John Bruton seems to have suddenly become the poster-boy for the anti-nationalist side of the commemoration debate, those who seek less of an emphasis on the military side of things, in preference for more of a focus on the political, especially before the Easter Rising. Having caused a few headlines after his comments in a London debate a little while back, Bruton decided to elaborate in this piece on his own website.
His article is far from the outrageous attack on Irish physical force nationalism that some tried to make it out to be yesterday, being mostly just his own personal conjecture and a call for certain sidelined personalities of a hundred years ago to get the same recognition as men like Pearse and Connolly. Mr Bruton is entitled to his views, and I think he outlines them very well here.
Some of his ideas are simple of course: John Redmond was a slightly more complicated character than he is made out to be in the above link, and the brief following of a counterfactual thread in regards the existence of a “Home Rule Ireland” in the post-World War One year’s neglects to mention the very strong possibility of an entity like that being sucked into the destructive cauldron of World War Two. After all, we wouldn’t have the same sovereign power to opt out of the war in the same manner as we had in reality, and no recent legacy of fighting Britain for freedom to dissuade us on top of that. A few German bombing raids over Dublin, Cork and Limerick might have made the 5’000 or so casualties of the Irish revolutionary period look rather paltry. As well, it clashes with my own personal opinion (slightly) that even peaceful implementation of Home Rule in 1914 would not have stopped an uprising within the following five years (and I daresay the same is true for 1919)
But there are parts of the piece that I believe are truly indicative of some of the problems of the centenary decade, and its overwhelming focus on the physical force aspects of the period. Bruton puts it very well:
“If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.”
I’ve sometimes wondered how much certain politicians in our system really admire the Easter Risers. For some, is it mere lip service and opportunity to namedrop? Or do they really believe that their political careers are following the example of the signatories? Bruton lays it out quickly and efficiently, that they should, if looking for inspiration in their own profession, be looking instead at the forgotten men. It’s clear how much the likes of Redmond influenced Bruton, and we could do a damn sight worse than have more politicians nowadays who look to the work of the IPP over the work of Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers in the 1910s as inspiration.
“The subsequent turning away, after 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would delegitimate the subsequent blood sacrifice.”
One of the problems of the centenary decade is very much the possible overglorification of men like Pearse and Connolly, to the detriment of everyone else who was involved. I see no realistic way around this, unfortunately. It seems that most people aren’t that interested in learning about the Third Home Rule Bill when there are revolutions and risings to be thinking on. Of course, who am I to talk, I’m an (amateur) military historian.
“Betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead is one of the most emotionally powerful, and destructive, accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism. It exercised its baleful influence in recent times in delaying the abandonment by the IRA of its failed and futile campaign to coerce and bomb Unionists into a United Ireland. “
This is the dirty little aspect of this entire glorification that many today don’t want to actually acknowledge. We draw the line between the “Old” IRA and its newer incarnations, we act as if the opinion of Pearse and Connolly to today’s political situation is something that should be given serious thought. I’ve always hated that inclination, and the damaging effect it can have. I wrote the following a few years ago and I think that it still fits:
“ It was my only major nitpick, in that the series, especially in Ceannt’s episode, presents a view that the Rising leaders have been somehow betrayed by the current situation in Ireland…It’s easy to say the Rising and its leaders have been betrayed. But, then again, Pearse and the others never had to handle an economy, diplomatic relations, banks, finances, hell, even representative government. How can we possibly know how they would have gotten on as political leaders?
The series ends with a Pearse quotation from his work “Ghosts”:
“The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask many big things…”
but they leave out the rest of the quote, a typically brash aggressive statement from Pearse:
“…and they must be appeased, whatever the cost.”
Should we be basing anything we do off the opinions of such a man? A man who seems to be willing to incite revolution and uprising at the mere mention of a nations dead martyrs?”
I don’t think we should. John Bruton would seem to agree with me. And I know there are others out there, even admirers of the Easter rebels, who would admit that they are not the best basis for forming any kind of modern political outlook.
Regardless, I like that the former Taoiseach has the guts to stand out in public in the middle of a time largely dedicated to physical force nationalism and military endeavour, and express what it is fair to say would be a very unpopular opinion among a lot of different people. Of course, he has no more political office to protect, and that helps. But we need more voices like his in this decade.