Paper from a conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006, organised by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society.
Author: Charles Townshend
It’s a great pleasure to be here at the beginning of the real Easter week anniversary. I am very conscious that you will all have been through something of a barrage of discussion about the commemoration of the Easter Rising. I have rather been out of it. In fact, I was in France on the Sunday, I didn’t even see a television report of what happened. But, as I say, I know that suddenly, and perhaps belatedly, it has become possible to discuss this question publicly and to do something about it. So, it’s a big change from the experience I’ve had most of my life working on some aspects of Irish history. What I want to do tonight under this somewhat provocative title, which is taken from Kevin Myers – and I don’t actually intend to present a lot of Irish commentary on the meaning of the Rising in that vein; what I’ll try to do is say a little bit more about English perceptions, which I think may be slightly less familiar to you – what I want to try to do is get a sense of the general view of the place of 1916 in modern Irish history. This is the time of the year, of course, when people like me are busily engaged in reading masses of undergraduate essays. We always like to come up with the interesting versions of history that our students come up with, and it can be a sort of cruel blood sport, but it’s not really. I just picked out one from a clutch of essays I’ve been reading on the course that I’m teaching at the moment on twentieth-century Irish history: a student who refers to the 1916 Rising as ‘that fateful night’; three times, ‘that night’ is referred to; since we have anonymous marking, I haven’t the faintest idea who that student is, but I am going to be very interested to find out what on earth he or she thinks was happening on that fateful night. In fact, the only thing that is said about the Rising is that ‘the deep gorge between Catholics and Protestants was brought out for all to see’, which I think is an interesting observation, and I’ll come back to it in a moment. But, to rise somewhat above the level of second year undergraduates, I want to give you a sense of some of the ways in which 1916 has recently been characterised, because it bears on the way in which I am going to try to put a perspective on it.
The phrase used about it by Ruth Dudley Edwards is: ‘an orgy of violence in which hundreds of innocent Irish people died’. A still more serious historian, David Fitzpatrick, has characterised it very pithily as ‘reckless, bloody, sacrificial, and unsuccessful’. As I say, I don’t want to go on with these, but I thought I’d just give you an instance from the British press recently, an article about the Easter Sunday commemoration in the Daily Telegraph, because I think it’s a capsule view of the Rising that is very characteristic of the English perspective, and it goes like this: ‘More than four hundred people were killed during the rebellion, when Britain, with the support of more than a hundred thousand Irish soldiers, was in the grip of the Great War’. That, I think, from a British perspective is a wholly uncontentious way of looking at it, but I would suggest that what is interesting about it is this phrase: ‘in the grip of the Great War’. There is a suggestion here that Britain was involuntarily involved in this vast power struggle and had not deliberately engaged in it at all, but was somehow in the grip of it, whereas the people who started the Rebellion in Dublin were able to pick and choose their actions. I think that’s a perspective which will echo from time to time through what I’m going to try to say tonight. What I really want to do is sort out what I think are the negative evaluations of 1916 under three headings, and they come out something like this: the Rising was unjustified; it was ineffective; and it was pernicious. I want to try to survey and weigh up the arguments that are bandied around under each of these headings.
Let me start with the concept of the justification of the Rising, and I am going to quote Ruth Dudley Edwards again because it is such fun. In fact, I think she got this from Kevin Myers, but the question goes like this: ‘What right had the 1916 insurgents to start killing innocent Irish people in Dublin?’ So, what right?, that’s a question. It is a good question, and I think the answer to it would have to start probably with the words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic itself, which I’m sure you have off by heart, but I’m just going to quote a bit of it because it is germane to what I am going to say. ‘In every generation’, Pearse wrote, ‘the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty: six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right, and again asserting it in arms … We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom’. So, what do we make of this? Self-evident poppycock, perhaps; or at best, perhaps, intolerable elitism, with a tiny unrepresentative minority claiming to act for the nation as a whole. That I think is very much the view that Ruth Dudley Edwards is espousing. So, I want to think about this question of the tiny unrepresentative minority and whether it has a right to do anything. I think the view that the unrepresentativeness disbars them from taking any kind of action is only tenable if you are prepared to dismiss the whole of nationalist ideology as such. Nationalism, I think, is pretty well known. It’s not an ideology that wells up spontaneously through the medium of the masses or the public; it is characteristically, in its historical development, an elite programme. It aims to rescue and arouse a national consciousness that is perceived, by an educated minority invariably, as being in mortal danger. That’s how nationalism gets going. If nations had to wait for their sovereign independence until the whole national community reached the pitch of mortal combat, I think very few, if any, nation states would be in existence today.
Of course, many liberals would say, ‘so much the better’; and here, perhaps, is the underlying issue. As President McAleese recently complained, some people cannot use the word ‘nationalism’ without putting the word ‘narrow’ before it. So, narrow nationalism is seen as something that is inherently bad. Is it the wrong thing to do to call nationalism narrow? I think this is a difficult question. The term ‘broad nationalism’ may not be actually oxymoronic, but it certainly doesn’t fit our sense of what really goes on in the world. Nationalism did start out as a broad, almost a cosmopolitan, concept in the time of Mazzini in the nineteenth century. Mazzini believed that membership of the national community would make people better members of a world community, that it was somehow a path to ever expanding public social consciousness. That very broad, optimistic idea of nationalism was very powerful, and it shaped the whole post-war settlement after the First World War, the Versailles settlement. But, I think it was wrong, demonstrably. ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’, that’s the wonderful motto of the British Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1924 in the midst of this kind of Versailles-League of Nations-self-determination optimism. But, I think it has to rank as one of the most deluded hopes of all time. ‘Nation shall silence nation’ probably would be a better motto for the century that followed, a century of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and I think that we have to admit that nationalism is by nature self-centred, generates a resentment; it is defensive-aggressive; it has almost limitless paranoid potential. It’s always about defining yourself against others, against outsiders who represent a threat. And, in this sense, Irish nationalism, I think, is no different from any other form of nationalism, except in so far as its geographical location limits its physical scope for finding enemies. I think the fact that nationalism is by nature narrow doesn’t necessarily make it wrong or unjustified, and it certainly doesn’t make it less likely to survive as the dominant ideology of political identity for the present and the foreseeable future. So, liberals who don’t like it have to live with it, and I think in a sense they have to learn to love it as pretty much the only viable basis for a democratic polity. I think there has been a kind of liberal conspiracy to always look at the authoritarian, the illiberal potential of nationalism, and not to quite recognise that, actually, every functioning democratic state, pretty much every functioning democratic state, rests on what is believed to be a national community.
So, I think we can learn to love nationalism, but I think there is another moral charge against these elitists who claim to speak in the name of the nation, at a slightly lower level of generality. It relates to Pearse’s phrase ‘pledging our lives and the lives of our comrades’; there’s a suggestion, quite often made, that the planners of the Rising deliberately put their followers in harm’s way without their consent. In other words, they tricked them: this was a deception. Here, actually, there is a lot of consonance with the British concern immediately after the Rising to get the rebels to declare that they had no idea what they were getting in to, to basically say that their leaders had fooled them. The aim of the British then was to disembarrass themselves of a rather large group of internees, most of whom weren’t a big threat to them. But, the aim of modern critics is to convict the Republican leadership, or specifically Pearse and MacDermott, I think, because, James Connolly never seems to be accused of this deception. But, the rest of them are certainly quite routinely convicted of lying not just to Eoin MacNeill, their notional superior in the Irish Volunteer movement, about their intentions. A recent historian, Peter Hart, in his new biography of Michael Collins, uses the phrase: ‘other lies were told in order to fool the non-republican Volunteers into joining the revolt’.
So, these are heady charges, and they’re not just made by modern revisionist historians; they start really right at the time, by men who did feel that they has been fooled and lied to. Sean Fitzgibbon was, I think, one of the first, if not the first, to use the word ‘lie’ rather than a milder word like ‘deceive’ or ‘mislead’ about the information he got from Pádraig Pearse. I’ll just read you a little bit of Fitzgibbon’s recollections: ‘I asked Pearse if he had given Connolly any promise or had pledged the Volunteers. Pearse said no. His right knee kept quivering as he spoke. He kept raising his right foot slightly, tapping the ground with it, like a horse pawing, as he answered my questions. He was lying, for at that time the date of the Rising had been decided upon’. Now, if you accept that, it is certainly a less than edifying vision of leadership. The deception that is used by the planners of the Rising is allegedly, in the words of Diarmuid Lynch, ‘a necessary ruse of war to protect the secret plans’, but I think we can suggest that Connolly’s famous openness (he never made any secret of the fact that he was planning to rebel as soon as the opportunity arose) would not have worked any less well than this secrecy. After all, nobody suggested at the time, or later as far as I know, that MacNeill would have actually given away the plans if he had been told of them, and, indeed, Connolly told him very directly of his. So, I think there is a question about this secrecy, which is rather difficult to resolve.
Let me just think about one of the key instances of the deception, the notorious Castle document, routinely described, I think even by Republican sympathisers, as, not perhaps a lie, but a fabrication, a forgery. I’ve always assumed, of course, that it was a forgery, because Desmond Ryan said it was, and that was good enough for me for a while. But, I wonder whether the critics may not have been too quick to dismiss it as a complete fabrication. I wonder now whether the hints that were dropped to MacNeill – apparently, in the view of his biographer, to deceive him early in Holy Week – that the British plan was being smuggled out of the Castle by a sympathetic official, whether that wasn’t actually pretty much a description of what was going on. There was not just one official, of course, but in this particular case one official was smuggling this material out. If Grace Plunkett’s recollection is correct, her fiancé Joe deciphered the instructions brought out to him by Eugene Smith, while she sat on his bed taking notes. Was this, I wonder, just an extraordinary charade for her benefit? Somehow, I doubt it. It’s impossible to resolve this entirely because, frustratingly, no official copy of the plan, the military plans for the arrest of the Republican leadership, the Volunteer leadership, has ever appeared. I can’t explain this, because it’s inconceivable, even under the amiable regime of General Friend, that there was no plan; and there must have been a plan, but it’s a plan essentially for the action to be taken in the event of conscription being imposed and mass resistance to this. As I say, we know that there was a plan; I think the Castle document was more or less this plan; it was, the current phrase is ‘sexed up’, it was sexed up by Joseph Plunkett, but I don’t think it was a forgery. I think we know that the British authorities were thinking repeatedly about carrying out arrests, they just never managed to bring themselves to the point of doing it.
So, I have doubts about the extent of these deceptions in various ways. We don’t have time to go on in that direction. The question I really want to raise at the end of this is the question about whether the rank and file of the Volunteers actually needed to be deceived, misled, and lied to in order to get them to take part in the Rising, because that really is the implication, if not the explicit point that is being made by historians like Peter Hart. There is a view that somehow Sinn Féin was hijacked by the Fenians, that the description of 1916 as a ‘Sinn Féin rebellion’ was a pernicious misunderstanding that started with the British press and, perhaps, the British police, and that somehow there is a way in which these innocent ordinary nationalists are shouldered, or hijacked, into a kind of action that they’d never have conceived of taking part in. But, it seems to me from reading many, many of their own accounts – which admittedly are all written after the event, in the late teens, and this is one of the difficulties in assessing them – but, I’m fairly convinced that most of these Sinn Féiners moved quite comfortably, and even enthusiastically in many cases, to become separatists and, indeed, physical force men and women. Just to put a specific point on it, the question I would raise is how many of those who turned out for a second time in two days on Monday, 24 of April – remember, they’d been out on Sunday, sent back home, brought out again – how many of them were not ready to fight for freedom, however they may have conceived that? Not, I think, many; I think they knew what they were doing. I don’t think they were fooled, and I don’t think they needed to be. So, that is a kind of justification, I guess.
The last point on justification is the broader one that crops up as Ruth’s second point. She raises why none of the leaders of the Rising ever stood for Parliament, and the point that’s being made here, of course, is that if you have a parliamentary democracy, supposedly, violent action is illegitimate. If there are parliamentary, if there are democratic means of changing the order, then it is criminal to do it by violence. So, I think this raises the quite interesting, and certainly I can’t answer it tonight, the question of whether Ireland, and the UK of which it was a part of at the time, was a democracy. Most people say well, yes it was, but it was a democracy with faults like any democracy. But, this one did have a particular fault, and I think it is one we do have to bear in mind. The fault is a kind of underlying fault line: when you really come to the crux you find that there is some very dramatic fracturing of the whole notion of a political community. In Ireland, this point does arrive, we actually know this to have happened in 1918 when conscription – it was never imposed – but when an Act was finally passed that seemed to be about to impose it. And at that point, the Catholic hierarchy turned against this, and this put them potentially in a very awkward position, because they had never actually repudiated the Union, they never repudiated the right of the UK parliament to legislate for Ireland. But, on this particular issue they did; and the way they did it, just to use one phrase, the Bishop of Clonfert argued that conscription was ‘an invasion of the fundamental rights of the nation’. Well, I don’t think you have to say any more than that; this is a senior churchman, who is, I think, really giving voice to the fundamental fault lines inside the UK and the sense that the basic notion of there being a community which could be the basis of a democratic community does not exist.
Anyway, let me now turn to the argument that the Rising was ineffective. There are two radically opposite views of the Rising’s effect: one was that it achieved more in five days than the Parliamentary Nationalist Party had achieved in fifty years; the other is that it set back the national cause a hundred years. Both of these are obviously early reactions, because neither of them is quite tenable. However harshly you may judge the failure of parliamentary nationalism, it’s true also that the Rebellion failed to achieve its immediate object; I think pretty demonstrably it didn’t destroy the separatist movement either. So, the critique of 1916 came to rest on a somewhat more nuanced proposition, which is that the Rising was, as Eoin MacNeill and Bulmer Hobson long argued, unnecessary or irrelevant. Yeats’s famous (or infamous) question in his poem Easter 1916: ‘was it needless death after all, for England may keep faith’, i.e. may eventually grant home rule anyway, is really one of the earliest and most powerful of these revisionist questions about whether 1916 was actually necessary or useful. And the revisionist argument, I think, goes on to say that even if England didn’t keep faith, the great revival of nationalist sentiment in 1918 would have happened regardless, would have happened as soon as the threat of conscription became a reality. I think that this is a very powerful argument, and it’s very difficult to assess because it’s a counterfactual, of course. We know that the conscription crisis was provoked by the military action, not of the 1916 rebels, but of their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, and we know its effect was dramatic. But, to argue that it would have been just as decisive if 1916 hadn’t happened is certainly not a straightforward proposition. What I’ve tried to argue in my recent book is that the Sinn Féin that was able to capitalise on the swelling tide of public hostility to the conscription threat was a very different organisation from the one that existed in 1915. It was the Sinn Féin that had accommodated to and been transformed by 1916; it had changed, not utterly perhaps, but significantly. I think 1916 really did have quite a dramatic political effect, and, if nothing else, it broke what had been a very powerful psychological barrier, a sense of the limits of the possible, which I think home rule very much rested on, an idea of what could be achieved, and I think that 1916 suddenly and dramatically expands that sense of what can be achieved.
So, I think it is possible to argue that, contrary to David Fitzpatrick, the Rising is very effective, but one has also to admit that it has effects that are not intended, and are perhaps very unfortunate from the point of view of its instigators. The aspect, perhaps, of the revisionist argument that is most unpopular with traditionalist nationalists, as I understand it, is the argument that, well, going back to my student who says ‘the deep gorge between Catholics and Protestants was brought out for all to see’. Now, that’s not the first thing that would strike you about 1916, but it certainly comes in fairly soon afterwards. By the middle of 1916, yes, that deep gorge, or whatever you want to call it, really is there for all to see, and there’s no question, I think, that 1916 absolutely copper-fastened partition. It’s inconceivable after 1916 that you’d have a united Ireland.
Whether it’s conceivable before is a complicated question that I won’t go into now, because all I want to do finally is to turn to the third of these condemnatory categories: the pernicious effect, the long-term effect of the Rising. ‘The evil legacy’, I’m calling this, because a British commentator, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, delivered himself of an evaluation of the long-term impact of the Rising just a week before the ninetieth anniversary under this striking title, ‘The evil legacy of the Easter Rising’; and in Wheatcroft’s view, ‘only in Ireland could anyone fail to see the connection between’ the murder of Denis Donaldson in County Donegal shortly before and the ‘noisy’ celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. What is the connection in his view, we may ask. Wheatcroft says ‘the Rising was a very strange affair’. Its claim to be a national rebellion was belied by the fact that ‘the Irish Republican Brotherhood was a tiny sect with little popular following’. ‘Sect’, by the way, there is a weasel word if ever there was one. And he goes on to say, ‘for every Volunteer who took part in the Rising’ – and it’s interesting to note that he puts the word Volunteer in inverted commas as well – ‘for every Volunteer who took part in the Rising, there were a hundred Irishmen fighting on the Western Front for home rule, which had already been granted by the London government’. Instead of the beneficent future promised by home rule, Ireland became ‘the most reactionary corner of Europe’ as an independent state, and even now he suggests the Republic, he admits it’s not a fascist state, and it is a democracy, but it’s one with what he calls ‘a hang-up and an internal contradiction. You realise this when you go into Leinster House in Dublin – The first things you see in the antechamber are three images. Ahead is the 1916 Proclamation, and on either side are two portraits of men in uniform – Cathal Brugha and Michael Collins – Both were killed in the savage little Irish Civil War of 1922-23, which succeeded the previous Troubles – And so here is the legislature of what claims to be, and indeed is, a parliamentary democracy; and here are three images celebrating bloody rebellion against parliamentary democracy’.
Now, I’m still searching for the connection between the Rising and the murder of Denis Donaldson, and what Geoffrey Wheatcroft offers us is a European perspective. He notes that although revisionist Irish historians have spent the last generation examining the creation of the state and its underlying myths, even the best of them tend towards insularity and have not noticed how Ireland fitted into a European pattern. And this pattern, he thinks, is that Pearse and company are really the forerunners of the irrationalist reaction against constitutional liberalism, in other words fascism. And if you follow the implications of Wheatcroft’s little word ‘sect’, or indeed David Fitzpatrick’s term ‘Pearse’s suicide squads’, which he used in a recent historical work, you can identify a new generation of progeny, perhaps even more alarming than fascism. And in case we missed that point, let me give you another English commentator, Martin Kettle, who rams it in for us: it’s ‘the legacy’, he’s talking about here, ‘of a state born in martyrdom and violence, created around the romance of the deed, whose origins are steeped in the pseudo-religious cult of the transformative blood sacrifice and purging authenticity of the acts of a committed minority that Al-Qaeda or Hamas could recognise’. Maybe this is all a trifle overblown, you may be thinking. Despite the evidence, Wheatcroft presents in support of his perspective – there is not much of it, but it is a newspaper article: Pearse’s use of the word ‘blood’, for example, he thinks, is the very language the National Socialists would use. That’s an interesting, debateable point, but let’s move on to the amazing fact that the Nazi martyrs of the failed Munich putsch numbered, guess what, sixteen, ‘Sixteen Dead Men’. Wheatcroft thinks, ‘It was Ireland’s misfortune that the greatest European poet of the age should have been Irish and have extolled the Rising’. Yeats’s Easter 1916 he pronounces to be ‘haunting but morally repugnant’.(I am sure if I could see your faces there would be some dropped jaws at the idea that Yeats extolled the rising). But, it seems to be the connection that is being made here in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s and Martin Kettle’s minds is that there is a direct, unmistakeable, and unambiguous path from 1916 to ‘men who murdered children’. In fact, Wheatcroft quotes part of Yeats’s wonderful, agonised introspection. It goes something like:
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
He prefers to phrase it: ‘Did that poem of mine send out certain men who murdered children?, or hundreds of men and women, up to and including Donaldson’. It’s interesting that he doesn’t really notice what I think strikes us, which is the ambivalence and the self-doubt in Yeats’s approach. But, is there here a suggestion that Pearse and company were terrorists who killed indiscriminately, is that the connection? Or is it that the undeniably dignified words of the Proclamation (which I wonder if Wheatcroft has actually read) are rendered worthless or meaningless by the fact that subsequent terrorists claim to be the true heirs of Connolly and Pearse? He doesn’t say, so there is a missing connection here, but we can try to fill in these gaps.
Wheatcroft doesn’t try to convict the 1916 rebels of being terrorists personally, but Ruth Dudley Edwards’s phrase ‘orgy of violence’, I think, does clearly suggest that the killing of hundreds of innocent people was deliberate. So, we have a double indictment: 1916 represented the principle of political violence as against democracy, and it also manifested a lust, a physical lust for bloodshed. And these are serious issues. I think on the second of them, it’s not hard to acquit Pearse himself and most of his comrades-in-arms of the charge of orgiastic violence. It may seem rather overblown, but it has been made in various ways: there is, for example, the suggestion that the GPO was chosen as the rebel headquarters in order to maximise the damage to the most commercially, the richest commercial heart of the city of Dublin, and I think that’s the kind of assertion that you have to start thinking about, could there be anything in it? Of course, unfortunately, we can’t really tell – the charge is pure speculation, because, as it happens, we have no idea. Maybe, someone can enlighten me here why the GPO was chosen. All, I think, one can say is that David Fitzpatrick’s word ‘reckless’ is perhaps fair here. Pearse had evidently given no thought at all to the impact of his actions on the ordinary citizens of Dublin, and as the scale of the destruction dawned on him – and we should, I suppose, enter a mild reservation that the really big damage was done by British artillery, but that again shows how little the rebels had really thought or understood what was likely to be the consequence of their actions – but, as soon as the destruction really became big, Pearse moved fairly quickly to end the Rebellion, and it was specifically the inevitability of civilian casualties that led him finally to decide against the last break out that was being planned by what was left of the GPO garrison, after they had evacuated the GPO and gotten into Moore Street on the Saturday morning. I believe the story that it was the sight of a couple of poor people lying in the street, shot from the British barricade at Great Britain Street, that was the thing that tipped Pearse to seek surrender terms. So, I think that the orgy of violence thing is quite frankly absurd, but it’s harder to acquit the 1916ers of the wider charge of valorising the use of political violence. It would be a distortion to say they made a cult of violence, but they certainly embraced a sort of diluted form of militarism, which privileged soldierly qualities: discipline, incorruptibility, self-sacrifice – the converse of the supposed weaknesses of professional politicians. And this is always a potentially dangerous system of values for the long-term survival of democratic politics.
Having acknowledged that, though, I think what’s quite striking about the actual political behaviour of these political soldiers, particularly when they got into the position to really create a state or a pseudo-state in 1919 to 1923, is how literally they cleaved to the norms of constitutional behaviour, learned from the British, and I think also from the American example. So, rather than, as Wheatcroft has it, celebrating bloody rebellion against parliamentary democracy, Sinn Féin and Dáil Éireann, which really was a one-party quasi-state, with virtually no political background, no political experience, instinctively replicated Westminster methods. I think Wheatcroft doesn’t know this; but, in fact, it’s not necessarily to their credit that they did so. But, these were people who took state-building as seriously as any insurgents anywhere in the world, I think, have ever done. And perhaps the force Wheatcroft, Kettle, and others would like it to have, this charge of illiberal terror-spawning elitism, would need some adjustment of Irish and world history. Wheatcroft minimises the significance of the IRB, presumably in part to imply that without 1916 there would have been no physical force tradition in Ireland; so it’s 1916 that creates the capacity for this kind of extremism. That surely is quite implausible. There would always have been republican irreconcilables, even if home rule had gone through; maybe only a few, but, in fact, you only need a few to sustain an group like the Fenians or the IRA. And still more to the point, Wheatcroft writes as if there were no other terrorists in the world before 1916. But, 1916 was the centre point of a war that had been triggered by a spectacular act of Serbian nationalist terrorism, and an act that was far more influential on the world than anything that happened in Ireland. So, I think this attempt to provide an international perspective, admirable though it is in principle, and all of us revisionists should take note, but, in this particular form it doesn’t work.
I think there is a form in which we might, just by way of conclusion, be able to find a more useful European parallel, and that’s with Germany, a country that’s had a lot of trouble coming to terms with its past. The German word for this, ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, is a wonderful word, and it may seem that it is a peculiarly German word for a peculiarly German problem. The two cases may seem wildly disparate. As far as I know, even Kevin Myers doesn’t compare 1916 with the Holocaust. But, I think the underlying issue, how to construct a serviceable yet not self-deceiving national self-image, is really the same in both cases. I don’t think anybody, and probably least of all Geoffrey Wheatcroft, tells the Germans that the best way to go about it, the best way to create a future, is to keep quiet about the past or pretend it never happened. Ireland has what the Germans call a ‘Historikerstreit’, a struggle of historians – that’s what revisionism is all about-but, like the German Historikerstreit, it’s about the reconciliation of cold-eyed and sometimes iconoclastic realism with the preservation of some positive collective identity. And I think 1916 is inescapably a central point in this; it has to be dealt with; it has to be discussed.
So, I’m not going to call it the worst event in twentieth-century Irish history, which I think is a debating point rather than a serious analytical proposition. But, 1916 was effectively written out of Irish history for something like a generation, certainly in anything like the heroic form it assumed for most ordinary people. There’s a generation, in a sense, after 1966, for which you could almost say, in an extraordinary role reversal, Eoin MacNeill became the hero and Pearse the villain of the Rising. What is interesting, I think, is that we are coming out of that phase; it may have been a necessary readjustment, but I think we are coming to a phase where we can perhaps get a better balance in our perception of this. 1916, I think, can’t really be reduced to the category of a crime, a folly, or a misfortune, to use Edward Gibbons’s famous phrase. Whatever the statistics about minorities and so on, the 1916 rebels do seem to have had a grip of the zeitgeist, to use yet another German word, a sense of where things were going. They had the capacity to make things go, which is really what actually counts in politics.