Mark Hayes: What 1916 Means To Me

Mark Hayes addressing Connolly Conference 2013.
Mark Hayes addressing Connolly Conference 2013.

By Mark Hayes

It is a difficult task to comment on any aspect of politics in Ireland without wading into a swamp of conflicting emotions and perspectives. Ireland has been a crucible of grievances for hundreds of years and people have been prepared to kill and die for one cause or another – meanwhile academics and activists still argue over the minutiae of each and every political development. Indeed, many trees have been sacrificed in the study of Ireland, and engaging in various forms of revisionism is a scholarly skill which has been finely tuned and widely practiced when studying Irish history. This observation takes on a much greater resonance when talking about the extraordinary events of Easter 1916. Sometimes it is difficult to discern the truth through the “foggy dew”. In addition to the obvious fact that the Easter Rising was a defining moment in Irish history, it happens to be a matter of considerable personal significance. I am a Republican and my eldest son was named after James Connolly. As a consequence, for me, wearing the Easter Lilly is much more than the simple symbolic manifestation of respect for the people who gave their lives for a political cause – commemorating 1916 is about renewing a commitment to a living political ideology. I therefore confess that I am a partisan in the war being waged to wrest control of historical memory. I make no apologies for that – the idea that there is some lofty perch from which we can study history and society with detached objectivity is just positivist nonsense. I reject that fallacy with the same ardour that I embrace the Republican principles that provided the political impetus for the Rising in 1916.

However, there is a difficulty – there were different types of Republicanism at work in 1916 and disentangling the various threads can be a complicated process. For the purposes of simplification we can identify the two most prominent perspectives which, although separate, are not entirely mutually exclusive. They both derived their dynamism from a belief that Ireland was oppressed by colonial overlords and had been denied its legitimate right to national self-determination. However there were very significant and subtle differences between them.

Firstly there were those Republicans who were motivated by a strong sense of national, cultural and ethnic identity. This conception of Republican resistance was closely tied to romantic notions of Gaelic emancipation and the importance of the Catholic religion. This strain of Republicanism, saturated with the messianic imagery of Christ and Cuchulainn, was most clearly expressed by Padraig Pearse. In fact Pearse’s conception of nationalism was akin to a belief in a divine religion, and some of those who engaged in the Easter rebellion evidently saw themselves as fighting for a holy cause that was sanctified with reference to God. God is not only mentioned in the Easter Proclamation, some of the insurgents, inspired by zealous piety, actively sought His intervention via prayer and holy water. Indeed, prior to the Rising George Plunkett went to Rome to seek the blessing of Benedict XV for their efforts. During the fighting itself the rosary was recited regularly in the GPO and for some of the combatants the fight was evidently for ‘faith’ as well as ‘fatherland’. For them the identification between Catholicism and Irish nationalism was axiomatic and doubtless accentuated by the possibility of a violent death. The historical reasons for this attachment to religion are obvious, of course, and owe much to the British (English) efforts to demonise and marginalise the Catholic faith in Ireland. Irish nationalism and Catholicism were fused together historically by hundreds of years of British misrule and oppression.

However, the emphasis on faith and ethnicity marks a clear contrast to the motives of the original Republican Wolfe Tone, who aimed to curtail the influence of organised religion. This gives us a clue as to the second type of Republicanism, which was far more civic and secular in motivation. To this non-denominational approach was added, in subsequent years, a concern for social justice and economic liberty. This perspective is most explicit in the work of James Connolly. Connolly saw nationalism as a useful short-term mechanism to engineer much more dramatic social changes. The socialist Republicans who coalesced around Connolly might have used the same vehicle as the ethnic nationalists, but their eyes were firmly fixed on another destination, a further horizon. As the man said “hang on to your rifles”. In this sense the Rising was to be the catalyst for a more comprehensive and thorough-going social transformation. This is the Republican tradition of which I am a part. Perhaps my lack of commitment to the exclusively ethnic (Gaelic-Catholic) dimension derives from the fact that I was born and brought up in England. I understand the impetus for independence and autonomous cultural development, but I am always disappointed by its lack of ambition. It always seemed to me that if people were being asked to fight (and perhaps even die) for a political principle, then the prize should be a society worthy of the effort, and not vulnerable to subversion by reactionary social elements. For me a more equal society (which “cherishes all the children”) is non-negotiable. Why settle for less?

The Easter Rising in 1916 reflected and reinvigorated both of these competing and complementary (but nevertheless authentic) strands of Republican praxis, and they have attracted adherents ever since. They can be clearly discerned in the history of Ireland since 1916 and were thrown into a much sharper light during the period of the so-called “troubles” in the north. That period of armed rebellion and political resistance against a sectarian state also threw up, eventually, what might be construed as a third strand of “Republicanism”. This mutated form of the genus is most explicitly expressed in the current political practice of Sinn Fein, which in many ways mirrors the rhetorical “Republicanism” of the Free State. This is a kind of pseudo-Republicanism, a political philosophy which pays lip-service to the ideals expressed in 1916 but whose attachment to them is, in effect, pragmatic and perfunctory. It is worth noting that in the north of Ireland there has been a distinct tendency to assume that “Republicanism” is what SF (or its leadership) says and does. This is a dangerous delusion. In fact the strategy of SF has led the Provisional movement into some very deep and treacherous waters. When ex-PIRA activists socialise with British Royalty, try to elicit financial support from business elites in the USA and work with the most reactionary elements of Loyalism in Stormont, it is clear that their grasp of Republican theory is tenuous to say the least. It is also important to make the point that this critique has absolutely nothing to do with the methods deployed. Republicanism and armed struggle are not coterminous. Indeed it is perfectly possible to be a Republican and a pacifist. Although it is undoubtedly useful in certain very specific situations, adherence to Republican principles does not require access to an Armalite. The emphasis on the issue of “armed struggle” is a diversion from the essence of the difficulty created by SF’s perversion of Republican principles – those who ostentatiously cavort with billionaires and who openly consort with the most egregious reptiles in the ruling class have effectively forfeited their right to claim the epithet “Republican”. They are simply celebrating at the carnival which Connolly so accurately predicted – this is the “Republicanism” of cretins.

When commenting on the utility of political theory E.P. Thomson once wrote, in another context, that Stalinism had turned “historical and dialectical materialism” into “hysterical and diabolical Marxism”. In effect the Provisional leadership has performed a similar trick by transforming Sinn Fein into a ruthlessly efficient mechanism designed to facilitate the retrospective justification of ideological apostasy. The post-modern Provisionals, in rejecting the meta-narrative provided by the other two inter-linked strands of Republicanism, have transformed its ideology into an empty and worthless catechism. It would make no material difference if they won a Free State election tomorrow because their political ideology has been eviscerated. Let us be absolutely clear here – Sinn Fein has every right to decide on its principles, policies and priorities. That is their prerogative. Moreover, the leadership and membership may genuinely believe that the SF strategy was/is the only viable and sensible political option. Certainly there have been some limited successes in terms of the more equitable distribution of inter-community rights within “Northern Ireland”. However, the reality is that SF have made a series of strategic and tactical decisions which have drawn them into compromises with some of the forces that Republicanism was designed to defeat. One thing absolutely certain – it is not Republicanism as conceived by those who engaged in the rebellion of 1916. Indeed, given the role SF has secured for itself in administering British rule, it might be argued that any attempt to arrogate for themselves the imprimatur of those who fought in 1916 is simply an act of symbolic and semiotic imperialism.

As the centenary approaches it becomes all the more evident that the Free State rulers are more than a little embarrassed by the national “foundation myth” they have inherited. Politicians talk about “respectful inclusivity” and “pluralism” in an effort to sanitise an act of rebellion (they even considered inviting a British royal to the commemoration!) but they would much rather ignore the whole event. The “terrible beauty” evokes, even now, a fearful anxiety amongst the assorted arseholes who wield political power in the putrid plutocracy they have created for themselves. The ghosts of those mighty dead will stare down on them at Easter, and they know it. Commemorating the giants of 1916 – some of whom (according to eyewitness statements) “died like lions” – can only ever highlight how absolutely miniscule are the contemporary leaders of Ireland. The comparison is telling because the current batch of social parasites are compelled to confront an epochal event of global significance when a small band of rebels resisted a massive Empire – this can only further expose the feeble futility of their own political endeavours. That is why the 2016 commemoration is being down-played or ignored, and that is why there is a systematic effort to mystify historical reality by the scribes and scholars of the Irish Establishment.

Indeed, as the time approaches, we can see clearly that the clumsy attempts to distort history by assorted political gombeens and vacuous celebrity gobshites is actually about getting genuine Republicans to de-commission the one weapon that worries our enemies the most – our minds. This is why 2016 is so extraordinarily important – it constitutes a massive opportunity, not only to re-dedicate ourselves to Republicanism, but to use our reason and intelligence to fashion a type of Republicanism we should aspire to, and to decide exactly how it can be achieved in the twenty-first century. One thing is absolutely certain, we will not have our critical faculties denuded by carefully choreographed political ceremonies, nor will we be swayed by the anodyne rhetoric of professional politicians or be seduced by the puerile imagery of public relations companies. You can bury bodies under quicklime, but ideals are not so easily disposed of.

The actual principles which underpinned the events of 1916 should be re-examined carefully, and incorporated or discarded as appropriate to an ideology which aims to secure not only national liberation but social justice. As Connolly knew, carving a future in the absence of a class analysis is all but impossible, and national autonomy without egalitarianism would constitute a very hollow victory. Of course we need to be realistic but we should never be afraid to act, nor let our enemies dictate the terms of engagement. The Rising of 1916 took place in the most unpropitious of circumstances, but the participants felt that the risk was worth taking. It was. The activists of 1916 knew that revolutions are not like hanging fruit to fall into the lap of the people once they are ripe – the tree has to be shaken. The men and women of 1916 shook the tree. We owe it to them not to betray that legacy. So when I am asked what 1916 means to me my answer is straightforward – it is of the utmost significance because examining it carefully can provide us with an opportunity to learn important lessons for the future. We can take heart from the fact that the very memory of its ultimate purpose still precipitates fear and consternation in our enemies, because they know it can happen again….

Dr Mark Hayes is a former member of Anti-Fascist Action and author of The Ideology of Fascism and the Far Right in Britain.

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