 and  those who betrayed it. And not only for for those who are trying to hide it but for those who suffered the pain and the loss and one hundred years later looked and asked: For what died the sons and daughters of Ireland?

And in connecting that to the Labour Movement I'm always mindful, because a lot of people in the British Labour Movement don't know ... that the words of The Worker's Flag:

                                          The people's flag is deepest red
                                          It shrouded oft our martyred dead
                                          But ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
                                          Their life's blood stained its every fold

That those words were written by an Irishman and arguably only an Irishman could have written those words with such passion into a labour anthem. In fact, he sung it to the air of the Irish (White) Cockade but the British didn't like that so they picked an auld German carol and thereby it was a whole new story! But not withstanding that, not withstanding that contradiction of ideas and emotion that is felt today as living reality in Ireland I'm minded of something on the other side of that argument, that it's a pity that good men and women died for that, was when an old woman said to me in 1997-98, and she lost three sons in the war, Troubles, political conflict – whatever you want to call it – but for us in the struggle against British imperialism and terrorism and racism that went on between 1968 and 1998 and still continues – Mrs Mullan it doesn't matter where we are now or how we ended up but it was right and it was necessary and it was noble that we fought as we did from '68 on. And the same is true of The Rising: It was right, it was necessary and it was noble. And as Geoff says: No ifs. No buts. No armchair revisionists figuring out that they could have made their way to a democratic state much easier only for it or they were doing that anyway and there was no need for it - no need for any of that.

So it is important as I say to go back and find the stories - and they're in your own families - those of you from Irish extraction – they're in your own families. And I discovered one quite recently because it is the 'hundredth anniversary'. An old lady who lived in Coalisland, and I knew her very well, she's dead now, Mrs. McSloy. Mrs. McSloy was a widow woman who minded her own business and did her shopping and had no opinions on anything, was a pleasant lady and had a neat and tidy house and had no part in nothing, Your Honour. (audience laughter) But there were very few people who knew that old Mrs. McSloy kept what was known as a safe house. And in fact she had the safest house in Tyrone because nobody knew  (audience laughter)– nobody knew Mrs. McSloy had a safe house. And only very few people who did know ever stayed in Mrs. McSloy's safe house. But when the peace came people can't hold their water; there's great urge in the peace for people to tell business that would better not be told for six generations. One or two people were saying: Oh yeah, oh, she was good. She had a safe house. And as Mrs. McSloy was dead somebody squealed on Mrs. McSloy posthumously that she kept a safe house - that would be a house in which people who were wanted by the police would actually be safely hidden and nobody would know they were there. And the police wouldn't suspect that house because police are interesting people. (all laugh)

Police are very interesting people. They're supposed to have intelligence and they use this intelligence to go around annoying people and they come around and you know nab you by the collar and when you say: I haven't done anything they say: But we think you have because we have intelligence; 'police intelligence' has informed us. And so safe houses were places where police intelligence didn't actually work because police intelligence is based on stereotyping, prejudice and politics. They pre-define people who look like they might be bad for society. They're invariably young, almost predominantly male, they belong to minority politics, usually on the left and minority religions, usually not Christian. At the minute, police intelligence is almost entirely focused on young men who are Muslims, read bad papers, talk to lefties and go to church. And if they've got any relatives outside of Britain let me tell you – police intelligence has all your numbers and you're in trouble! So police intelligence never caught up with Mrs. McSloy. But people used to say: Did Mrs. McSloy? Mrs. McSloy! Did she keep a safe house? It turns out that Alice McSloy was previously Alice Donnelly and that Alice Donnelly's father was Barney Donnelly and that Alice Donnelly was a member of Cumann na mBan at the early age of sixteen and nobody knew.

And obviously because things didn't go well, the country was partitioned, Alice got on with her life, kept her opinions to herself. But the next time round she did what she could and kept a safe house. So when I discovered this event I looked, as Geoff went through, I went to look up the old papers which were fifty years old then; it was interviews that were done in 1966 that had been unearthed. And I'm reading down. It says: Alice Donnelly of Cookstown was a very young member of Cumann na mBan and was under the influence (this was police intelligence) was under the influence of two older women one of whom was Mrs. John Mann Devlin. And I looked again and said that's my Granny! (all laugh) Now, whatever kind of a bad being I am I can tell you the day and hour my Granny died I never knew that there was a radical Republican political thought in her head! And if you think of that whole generation of people, many of whom suffered, particularly on the Northern side, the crushing defeat of that vision and the impact on them and on their lives at being identified as people who had been a part of it now in a repressive state with police intelligence watching them. There's a whole generation of people - closed up and said nothing - until 1968. And their grand-children, not their children but their grand-children, begin to take up the issue again. And it goes back again to what Geoff says: It's not poets who make revolutions. It's not artists who make revolutions. It's not revolting students all on their own who make revolutions. It is the objective socio-economic environment in which people are forced to live combined with the vision of artists and poets and visionaries that make revolution. And that being the case, I keep asking: Where is the English revolution? (laughter) (big applause).

How much more of it ... how much more of it are you going to take? Are you short of visionaries? Are you short of poets? Historians? Young people? Why do you put up with it? Look at Mr. Cameron...I'm sorry, don't look... (all laugh) Look at what is happening. Look at the dismantling in this country of one hundred years of social progress. That's what's happening. And it matters to us in Ireland because we're still tied to you in many ways. Look what's happening. A national health service destroyed, trade unionism on its knees – and trade union leaders have something to answer for in that as well because they've become collaborative in the management, as opposed to the leadership, of the opposition.

Look what's happening to social and public housing. Look what's happening to working-class families driven out – you know: Unclean! Unclean! Lepers' bells. It's not fit for the city of London. Out! Push them all out and hope that a plague gets them somewhere and won't catch the rest of us and by that time we'll have robots or something. But let's push working people. Let's push them out of everything. Look at the commodification of water – it's a big thing in Ireland – and it's interesting that in The South that's the biggest thing. Probably because in Ireland it never stops raining. The idea that they're going to make us pay for this! (all laugh) (applause). But there's a core understanding of what is happening – that the provision of water, which is the basis of life, is a public service. The provision of clean water is a public government duty! Water is not a commodity to be bought and sold in the private market and the fact that we have come down to the commodification of water! You know the next thing we'll be on is the commodification of small children and older people and the reason I say that is: There's not enough  small children about - so their price will go up! - and there's getting to be far too many of us older people about. So we may well be used as door stoppers – I don't know. If we run out of horses maybe we'll all be sent to the glue factory – I don't know. But if we're commodifying everything the next thing in taking that circle back is the commodification of human beings. And we already see that, let me tell you. We don't have to look too far in the  .... of our old people ... but if we look, we are seeing the commodification of people who are 'not from here'. The people who are 'not from here' are commodities. Economic migrants are commodities, refugees, asylum seekers. Immigrants are commodities. People not born on this island or people second generation on this island, and even in Ireland as well and across Europe increasingly, have to justify their existence in the economic wealth they create for other people. So people coming to make a life in this country have to argue that they should be allowed in because they make Britain wealthy. That's commodification.

So when you start to look at it like that – never mind in 1916 – in 2016 people would want to be getting out of the United Kingdom. I think the Scots do. I think the Welsh do (very quiet the Welsh) but certainly a growing proportion - and in the next election we'll see if it is - what do they call it in Northern Ireland? The greater number. We'll see if the greater number in Northern Ireland do. And increasingly I think the people of England do. So the last of the imperialist stronghold of England is actually not just Ireland but also Scotland and Wales. And that's why I'm glad to hear that you're in favour 'cause I'm that way myself. I don't I'm not really enamoured with some of the things about Europe but I'm an unmitigated bad person and every time I see the ruling class I see an opportunity and if it was in Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann's day I would now vote Trotsky and make it up.   I really can't say now - was it Trotsky that -  and knowing what Trotsky said about that, something do with transitional demands. But the dynamics to me seem to be that being in favour of staying, for all its good reasons, being in favour and voting in favour of staying in the EU is one of the best things people certainly in Scotland, England and Wales can do because it will create mayhem for Cameron if the greater population of England wants out and the rest of us want to stay in. We'll have a new Scottish referendum, we'll have a border referendum and the Welsh might wake up. ... (applause)

So what I'm really trying to say is: If you want to commemorate 1916 here's the reality: it's too late to tell James Connolly you're sorry – he's dead! The British government took the leaders out and executed them. And no doubt somewhere down the line we'll get another ... apology out of somebody at Stormont or somebody at Westminster saying: And on behalf of (mumbles) if we offended anybody (mumbles) by murdering people (mumbles) we'll apologise. And I'd like to say: While you are at it try apologising for the rape of Africa? The plunder of India? The stealing of the wealth of the silver mines of South America? British imperialism has a lot to apologise for. Don't be apologising to me. I don't care for apologies. And it's not about commemorating 1916 simply in saying: It was brave – because it was brave. Or it was noble. And it was noble. Or it was right. And it was right. But to remember at the end of the day what it was about. And it wasn't perfect. But in those days we knew the difference between a Republican and a Hibernian. And when Sinn Féin re-discovers that we'll be going places. But, I'll leave that to the one side for the minute.  What we need to be doing is to go to the core of it and know what it was about. It was when the objective circumstances of ordinary, working class, small people were such that they could not be humanely expected to continue to live like that without protest, without objection and without rising. That the people themselves threw up, albeit a minority of brave men and women who stood the line and raised the flag and led the struggle and gave that inspiration and vision to people everywhere to say: You have nothing to fear but your chains. You have nothing to lose but your chains. And you have everything to gain which is your fundamental rights: Your basic elbow room, food on your table, the right to determine your own existence as human beings, individually and collectively . That's what it was about. It was about standing up and taking that struggle and taking that fight to the oppressor and being willing to risk all that you had for that which was worth having. And it begged the question, it begged the question as people do it in small ways now, as the homeless gather in the street, as the people protest about housing, as young Muslims demand solidarity against their victimisation in this country - they ask one simple question and it still has one simple answer: whose side are you on? It's not complicated. It's not complex. And yes, it's full of contradictions and struggle. But at the end of the day there are only two sides to be on: The side of justice or the side of injustice. The side of the poor or the side of the rich. The side of the oppressed or the side of the oppressor. There is, increasingly, no middle ground to stand on. And when I was very young and impatient and headstrong and not very sensible I used to think the people who were in the middle either needed to get behind us or get out of the way or we will just (whoosh!) right over them. And now that I'm old and wise and have learned a lot - I think that's still the best course! I do. (huge applause)

And things are looking up in Britain and in Ireland and actually a wee bit in America. The anarchist in me, which is not very deep down, really enjoys Jeremy Corbyn. I really enjoy seeing how that the existence of a mild-mannered, left of centre, social democrat who's a good human being becoming the leader of a social democratic, middle-of-the-road, not all that left of centre but he looks that way, mainstream political party can create such apoplexy in the British Establishment. That means they're running scared. So let's be brave. Let's support Jeremy by pushing him on. Let's get behind him and push him on! (big applause) ... He'll either go on and on and on or in the last analysis we'll go on and on and on ... but let's get behind that and push a progressive labour movement on.

We've seen the anti-austerity, People Before Profit, independent socialists, left of Sinn Féin, we've seen changes in The South. They're not great. And yes, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil won the biggest parties  ... in the first time in the history of the state neither of them have enough support to effectively lead a government unless the two Civil War parties get into government together. And they won't. They won't. You can put money on it. And if you're from Ireland you know why. I started out with it: A hundred years isn't long enough to take the colour out of a Blue Shirt. And Fianna Fáil would lose, would lose the people it just got back if it went into coalition with Fine Gael on no finer political point than: That's how deep it goes. That's how deep it goes. And then none of them will join Sinn Féin because then they'd have to own up that's where they come out of. And Sinn Féin's too vulnerable to go on back.  So everything is in flux in the south of Ireland and these are interesting times. These are interesting times. So let's not just sit about and talk about them. Let's get out there. Although it doesn't look like it, capitalism and British imperialism was never, in a hundred years, as vulnerable as it is today. Thank you. (Ends and all applaud)


  1. Great the closest thing I will ever get to listening to James connolly

  2. This is just comment on a little part of Bernadette's speech which I am a little bothered about. The question of the British referendum on staying or leaving the EU

    "But the dynamics to me seem to be that being in favour of staying, for all its good reasons, being in favour and voting in favour of staying in the EU is one of the best things people certainly in Scotland, England and Wales can do because it will create mayhem for Cameron"

    I am really not sure about it and I would like to see other opinions but my gut instinct is get the hell out of this most undemocratic, bureaucratic, institutional organisation. It is controlled by the IMF and ECB and is fundamentally right wing supporting all US wars and Nato stance. It has eroded what sovereignty over our own affairs. Look at the pressure it brought on Greece and all smaller countries and in Ireland look at the pressure it put regarding austerity including the water issue.
    TTIP will be a defining moment but I don't hold out much hope because of the fundamental right wing interest of the EU.

    As for Brexit, I believe that Cameron and the right wing want to stay in. They know where their bread is buttered. The EU is fundamentally a business fraternity, a common market to facilitate business. All other things are little add-ons. This Brexit is really a sop to the ultra right or national front, and nationalist sentiments of 'Grand Britania'. It is be a Tory political ploy by the Tories to show their clout, a sort of hold the EU to ransom. It is a Tory political manoeuvers taking attention away from real issues.

    Brexit will not happen but I think we should vote for it. I don't think the EU can be reformed but perhaps Britain leaving may spell the end of the EU as it stands.

  3. Great speech by Bernie as always! Many thanks to The Pensive Quill for publishing it.


  4. Buncrana, I was ambivalent regarding stay or leave. The deciding factors for me were that it was a leave vote directed mainly by the right. Although quite a few on the left voted leave it was choreographed by the right and left us, in the North at the mercy of the Tories for goodness knows how long. A dismantling of the European Union would be favourable but that isn't what this is. Better the left dismantle it from within than leave us at the mercy of the Tories.

    With strong, albeit not strong enough support for Le Pen, a capitalist being elected instead in France and Erdogan and Trump cementing their power bases the world is shifting to the right and I don't see any difference in the UK.

    Anyhow, it was a blind bet anyhow. No-one knew or admits they knew what would happen. Did the Tories know they'd receive so much opposition for a Snazzy Sasamach from the rest of Europe? I doubt they're stupid enough to be taken unawares.

    I knew that there'd be a rise in racist violence and surge in support for the right across Europe after Brexit/Sasamach and I didn't have the appetite for it.

    Anyway, that's my tuppence worth. As I said I was undecided for a long time. The fear of unfettered Tories made my blood curdle.

  5. On a lighter note, I was getting my copy of A Star Called Henry signed by Roddy Doyle. He asked "What's your name?" and I said Michael Collins after the bit in the book with the RIC etc. He didn't seem to get it. I'll maybe have to work on my delivery. :(

  6. Sorry Buncrana. I was just browsing the quill and I didn't realise the post was a year old. Doh!