Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Ireland

More on Sinn Féin

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 5 2020


In my previous article I reported that the recent general election in the Republic Ireland saw Sinn Féin winning a majority of the popular vote. Because of the vagaries found in many democracies this did not automatically give them a place in government. Let us not forget that in the US presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than Donald Trump. The loser of the popular vote won two out of the last five US presidential elections.

Sinn Féin did not run enough candidates in the general election to secure a majority of seats in the legislature. The nature of the Irish proportional representation system is such that the government is always a coalition. Today, we have the peculiar situation that because of various obstacles in the way of forming a coalition, the self-confessed loser of the election, Fine Gael’s leader Leo Varadkar, continues to serve as prime minister. Fine Gael finished third both in seats (35) and in first-preference votes. Fianna Fáil have 37 seats. Sinn Féin received the most first-preference votes, and won 37 seats. There has been much clamour to deny any chance of either of the main parties forming a coalition with Sinn Féin.

The leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, rules out any chance of his party going into government with Sinn Féin on moral grounds. He says that there has never been any contrition for the atrocities carried out by the Provisional IRA. “Sinn Féin’s justification for the IRA’s war is a continuing one… In the peace process we all had to make compromises in order to achieve the peace, but Sinn Féin need to come some distance too and they haven’t.”

Sinn Féin’s success in the election was because they attracted young people to whom the violence was not even a memory. According to 2017 data from the Central Statistics Office, Ireland has the highest number of young people in the EU and the second lowest number of old people. These young people are concerned about current issues like health, housing and homelessness rather than history.

Today’s Sinn Féin would have us believe that they have no links with the violence of the past. Part of the Provisional IRA army council strategy for making itself invisible has been to push media-friendly ladies like Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill to the fore. I have referred to this as a monstrous regiment of women; another commentator has used the term “skullduggery of skirts”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the IRA had “gone away” and that no one directs the party other than its membership or leadership. “The IRA will not be returning. The days of conflict are past.”. Many do not believe that. Garda (police of the republic) Commissioner Drew Harris said he agreed with a 2015 report by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) assessment that the army council still oversees the IRA and Sinn Féin. Leo Varadkar has called on the Sinn Féin leader to disband the IRA Provisional Army Council.

Newton Emerson wrote in the Irish Times “It is tempting to say, only slightly facetiously, that southerners lack experience in the nuances of the peace process but will soon acquire the necessary sophistication.” Emerson argues that the intent of the 2015 report was to save the devolved Stormont government by asserting that a murder of a prominent republican in Belfast was not the work of the Provisional IRA. Two 2015 murders have not been solved and a murder attempt took place in the same area last month. Last November a new paramilitary monitoring panel reported without mentioning the Provisional IRA at all.

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was mainly dependent for funding in its early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports and other documents and also engaged in human trafficking. The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. The IRA’s counterfeiting operations extended to fake football strips, designer clothes, power tools and a well-known brand of washing powder. A bottle of counterfeit perfume seized at a market was found to contain urine as a stabilizer. About half of Northern Ireland’s filling stations sold fuel smuggled from the Irish Republic, where duty was considerably lower, at a cost to the Treasury of about £200 million a year. Fuel smuggling, much of it organized by the notorious South Armagh brigade, was probably the IRA’s single largest source of income.

Martin McGuinness was the IRA Commandant for Derry. He and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation.  Harris’s predecessor, Nóirín O’Sullivan, noted that the IRA remained heavily involved in organised crime in the Republic, with €28 million recovered from more than 50 individuals by the Criminal Assets Bureau. Like the LTTE, the Provisional IRA made a lot of money from dubious enterprises for its “noble” cause. Fiachra Gibbons, in the New Statesman, described Sinn Fein as “a kind of cross between Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church, but with extra guns, paedophiles and front businesses.” In 2005, the Department of Justice estimated the IRA’s global assets at €400 million. Where did that go? It has been privatised, with individual IRA members holding property portfolios and businesses in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US.

The dissident groups are also into “ordinary” crime. The Real IRA is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The Real IRA have taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The dissidents are also believed to be selling bombs to criminal gangs including elements within the Travelling Community.

It is understandable that the ‘respectable’ parties are anxious about allowing Sinn Féin into government, whatever the voters might want, and giving them access to the internal workings of the security of the state. Fintan O’Toole writes: “What Sinn Féin has to confront, sooner rather than later, is that it can’t continue to legitimise the “armed struggle” of the Provisional IRA without giving exactly the same legitimacy to every other gang that puts a different adjective before those three sacred letters: continuity, real, new. “

Martin McGuinness RIP

A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 30 2017.

The world watched in horror as Khalid Masood drove a car into tourists and innocent bystanders at Westminster on March 24, 2017. At the funeral of Martin McGuinness on March 23 Gerry Adams described McGuinness, who died on March 21, as a “freedom fighter” rather than a terrorist. There has always been much talk by the Provisional IRA of “the armed struggle”. Unfortunately, freedom fighting and armed struggle is usually not in brutal reality about facing up to the army of the enemy but about killing defenceless women and children as Khalid Masood did. The Reverend Harold Good OBE also spoke at McGuinness’s funeral.  “Our paths crossed many times and often he trod the path that came to our home and that is where you make friendship as you share your own fireside.”

Good by Name, Good by Nature

I first met the Reverend Harold Good (former President of the Methodist Union) in 1982 when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). Harold was a distinguished and effective member of SSAC and impressed me as someone who was good by nature as well as by name. Thirty-five years later we still communicate and Harold is a regular reader of this column. The two most detailed accounts of the complex dealings that took the Northern Ireland peace process to the Good Friday Agreement are by former Irish Times correspondent Deaglán de Bréadún, (The Far Side of History) and Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell (Great Hatred, Little Room). Harold has always refused to discuss his role but both books mention him and it is a matter of recorded history that it was Harold who made the formal announcement that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned their arms, effectively saying the war was over.

2008 Peace Award & Annual Lecture – Harold Good & Alec Reid

Harold has strong credentials as a man of peace so I was somewhat surprised at his response when I asked him what he thought of Martin McGuinness standing for election as the president of the Republic of Ireland. “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike president.” He also said that he was proud to call McGuinness his friend. Edward Daly, the Bishop of Derry, once said of the teetotal, non-smoking McGuinness: “He is an exemplary man, honest and upright. My only quarrel is the legitimacy and morality of using violence for political purposes.”


Are these respected Christian churchmen talking about the same man who committed or organised many appalling atrocities? Some still regard him primarily as a key figure in the terrorist group that killed almost 1,800 people. McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff from 1979 to 1982 and ran the paramilitary movement when Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers were killed on the same day. He was accused of approving proxy bombings, such as the murder of army cook Patsy Gillespie. Hostages were forced to drive car bombs, ­detonated before they could escape. This seems even worse than the suicide bombing tactics of the Tigers. Benedict Kiely depicts this vividly in his novel Proxopera.

“Terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. In this respect, the provisional IRA were similar to the Tamil Tigers. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict. The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.

A Life

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, the second of seven children, was born into a Catholic family in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry on May 23, 1950. he grew up in a city where the minority Protestants controlled the council, its housing and most of the jobs. After leaving a Christian Brothers’ technical college at 15, he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic, and became a butcher’s assistant. In 1968 he became a violent activist, after seeing images of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, drenched in blood as the RUC baton-charged a civil rights march. The IRA was re-arming, and by the end of 1970 McGuinness had joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.

Within months he was deputy commander of the IRA’s Derry Brigade. More than 100 people died in political violence in Derry between 1971 and 1973, and McGuinness later justified his role in it by saying “a little boy from the Catholic Bogside was no more culpable than a little black boy from Soweto”.


At only 22, McGuinness was part of a seven-man delegation sent in July 1972 to a secret London meeting with Home Secretary William Whitelaw. He was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator with John Major’s government in 1995 and with Tony Blair’s from 1997. As Jonathan Powell puts it: “He played a crucial role, risking his life in doing so, to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. And in those negotiations, he was always warm and friendly.” Powell believes that McGuinness’s role after the peace agreement was even more important: “Even more remarkably than making peace, McGuinness made peace work in Northern Ireland as deputy first minister, sharing power with his sworn enemy, the Unionist firebrand, Ian Paisley.” Kyle Paisley, son of the Reverend Iain Paisley, tweeted: “Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father… spent in office together and the great good they did together …Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.”


I was a Catholic teenager in the 1960s surrounded by Protestants. Luckily for me I was in Gloucester rather than Derry. I did not feel discriminated against in any way. In fact, I felt a little bit exotic. At Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School I was excused attendance at prayers but never singled out as inferior. My teachers took great interest in cultivating my talents. If I had been in Derry how would I have reacted to the frustrations of being a second-class citizen with avenues of opportunity blocked off by prejudice and gerrymandering? Would I have taken to violence? I do not think that I would, but who am I to judge Martin McGuinness for doing so?

McGuinness’s only conviction for terrorist activity was for possession of weapons and explosives in the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court in 1973.

One former senior security source said: “As chief of staff of the organisation for a long period of time he was responsible for its strategic direction and the tempo of its operational activities, so he clearly bore a lot of responsibility for what happened on his watch.” Several well-placed security sources agree that Martin McGuinness would have had advanced knowledge of virtually every Provisional IRA attack in  Derry after he was appointed chief of staff. “The bottom line is that nothing happened in Derry without Martin knowing about it …if he didn’t object, the attack went ahead. If he objected, it didn’t. It was that simple, he had a veto.”

Norman Tebbitt, whose wife was severely disabled by the Brighton bombing said: “”The world is now a sweeter and cleaner place. He was a coward. The reason he suddenly became a man of peace, was that he was desperately afraid that he was going to be arrested and charged with a number of murders.”

Brighton bomb victim Norman Tebbit lifted from the ruins of the Grand Hotel (Britain’s Trade and Industry Minister)1984. The bomb caused extensive damage and two deaths. 

A former senior security source said that over the years McGuinness had transformed from one its most militant leaders to a restraining influence. There have been claims that he was in fact a spy working for the British.


My Facebook friend Ann Travers is in no mood to join in the praise for McGuinness. “It’s a shame that even when he knew he was gravely ill, Mr McGuinness couldn’t have taken the opportunity to reach out to those people — even by dictating letters — to help them get the information that they need. Now he’s brought it to the grave with him.”

Colin Parry whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993 said he first met McGuinness in 2002 when he came to Warrington as Northern Ireland Minister for Education. “I don’t forgive Martin, I don’t forgive the IRA, neither does my wife and neither do my children,” he told the BBC. “Setting aside forgiveness, I found Martin McGuinness an easy man to talk to and a man I found sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the Peace Process at any cost. “He deserves great credit for his most recent life.”

Mairia Cahill, who was raped by an IRA man, writes: “Forgive me for pointing out, when people say he moved away from his past, that he was still in the very recent past deploying some nimble footwork to make it look like he was somewhat sympathetic to the victim, while still covering for the IRA. Old habits die hard.” She recalls the terrifying look of cold anger in McGuinness’s eyes when she called him Art Garfunkel.

Marty Maggs and Sri Lanka

McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticized the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. In Sri Lanka, there was a military victory over brutal terrorists who steadfastly refused to compromise or accommodate. If Sri Lanka had followed McGuinness’s advice, we would still be suffering from the atrocities of the LTTE. Iain Paisley Jr has often visited Sri Lanka and said in the  House of Commons: “In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland.”

Constructive ambiguity

The nationalists in Northern Ireland could say that their struggle had entered a new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. David Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and John Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable naysayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.


After McGuinness

Many high-profile political figures attended the funeral. The Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, Irish President Michael D Higgins, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, Alistair Campbell. John Hume, the former leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party whose health was broken by his efforts for peace and who is rarely seen in public these days was there. Folk singer Christy Moore sang the final song – the Time has Come – at the graveside.

Arlene Foster, leader of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party was applauded in the Catholic church of St Columba and she shook hands with Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill.

Bill Clinton was there and in his address said McGuinness “expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrank the definition of ‘them’”.

Khalid Masood lived in a hate-filled world of them and us. Theresa May rejected rejected Masood’s world view but Brexit means the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Sinn Féin has been presented with an opportunity to campaign for a united Ireland within the EU. They may do so peacefully. There are others who are still ready to resort to violence.



Easter 1916

April 24 2016


There has been a great deal written about the centenary of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916. Many events commemorated the Rising on Easter Monday March 27 2016. However, because Easter is a moveable feast, the insurrection actually took place on April 24 1916. I am going to use that as an excuse to draw together some of my thoughts about the Rising.


England’s Difficulty


The aim of the 1916 Rising was to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was occupied with World War I. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Joseph Plunkett travelled to Germany in April 1915 to join Roger Casement to seek help from the German government. They also met the German Ambassador in Washington to seek German support for Irish independence. Plunkett and Casement presented a plan which involved a German expeditionary force landing on the west coast of Ireland. That plan did not work out, although Casement brought guns into Ireland from Germany.

The Rising had no popular support. As the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them. Many of these were “separation women” – recipients of separation allowance as wives of Irishmen serving in the British Army.


In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens (poet, novelist and short story writer) wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”

The Rising began on Easter Monday, 1916, and lasted for six days. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country mainly limited to parading. There were isolated actions in other parts of Ireland, but the orders for a general uprising were countermanded by Eoin McNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. He had no role in the planning of the Rising, which was carried out by IRB infiltrators. When McNeill found out that Patrick Pearse had duped him he placed a last minute news advertisement advising Volunteers not to take part. McNeill was supported by Bulmer Hobson and The O’Rahilly but O’Rahilly joined in the rebellion and was killed in action.


The Seven


Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has a new book just out – The Seven. This refers to the seven men who made up the Military Council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, whose purpose was to resist Home Rule for Ireland, by force if necessary, the IRB were behind the initiative which eventually led to the inauguration of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. The IRB intended to use the Volunteers to seek a republic, recruiting high-ranking Volunteers into the IRB, such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Thomas MacDonagh. These men, together with veteran Fenian Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Eamonn Ceannt and James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army, constituted the Military Committee. It was just these seven who decided to wage war on the British Empire. On the morning of Easter Sunday 1916, they met in Dublin’s Liberty Hall. By noon, they had printed and issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which they declared themselves to be the provisional government of an entity that claimed the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman, even though the people had not been consulted.

Patrick Pearse was a poet and playwright who founded schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn and to learn the Irish language: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”. Pearse developed an unhealthy obsession with blood sacrifice.  “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”.


Though not obviously a fighter, Pearse was enthused by the sight of armed Ulster loyalists and wanted to emulate them: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a messianic and sacrificial notion that his cause was, through a symbolic loss of life, comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse expressed an ecstatic view of the energising force of the sacrifice of death in the First World War. He frequently celebrated the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.  Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote: ““It would be frequently remarked of Pearse that he had no understanding of the mundane day-to-day concerns that precluded others from showing the same fanatical dedication to his successive causes: he lived and died for a people that did not exist.”

James Connolly was more hard-headed, a socialist and trade unionist who responded thus to an article by Pearse: “We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think that anyone who does is a blithering idiot”.

Nevertheless, Connolly did sacrifice himself. The rising was planned as a “blood sacrifice” for a society that had become apathetic. There were disagreements among the rebels. Eoin McNeill wished to proceed only on a basis of realistic hope of success rather than staking everything on a gesture of moral revivalism. He thought the blood- sacrifice option intellectually flaccid. Many, however, like 18-year-old medical student, Ernie O’Malley, who had no previous record of nationalist involvement, were strangely stirred by Pearse’s peculiar theology of insurrection. O’Malley became a key organizer and leader in the later guerrilla war as well as one of its most prominent literary chroniclers.


Martyrdom and Separatism


Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews, a Sri Lankan website, in which I explored the theme of martyrdom in the militant separatism of Irish rebels at the beginning of the 20th century and of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from the 1970s.


The article got 5,000 hits and 115 comments. There was a heated debate, some comments were stimulating, others silly.


I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. One commenter on Facebook said that she could not see the point of the article. I told her that it had been addressed to a Sri Lankan audience and was warning of the dangers of Sri Lankan Tamils elevating Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran to the status of a martyr for the cause of Tami nationalism. She responded that my article was “intellectually flawed” because it did not deal with the “800 years of oppression” that preceded the 1916 Rising.


She presumed to know that her long-dead Irish grandfather would take pity on me for my lack of respect for those who “Fought against subjugation of brutal British rule for centuries”. Professor Liam Kennedy has coined an acronym to cover this kind of thinking – MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever).


Imperial Oppression


My critic chastised me for not mentioning Cromwell, the Famine and Irish slaves in the West Indies. I have written on all of those subjects elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that Irishmen were also slave traders and overseers. The Scots were the main force in turning Ceylon into a tea monoculture but Irishmen played a role too, backed up by Irish nuns and priest. Thousands of Irish men were loyal servants of the army of the British Empire.


How oppressed was Ireland in 1916? The leader of the Home Rule party in the Westminster parliament, John Redmond, in a speech of 1915, claimed that by 1900 the struggle over land was effectively won. Many historians since have claimed conditions were improving in Ireland by 1916. The writer Sean O’Faolain (born John Whelan, his father served the Empire as a policeman), who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.


Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, states: “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.


As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.


Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth and funded by the British goverment. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.


The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.

Another economist, David McWilliams, wrote recently, “sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state”. McWilliams claims that in 1913, Ireland was one of the richest countries in Europe, with income per head matching that of Sweden, Norway and Finland. 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. McWilliams asserts: “The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together”. During the Famine, Irish carpenters and fitters earned about 90% of what their English counterparts did. In the decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. Wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers rose rapidly after the Famine. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. The Irish stock market doubled in the late Victorian era. Large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir.

Although it was a hotbed of rebel activity, Cork did well out of the British Empire. I spent many happy childhood times in Cobh, County Cork. I walked through a public park called The Battery to get to a beach. In 1962, I sat reading Ulysses at White Point and looked across the bay to see imposing 18th century buildings. Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was a major British naval base and defence against Napoleon. Cork exported salted beef, pork and butter to the West Indies and fed the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and, later, during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.


Collateral Damage


On the 96th anniversary of the Rising someone commented in the Irish Times: “This tragic and misguided terrorist action started off with the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed policeman. No amount of rationalization can transform that first murder into an act of heroism and the misleading euphemism of the War of Independence for the subsequent terrorist campaign is dishonest and a travesty of the reality of those years. The warped so-called principles embraced by the terrorists of those times continue to be adhered to by the likes of the Real IRA. “


By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed. In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. After the Easter Rising, the British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. The Volunteers and ICA recorded 64 killed in action, but otherwise Irish casualties were not divided into rebels and civilians. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were civilians. Details of the 30 children who were killed can be found here:


British and rebels shot civilians deliberately on occasion when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. There were at least two instances of British troops killing civilians out of revenge or frustration, at Portobello Barracks, where six were shot and North King Street, where 15 were killed. Most of the civilians killed were victims of indirect fire from artillery, heavy machine guns and incendiary shells. The British seem to have caused most non-combatant deaths. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, “They regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved”.




One young Sri Lankan who commented on my Groundviews article confidently stated that all the Irish hated the English. Because of the close proximity of the two countries, because their histories are intertwined, because most Irish people have family living in England, the relationship is bound to be more complex than that. John Horgan noted that “the Irish mass audience for TV has never found it difficult to combine a deeply rooted and at times visceral republicanism with a deep fascination with the activities of the House of Windsor”. The residents of the Irish Republic are avid followers of Coronation Street and East Enders and readers of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.


Look at the backgrounds of some who have claimed to speak for the Irish to the extent that they thought they had the right to kill the Irish for their own good.


Rosamond Jacob visited England on many occasions and wrote contemptuously about everything from the landscape to the faces of people on the street. Desmond Coffey told his girlfriend Cesca Trench that the revolution was necessary so that it would be possible “to hate the English comfortably from a position in which they can’t look d-d superior and smile”. Mabel Fitzgerald wrote to her former employer, George Bernard Shaw that she was bringing up her son to speak Irish and to adopt “the sound traditional hatred of England and all her ways”. Shaw responded: “You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of”. He said she should be telling her son “that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past. Shaw scoffed at the fantasy of seeking “authenticity in rural life and hoping that the uncorrupted values of the Irish peasantry would rub off on them”. He warned Mabel that her son would probably rebel against her: “Nothing educates a man like the desire to free himself by proving that everything his parents say is wrong”.


Many of the most active Republicans were born outside Ireland. Tom Clarke was born in the Isle of Wight and spent his childhood in South Africa where his father was a British soldier.


James Connolly was born in Scotland and spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh. He served in the British Army.


Liam Mellows was born in Lancashire.


Margaret Skinnider was a sniper and the only woman wounded in the action at Easter 1916. She was mentioned three times for bravery in the dispatches sent to the Dublin GPO. She was born in Coatbridge, Scotland.



Many of those involved in the Rising did indeed revel in hatred of the English and of the British Empire. Many of them hated the English because they were English themselves and Anglophobia was part of a romantic rebellion against their own privileged backgrounds, against families which had long been pillars of the British Empire.


Robert Erskine Childers, son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers, was born in Mayfair, London. He grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism.  He was educated at Haileybury, the elite public school for future army officers and colonial administrators, whose distinguished alumni include prime minister Clement Attlee and the bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. Childers was quite well known in England after his success with a spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which showed the Royal Navy in a good light, Erskine was initially a steadfast believer in the British Empire and fought in the Boer War but later came to identify himself closely with the country of Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the Protestant Ascendancy.


Childers did some gun running for the rebels on his yacht the Asgard. He became a nationalist so intemperate and fanatically obsessed that his opposition to compromise is sometimes blamed for bringing about the Irish Civil War. He survived the Easter Rising because he was in London. Childers was later secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty but was vehemently opposed to the final agreement. He fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The author Frank O’Connor was involved with Childers and wrote that he was ostracised by the anti-treaty forces and referred to as “That bloody Englishman”. Childers was executed by his former comrades in the Free State government. Churchill said of Childers: “No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, activated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.”


Childers shook the hand of every man in the firing squad and asked his 16-year-old son to seek out everyone who had signed his death warrant and to shake them by the hand. I met that son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, in 1974 when he was visiting Cobh as President of Ireland. He had also been born and educated in England and had a distinctive upper class English accent.

Countess Markievicz was a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London. During the Rising, Lieutenant Markievicz supervised the setting-up of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen’s Green, wounding a British sniper. In prison, she was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex.”


Yeats’s muse, Maud Gonne, was a fervent Irish nationalist despite being born near Farnham in Surrey, England, the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the17th Lancers, whose own ancestors hailed from Caithness in Scotland.


Cesca Chenevix Trench was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant Unionist family and grew up in a vicarage in Kent. The family contributed much service to the British Empire and Anthony Chenevix-Trent was headmaster of Eton in the 1960s. Cesca changed her name to Sadhbh Trinseach.


The Hon Albinia Lucy Brodrick came from an English Protestant aristocratic family which had been at the forefront of British rule in Ireland since the 17th century and were pillars of the British Empire worldwide. The family colonised the part of Ireland in which I lived. Albinia’s brother, St John Brodrick, 1st Earl of Midleton was, in the words of one biographer, “consistent in his low opinion of the Irish [and] he held imperialist views that warmly embraced much of the jingoism associated with social Darwinism”. Albinia initially shared these views but following regular visits to her father’s estate in County Cork, she began to educate herself about Ireland and developed an interest in the Gaelic Revival. She was a staunch supporter of the Rising and joined both Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. She changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair.


Percy Frederick Beazley at the age 23 in Bootle wrote in his diary: “Shall I be despised? Shall I live a poor weak puny life- I who have the strength and will and a fire within me which will not rest”. He fervently idealised Ireland as a result his childhood holidays. “I shall wake up the Gael, appeal to him, trust in him”. He changed his name to Piaras Béaslaí.


Roger Casement was born in Dublin but served the British Empire as a consul in its diplomatic service and received a knighthood. His father, Captain Roger Casement, served in the (The King’s Own) Regiment of Dragoons. The family lived in England in genteel poverty. Roger’s mother died when he was nine. They returned to Ireland to County Antrim to live near paternal relatives. When Casement was 13 years old his father died, having ended his days in Ballymena dependent on the charity of relatives.


Cathal Brugha (Charles Burgess) was born in Ireland but the family came from Yorkshire. Patrick Pearse’s father was born in Birmingham.


Michael Collins’s chief intelligence officer, W J Brennan-Whitmore, was born in Wexford but his name worked against him. Tom Clarke despised Brennan-Whitmore, saying “never trust a hyphenated Irishman”. He joined Sinn Fein in 1910, was active in the Irish Volunteers in North Wexford and fought at North Earl Street in the 1916 Rising. He has been written out of Irish history possibly because he contributed to several ultra nationalist anti-Semitic journals. He was a prolific correspondent writing regular diatribes against the European Union in the Irish Catholic press.


The Provisional IRA leader in the 1970s, Sean Mac Stíofáin (who was baptized John Stephenson in Leytonstone, England, as a Catholic, despite the fact that neither of his parents was Catholic). His Irish was spoken with a Cockney accent. The leader of the Official IRA, Cathal Goulding, was particularly scathing about “that English Irishman”. “Sean’s problem is that he spends all his time going around trying to prove to everybody that he’s as Irish as they are, and in the IRA he had to show that he was more violent than the rest. “


A Motley Crew

The British reaction to the Rising was extreme and incompetent and made martyrs of those who had previously been regarded as clowns. As WB Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter 1916”:


Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn


Yeats and his friends had mocked the rebels but the Rising and the British reaction to it changed everything. Yeats had particular reason to loathe one of those executed, John MacBride  – “a drunken, vainglorious lout” – who had married and mistreated the poet’s muse Maude Gonne.  A “terrible beauty” was “born” during Holy Week, which marks the occasion of Christ’s sacrifice. The Easter Rising is both crucifixion and resurrection.


We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

A middle class background is often glossed over. Sighle Humphreys and her O’Rahilly cousins went to exclusive private schools, lived in huge houses with servants and fleets of cars. The Plunketts moved between a series of large houses with many servants and were wealthy from rental income. MacSwiney’s wife Muriel was a Murphy and wealthy from the family’s brewing of the nectar that is Murphy’s stout.


Many of the revolutionaries came, like Bulmer Hobson and Ernest Blythe, from wealthy Ulster unionist families. The Gifford sisters came from a strict unionist background from Dublin’s upper middle class. Grace  married Joseph Plunkett,  Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh. Both men were executed for their part in the Rising. Kevin O’Shiel and Eimar O’Duffy were brought up in wealthy Catholic homes and were radicalised at exclusive boarding schools in England as were Mary MacSwiney, Maire Comerford and Muriel Murphy. These people reacted against their privileged backgrounds and seized on advanced nationalism and Irish-Ireland values as Roy Foster puts it, “part of general rebellion, partly fuelled by a sense of guilt and compensation”.

bulmer hobson

Bulmer Hobson

Many of those involved in the Easter Rising had advanced views. People ran away together to found communist communes in Donegal. The lesbianism of many key figures went unconcealed. Roger Casement was a homosexual as was Eoin O’Duffy, who went on to lead the fascist Blueshirts. Rosamond Jacob (Róisín Nic Sheamuis)   was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Although many of these middle class revolutionaries were bent on self-transformation, the Irish revolution moved from artistic, social and sexual experimentation to repressive conservatism.


Theatre of War


The Rising had been called a revolution of poets but playwrights and actors were more prominent. Even James Connolly had written plays about the 1867 Fenian Rising for the drama group of the Irish Citizen Army. The theatre was an influence on developing nationalism. Martin Esslin wrote that the theatre is where a nation “thinks in front of itself”. Yeats stated that in the theatre the mob becomes the people”. The Abbey Theatre with Yeats and Lady Gregory put on plays about Ireland’s mythical past and allegorical plays which carried a contemporary message about English domination corrupting Ireland. Arthur Griffith was put off by Lady Gregory’s Ascendancy hauteur (her husband was Governor of Ceylon) but recognised that these plays chimed with Sinn Fein’s call for psychological as well as political autonomy. Roy Foster describes the Abbey Theatre as the “Established Church” with networks of overlapping little theatre companies making up “dissident congregations”. One of these groups was the Theatre of Ireland – its best playwright was Padraic Colum. Patrick Pearse’s brother Willie started the Leinster Stage Society. Their productions did not impress the critic from the Irish Times. He noted that the plays tended to concern “our old friends the fairies, who seem to have fallen on evil days since the introduction of railway trains”. Foster describes the atmosphere of the theatrical world of Dublin as “incestuous and mutually critical”.


More than one commentator has noted that the Easter Rising seemed choreographed as if theatre had taken to the streets. When the insurrection broke out several people mistook it for street theatre. Constance Markievicz was asked by passers-by at Liberty Hall if she was rehearsing a play for children.


Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?


Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.


However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.


There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916 (as there were in England). Horace Plunkett of the Cooperative movement produced statistics to show the extent of urban poverty. The death rate for Ireland in 1917 was 16.8 per 1,000 of the population compared to 14.4 for England and Wales. In Ireland there were 2.2 deaths per 1,000 from TB; in England and Wales it was 1.62.Todd Andrews, veteran Irish republican born in 1901, wrote in his autobiography Dublin Made Me about the bleak existence of those at the “bottom of the heap”. “Even those who had regular work were seldom above the poverty line and very many were below it…when I was child, every mother of young children lived in constant dread and sometimes real terror of sickness”.


I remember when Cork was dirt poor. Ancient black-shawled women, like one might see in Greece, Sicily or Portugal, moved like shadows in the warrens of alleyways that climbed the steep streets. Beggars sat on St Patrick’s Bridge. However, this was long after the Imperial oppressor had been ejected.


Apart from those around James Connolly, not many of those who fomented the 1916 Rising were much concerned about social conditions. The writings of Pearse are concerned with a more spiritual Ireland. Likewise, Standish O’Grady used the legendary figure of Cuchulainn “to galvanise the weakened generations of Ireland into an awareness of their heroic masculinity”.

My father, Jeremiah O’Leary, was still in the womb of Hannah Noonan O’Leary when the rebels took over the GPO. He was born on 29 June 1916, two months after the Rising. Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when he was  in his twenties. His younger brother joined him. My father joined the British Army when the Second World War broke out. Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from Ireland. In the 1950s, 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. The Irish-born population there peaked at over 700,000 in 1971.


Pensions Fit for Heroes?


In his book A Nation not a Rabble Diarmaid Ferriter has unearthed some interesting material from what does not seem an exciting source – MSPC (Military Service Pensions Collection). “The archive reveals so much about the revolution’s afterlife”. Ferriter notes that there is a huge gulf between the numbers of applications and awards made. Those affected by the events of Easter Week were in drastic financial circumstances and “it is clear that civil war politics intruded in some of the decisions that were made”. One cannot but suspect that simple bureaucratic bloody-mindedness and parsimonious penny-pinching were behind the obstructive behavior of the assessors.   Even James Connolly’s family and Joseph Plunkett’s widow were subjected to delays and humiliations.


There was no doubt about the bravery of Margaret Skinnider or of the seriousness of her wounds. She was wounded while she was in command of a squad of five men trying to cut British lines in Harcourt Street. She suffered a bullet wound near the spine and another in her right arm where a bullet had ploughed through the flesh upwards and had blown away the flesh connecting the arm and shoulder. None of this mattered to the Board which adjudicated that Skinnider was ineligible simply because she was a woman. Her wound was not a wound because she was a woman. “It would be illogical… to include female sex under ‘wounded members’…Section 3, which applies to this case, uses the words ‘any person’ as referable only to the male sex…The definition of ‘wound’ in Section16 only contemplates the masculine gender”. Skinnider was informed that her claim was not admissible because the Army Pensions Act “is only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense”. She appealed but had to wait 13 years before she got a wound pension.


William Maher’s file covers twenty years of frustration and no pension at the end of it. Ferriter comments: “The reason for the department’s stalling was an obvious desire to prevent payment of money legitimately due to pensioners”. The Army Finance Officer was given a definite steer which Ferriter interprets as “a cynical move that sought to make savings from the hoped-for ignorance of those affected, and the probability that many of them would not have the means to pursue legal action”.



Kevin O’Higgins asserted in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. De Valera wrote to Mary MacSwiney: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, or even a bishop, rather than the leader of a revolution”. John Banville described de Valera’s Ireland as “a demilitarized totalitarian state in which the lives of its citizens were to be controlled not by a system of coercive force and secret policing but by a kind of applied spiritual paralysis maintained by an unofficial federation between, the Catholic clergy, the judiciary, the civil service and politicians”.


Countess Markievicz boldly stated “the Catholic church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world” and found it “incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic”. In spite of this, her revolution established a state which was dominated by the regressive and reactionary ideas of the Irish Catholic church. The economy was ruined and the state even begrudged paying pensions to those who were wounded in the fight for freedom. Some met a worse fate and were executed by former comrades. The material questions around which republicans had organised, including trade union militancy, land seizures and the establishment of soviets, became embarrassing for the national leadership. As historian Tom Garvin put it: “whenever social protest began seriously to threaten the interest of men of substance, republicanism ostentatiously dissociated itself from agitation”.


Diarmaid Ferriter wrote: “The revolution did ‘change the relationship between one class of Irishman and another’, not through the creation of a new socialist regime, but through the existence of a hierarchy of benefit”. He quotes Francis Stuart, “we fought to stop Ireland falling into the hands of publicans and shopkeepers”. That seems to be  a fail.


Declan Kiberd suggested that the work of Samuel Beckett reflected the failure of the revolution; its rhetoric had been merely aspirational without a grand inclusive programme for Irish development. Beckett saw Irish society as pastiche with no overall purpose and responded by putting futility and despair on stage for people to laugh at.


The Rising Today


The Rising failed and was followed by a war of independence and a bitter civil war. Although de Valera fought against the treaty partly because of partition, anyone fighting for a united Ireland during De Valera’s long reign was likely to be interned or executed. A republic was not declared until 1949. Ireland is still divided. One might ask whether the violence and suffering of the war of independence and the civil war were worth it.


The Republic of Ireland had a general election on February 26 2016 in which the two parties which developed out of the civil war reached a stalemate and Sinn Fein increased its seats. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) was the anti-treaty party of De Valera.  Fine  Gael  was  the  pro-treaty party  of  Cosgrave,  Collins  and  the  Free  State  government.  De  Valera  fought  against  the  treaty because  it  left  Ireland  divided,  part  of  the  Commonwealth  and  owing  allegiance  to  the  Crown. Ireland is still divided and its freedom of action is restricted by the European Central Bank.


As I write, (24 April 2016, one hundred years to the day after the Easter Rising) the Republic of Ireland is without a government.



Martyring Innocents


Someone commented on my Groundviews article: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had. People, be they majorities or minorities will rise up when they can no longer put up with the oppression that they have to face. The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were inevitable due to the oppression that people had to face.”


The same commenter wrote about “the struggle for freedom – to preserve one’s culture at any cost… There is such a thing as 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. It is to this category that the ‘martyrs’ belong. They are not remembered for going on hunger strikes or surrendering at the very end – which your article makes a mockery of – but for the stand they take against injustice. Many of them are revolutionaries. None are afraid to die, which is where the hero-worship comes into play. Whether or not you agree with their cause is irrelevant; the mark that they leave on the collective consciousness of a people or nation is indelible.”


He continued: “there are many who are willing to live on their knees, but then there are the few who would rather die on their feet then live on their knees be it for a united Ireland or for a separate state called Tamil Eelam…don’t forget that William Wallace or Prabhakaran did not wake up one fine day and decide that they must fight the British or the Sinhala armed forces. It was the many years of oppression that their people had to undergo which made them take up arms against their oppressors.”


We need to unpack lethal clichés like these. Where do you draw the line between national consciousness and delusional, dangerous myth-making? The commenter’s knowledge about William Wallace seems to rely solely on Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart which had no foundation in historical fact. Print the legend!


Is it a good thing to keep alive the abuses of the past in order to continue the bloodshed? Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.


The Easter Rising of 1916 was not a simple case of a minority being oppressed by a majority. The rebels were ethnically and religiously part of the majority population. The enemy was the imperial power which had colonised Ireland for 800 years. The rebels were a minority in that they had no popular support. I am asking if it was legitimate for them to take it upon themselves to opt for violence in the name of the Irish people as a whole when the Irish people as a whole took no interest in the matter. This happened 100 years ago but has resonance today because a small band of people are still engaged in a bombing campaign with no mandate from the Irish people for a cause that hardly anyone cares about. Innocent people will continue to be killed.


Seamus Heaney wrote:


History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.


Seamus Heaney The Cure at Troy


Enough of martyrs. Enough of revenge. Let us hope a further shore is reachable, in Sri Lanka and Ireland.



I consulted the following books for this essay.


The Big Fellow                                                            Frank O’Connor                       1937

Michael Collins                                               Rex Taylor                               1958

The Black and Tans                                         Richard Bennett                      1959

The Easter Rebellion                                       Max Caulfield                                     1963

Ireland’s Civil War                                          Calton Younger                       1968

The Secret Army                                             J Bowyer Bell                          1970

Roger Casement                                             Brian Inglis                              1973

Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure          Ruth Dudley Edwards              1977

Modern Ireland 1600-1972                            RF Foster                                 1988

Paddy and Mr Punch                                       RF Foster                                 1993

The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000     Diarmaid Ferriter                   2004

Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion                     Charles Townshend                 2005

Terror in Ireland 1916-1923                           David Fitzpatrick (Ed)              2012

Rebels: Voices from the Easter Rising                        Fearghal McGarry                  2012

Myth and the Irish State                                 John Regan                              2013

The Seven                                                        Ruth Dudley Edwards              2016

Unhappy the Land                                           Liam Kennedy                         2016

A Nation and not a Rabble                              Diarmaid Ferriter                   2016

Churchill and Ireland                                      Paul Bew                                 2016

Vivid Faces                                                      RF Foster                                 2016

James Connolly                                               Sean O’Callaghan                   2016


A review of The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote this in a newspaper article some years ago: “With another generation of intransigents murdering in our name, isn’t it time we contemplated the heresy that the 1916 rebellion was misconceived and without justification, and that the physical force tradition in the 20th century has been an unmitigated disaster?”

Reading previous works by this author has changed my thinking about the Irish fight for independence in general. I have picked up on her regular theme and am broadly in agreement with it, although I do not agree with everything she writes in her newspaper columns.

In her introduction to The Seven, she reiterates that theme: “I was fascinated by the nationalist preoccupation with a seamless lineage of heroes and martyrs, particularly over the last two centuries, who have been used to inspire generation after generation to kill and die for Ireland without any regard for the wishes of the people”.

The Easter Rising happened because seven men decided and lied to their friends about their intentions. The plan was never put to a vote. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s approach in this book is to examine the lives of the seven members of the IRB Military Council and  to ask “why and how such an apparently ill-matched group should have teamed up and done what they did, what the chemistry was like between them, and who led whom and how”.

This concentration on the seven is an effective organising principle and the author manages successfully to work into the seven basic essays a great deal of material about other personalities in the longer story of Irish revolution. Also within those seven essays we can identify some common themes even when the individual personalities seem very different. For example, Thomas Clarke and James Connolly were both supremely indifferent to the suffering they inflicted on their families. They were both racial bigots as were other heroes outside the Seven, such as John Mitchel, O’Donovan Rossa and The O’Rahilly. Dudley Edwards writes that songs and stories helped “to feed a sense of racial superiority and Irish exceptionalism and feed a myth-laden grievance culture”.

Patrick Pearse’s weird obsession with blood sacrifice contrasts starkly with Daniel O’Connell’s declaration that freedom was not worth a drop of blood.  In their machinations against Bulmer Hobson and Eoin McNeill, in their lying and dishonourable subterfuge, the Seven clearly showed that, no matter how diverse their personalities, they were united in their arrogant contempt for the will of the people or for the opinions of anyone who disagreed with them.

As soon as I learnt that this book had been published, I placed an order. I tried to avoid reading other reviews so that I could approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, I could not avoid tripping over some discussion of the book on Facebook. The view of 1916 argued in this book has become mainstream rather than controversial. One would not think so reading the comments of some people on Facebook. One man condemned the book without seeing it. One woman gave it anticipatory praise even though she had called me “intellectually weak” and “unintelligent” for expressing identical views to those of Ruth Dudley Edwards.

The critic’s comments about a book he had not read essentially turned into a review of a review of the book by historian Diarmaid Ferriter. I was led to believe that Ferriter had condemned the book as unprofessional, unoriginal and falling short of expected academic ethics. I found Ferriter’s review much more nuanced than that. He praised Dudley Edwards’s 1977 biography of Pearse and described the current book as “ambitious”. Ferriter did have qualms about her use of sources and found the book unoriginal. The author maintains that this was intended as a work for the general reader rather than an attempt to examine new primary sources and break new ground. Colm Tóibín is quoted on the cover of The Seven : “A superb introduction to this period of momentous change in Irish history”. My Facebook critic who had not read The Seven before he pontificated about it thought Tóibín’s opinion was worthless because he is a writer of fiction rather than an historian. I was amused to note that my copy of Ferriter’s excellent book The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 bears a prominent quotation from Tóibín: “A landmark book”.

“Her crass assumptions about and character assassinations of the seven reveal the fiction writer. She attempts to make her villains as evil and unhinged as possible.” Kevin Lynch wrote in the UK Independent.

There was a very peculiar review on Amazon: “This is badly written base spew. It should carry a caveat emptor from Amazon as poisen pen potraits written by a seemingly self hating Irish woman. It pounds and pounds its anti-Irish message so repetively that initial gasps of incredulity at such base bias by a suppoused Historian gives way to eventual boredom. Unable to finish it.” Someone else presuming to judge a book she had not read, someone with only a fleeting acquaintance with literacy.

I did not notice any deficiencies in the citations. The bibliography, notes and index cover 32 pages. That is good enough for me. The proof reading and copy editing is a little slack in places. On page 129 there is a reference to the “Boar War”. There are a few sentences that have to be read more than once before they shed their ambiguity.

I was surprised to be told that Connolly and Constance Markievicz had been lovers. A citation to back that up would have been handy. I was not surprised to read that Pearse “was under a cloud because it was known that he used to kiss boys in his school”. I can understand why people who need heroes might be offended at Dudley Edwards quoting St John Ervine’s assessment of Pearse: “I thought Pearse a degenerate, witless man with an over-emotionalised nature who really ought to have been certified in his youth”.

I have read a good deal about this subject over the past fifty years or so but did not find my intelligence insulted by this new book. I was still able to learn new things. The world cannot be told often enough about the key theme of this book, which also has a resonance today in my adopted home of Sri Lanka: “The desire to be posthumously famous was regarded as a perfectly good reason to be a revolutionary rather than as dangerous egocentricity and narcissism”.

I used to think of the rebels of 1916 as heroes. Now I agree with Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that has need of heroes”.

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