This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 252012
Two months before my father’s birth, Irish rebels fought the British Empire. My father encouraged my interest in Irish history and told me about “800 years of British oppression” and the genocide caused by Cromwell and later by the free trade dogma that allowed the 1845 famine to be so lethal.
In my callow youth I wondered whether, had I lived in Ireland in the 1920s, I would have been out there fighting the British. However, even reading, when I was a child, mainstream history and popular biographies about the Easter Rising, I realised that the Easter rebels had no popular support. The interpretation of this used to be that the general populace was feckless and needed waking up by the sacrifice of these brave men. Look at the shiftless Dublin jackeens in Sean O’Casey’s plays.
Pearse and his colleagues believed they were entitled, although they were but a small, unelected group of conspirators in a democratic country, to stage a revolution in 1916 in which innocent people were killed.
On St Patrick’s Day, I posted an article on Groundviews examining the idea of rebellion and martyrdom. I was prompted to write the article by disturbing comments on Colombo Telegraph by one ‘Thanga’ glorifying Prabhakaran: “Prabhakaran is the only leader whose birthday is celebrated right around the globe in a grand scale! Prabhakaran was a brave, selfless and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!” For some Tamils, Prabhakaran had the status of a demi-god. A Tamil Catholic priest, Fr S. J. Emmanuel, compared him to Jesus. As recently as May 2011, in Tamil Nadu, MDMK chief Vaiko was saying the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remains a shining example, a ‘good history,’ for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow.
One commenter wrote, seemingly approvingly, about a ‘national consciousness’ in which the abuses of the past are not forgotten but remain vibrant and alive in the form of a collective memory. Another seemed to approve of the use of martyrdom as a reward offered “to the young recruit if they die during the battle against the oppressors because they do not have anything else to offer”. Another said: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had.” The best resources the Real IRA have are about 150 volunteers and bombs with which to kill tourists and pregnant women.
The leading figure in the 1916 rising was Padraic Pearse, a poet and playwright, founder of a number of Gaelic schools. Pearse welcomed martyrdom: “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”. “We might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a sacrificial notion that his cause was comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse wrote about the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.
The logistics of the Easter Rising were designed to maximise ‘bloody sacrifice’ of civilians. Buildings were chosen for occupation to maximise injury to persons and property.
By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed (including 15 executed). In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. The majority of the killed and wounded were civilians. Both sides, British and rebel, shot civilians deliberately, on occasion, when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded.
The rebels who were executed were regarded as martyrs and prayed to as well as for. A tradition of hunger striking meant there were Provisional IRA martyrs up to the 1980s.The death of Bobby Sands in 1981 resulted in a new surge of IRA recruitment and activity. His sister Bernadette and her husband Michael McKevitt founded the Real IRA, who refused to accept the Good Friday Agreement. Sands’s sister said: “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.
On 15 August 1998, 29 people died and 220 were injured as a result of a Real IRA bomb at Omagh, County Tyrone. The victims included Protestants, Catholics, a Mormon, nine children, a woman pregnant with twins, Irish tourists and two Spanish tourists. Bobby may have made a conscious decision to “die for Ireland”. The victims of Omagh did not.
Former Provo, Danny Morrison, explained in a Pearse documentary Fanatic Heart, that Pearse’s rhetoric was useful to the Provos when they were making war, but is inconvenient when they are trying to make peace. Did the 1916 Rising set an unfortunate and tragic precedent? Omagh is a result keeping past abuses alive in the national consciousness. Omagh represents an example of using whatever resources are available in the fight against the oppressor.
How will the Real IRA be celebrating the 96th anniversary of the Easter Rising? As I write, car bombs are being found all over Ireland.
– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/feature-issues/item/4309-choosing-martyrdom?.html#sthash.oK6Kmecu.dpuf