This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 7 2016
Martyrdom and Separatism
Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews 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 from the 1970s. I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. 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 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). I will deal in a separate article with MOPE in relation to the Diasporas of the Irish and of Sri Lankan Tamils.
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, who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.
An economist of today, 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. 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.
Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?
There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916. 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”.
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”.
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 (because Easter is a movable feast, the actual date of the Rising was April 24). Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when 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.
A Motley Crew
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 Jacobs was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Some were strongly Anglophobe even though many were from English stock. They were rebelling against their own heritage as much as social conditions or imperialism. 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.
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”.
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”.
Next week – more about MOPE in Ireland and Sri Lanka