Sean Matgamna commented on the 75th anniversaty of the Easter Rising in Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity), no. 482, 11 April 1991.
By their heroes shall ye know them
This year’s markedly muted celebrations in Dublin to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising, and of the martyrdom before the British firing squads in Dublin and on the gallows in Pentonville Jail of the founders of the Catholic Irish state, reminded me how starkly people, classes and nations may change their heroes.
From Lenin to Yeltsin is a long way down... The descent from Wolfe Tone to Ian Paisley is even longer and steeper. In Britain it isn’t “mainstream” any more to think much of the World War Two heroes whose very stiff-upper-lip exploits held the attention of the generation after the war, filling the movie screens, books of memoirs, novels and boys’ comics. In part this change is the natural result of the distance that comes with the passing of time and of generations.
Of a different order is the changing public attitude in the Twenty Six Counties to “the names that stilled their childish play” — the heroes of Catholic Ireland’s struggles for independence in the first quarter of the 20th century. This is icon-smashing with a vengeance! The blind, panicky vengeance of Ireland’s huckster bourgeoisie, to be exact.
For many decades they endorsed and propagated a version of the story of Ireland’s unequal contest with England, burnished into a splendid epic legend. The long half-forgotten myths of ancient pre-Christian Ireland — such as the story of the young champion Cuchullainn — were rediscovered, refurbished, and woven into the fabric of living history by men like Padraig Pearse. They took heroes like Cuchulainn, the great warrior who died on his feet, having tied himself to a tree to face his foes, his wounds staunched with moss, and Jesus Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross, as their inspiration for the lives they expended in political action.
Pagan myth. and Christian myth were merged and fused with ancient and modem history — and with the history of Christianity, in which the Irish have played and play a big part — to create a powerful messianic Catholic Irish nationalism. And, naturally, Irish nationalism also drew into itself much from the currents of romantic nationalism with which Europe was saturated for the first half of this century.
And whose history was this? What had all this struggle led to? To the rule of the miserable Twenty Six Counties’ own pocket bourgeoisie — who lived on after their apotheosis as exporters of farm produce, and exporters, too, of generation after generation of Ireland’s young!
As we used to say, arguing for socialism, anything less than the Workers’ Republic was a grim mockery of the long struggle of the common people of Ireland embodied in our history, and represented even in the mythological version of it. The Ireland of the bourgeoisie was a grim mockery indeed.
In fact, it was never their history. All that should be said about the true worth of the bourgeoisie and of their ancestors in the struggle of the great mass of the disinherited Irish people was said by one of the Jacobin “United Irishmen” leaders, Henry Joy McCracken, 200 years ago: “The rich always betray the poor.”
So they did. So they do. Immediately after the 1916 Rising, which was to become the keystone of the Irish bourgeoisie’s myth of its own origin, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce passed a “loyal” resolution denouncing the Rising and branding it as a form of “Larkinism” (the name then of Irish working-class militancy, which had fought the bosses to a standstill in an eight month industrial conflict in 1913-14).
The Ennis Chamber of Commerce, on the other side the country, passed a similar resolution — and many other such bodies across Catholic nationalist Ireland will have responded in the same vein.
After most of the 1916 leaders had already been shot, the Irish Independent — today the organ of Fine Gael, one of two main parties, openly encouraged the British military authorities to go ahead and shoot the badly wounded “Larkinite”, James Connolly. They had scores to settle from the great Dublin Labour War of 1913-14.
It was never really their history: only the myths were theirs, and they gloried in them, preening themselves, dressing up like baboons who have broken into a theatrical prop room.
The disgusted pseudo-aristocrat Yeats, believing in noblesse oblige, had got their measure during the 1913 lock-out and strike, when they starved the workers and their children in an attempt to break their union.
In his youth he had spent three years in William Morris’s Hammersmith Socialist Society, and he had actively sided with the workers in 1913, writing in the Irish Worker and speaking at at least one public meeting in support of the workers.
What need you, being come to sense
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For man was born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave
It was a sort of warning to them. And then, when the war of independence was over, and the bourgeoisie had seized control over the popular mass movement, divided and suppressed it, and assured their own rule behind the legal and ethical walls of the Catholic state they built — then, in safety, they could indulge themselves, not noticing the incongruities Yeats pointed to so bitterly.
Fifty years or so it lasted. And then the North blew up. The official Catholic-Irish myth had it that “the North” was just a matter of British imperialism and “British-occupied” Ireland, nothing to do with the other Irish bourgeoisie, the one enmeshed in the collapsing myths of the British Empire, and the Northern farmers and workers who followed them.
It had no grip on reality. Neither had the Irish bourgeoisie. Their interest in Northern Ireland collapsed, and so did their myths.
Perhaps the moment of sobering up came in 1970 when Prime Minister Jack Lynch put two of his Cabinet ministers (one of them the present Prime Minister, Charles J Haughey) and an Army officer, Captain Kelly, on trial for “gun-running” to the beleaguered Northern Catholics! (They were acquitted).
According to the Constitution Lynch was pledged to defend, the Six Counties was part of his government’s “national territory”
But Lynch didn’t believe it. They bourgeoisie didn’t either. Like the sobered adolescent whose day-dreaming has brought him close to disaster, they turned tail and extravagantly repudiated their former view of themselves. Now Romantic Ireland really was dead and gone. It has been succeeded by an age of the cold revision of history. Like pikes and guns, in the old song mocking British pretensions in Ireland, heroes such as Pearse and Connolly had been found to be dangerous things. They were cut down to size.
The Irish bourgeoisie has finally adapted to reality!
From Pearse and Connolly to the grasping millionaire C Haughey — a son of Catholic refugees driven south by pogromists in the early 20s — and his rival, Fine Gael understudy blue-shirt John Bruton, that is the history of the modern Irish bourgeoisie in the nutshell! It is a long, long way down. This Easter’s commemoration service sums it up nicely.
Like the Irish bourgeoisie for so long, many socialists have lived for decades in a world of inappropriate myth and misunderstood reality. That too has collapsed.
In Ireland, those who know what Pearse and Connolly and the Fenians and their predecessors really stood for will disentangle it from the bourgeois collapse, as they disentangled it from the grotesque parodies of it the bourgeoisie used to brandish.
And in the world of international socialism, the serious revolutionaries will disentangle the true socialism — working class liberation — from the Stalinist and other myths, fantasies and alien ideological encrustations. We will continue to do now, when so much has collapsed, what we did in the days when all sorts of freaks and horrors paraded around the world eagerly proclaiming their own horrible deeds to be the essence of socialism.
In both cases the collapse of the debilitating and imprisoning myths and fantasies is good because the way is thereby cleared for the truth.