Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Don’t let them steal our history

The recent ceremony held in Glasnevin cemetery on July 31 marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War - attended by representatives of both the 26-County State and the British State - was but part of a wider campaign designed to normalise British rule in Ireland by sanitising our history. Within the media the cheerleaders are already in full voice. Joe Duffy, from his bully pulpit launched a scathing attack on Republican Sinn Féin and its protest held at Glasnevin. Duffy refused to engage with the issues and instead went on a rant describing the protesters as “yobs” and seemed fixated on their clothing for some bizarre reason known only to himself. When I came on the air to talk about our protest and the issues underlying it on August 5, Duffy refused to allow any meaningful discussion or debate. At one point, when I put it to him that I didn’t come on to his programme to be lectured he said he would never lecture Republican Sinn Féin as he claimed he would be “afraid ”to. While refusing to engage with the ideas and ideology of the protest he was quite content to demonise an entire political organisation. Such tactics are as old as the hills. In 1858 in West Cork a local newspaper editor wrote about the drilling and marching which Fenians in the Skibbereen area were engaging in. He called on the British colonial police to arrest the men. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa described the action of the editor as “felon setting”. (The ‘Treason Felony Act of 1848’ which remains in force, was used against the Young Irelanders and the Fenian Movement).Irish history was unkind to the ‘felon-setters’ of 1858 and all who assumed that role ever since. Joe Duffy’s words and actions are merely a modern manifestation of this ignoble practice. Republicans should be aware that this type of felon-setting often precedes a wave of coercion. A narrative is being crafted that places the First World War on the same plane as the 1916 Rising and attempts to incorporate it into our national story. This process involves sanitising our history to the point that it is denuded of any real meaning. It is rarely I find myself in agreement with Ronan Fanning however I cannot but agree with his analysis of the process of “massaging history” that is being practiced by the political establishments: Writing in The Irish Times on August 16 Fanning states that what is happening is: “…the propagation of a bland, bloodless, bowdlerised and inaccurate hybrid of history, which if carried to extremes is more likely to provoke political outrage than to command intellectual respect, let alone consensus.” An example of this is a listing in the National Museum at Collins Barracks in Dublin of all Irishmen killed between April 24 and May 12 1916. No distinction is made between those who died in arms opposing British rule in Ireland and those killed while serving in the ranks of the British army in the various theatres of the First World War. Thus for example James Connolly is simply listed among other Irishmen killed while serving in the ranks of the British army on the same day. This is not only unhistorical but does a disservice to those trying to grapple with the complexities of this key period in our history. How are our young people expected to come to an understanding of their history if such a distorted and confused narrative is given to them by the National Museum? By simply listing those killed without any context or explanation the whole period becomes a blur of militarism with nothing to distinguish those who died opposing imperialism from those who served in its ranks. Reading this list of names there is noting to tell the visitor that James Connolly died facing a British army firing squad in defiance of empire and in defence of Irish national independence. It is impossible to imagine any other self-respecting nation allowing its history to be diluted in such a manner. Such a way leads to the theft of any meaningful national narrative from this and future generations. Can you picture for instance France listing off the names of those who died in the Vichy forces or who collaborated with the German occupation alongside those who died in the French army or with the French Resistance? Would the United States honour those who served the British forces against the Revolutionary Continental Army? All of this may be uncomfortable and does not fit into the new orthodoxy of the so-called peace process but it is our history nonetheless. We should not have to apologise for it. Those Irishmen who died during the First World War were victims of a political class who viewed them as expendable. Many were economic conscripts forced by circumstances into the ranks of the British army while others were duped into believing that by volunteering to serve in the British army they would hasten the granting of Home Rule. The leaders of constitutional nationalism such as John Redmond enticed young men to sacrifice their lives so that they could prove that their nation was worthy of Home Rule. This is a blood sacrifice we hear little about from the revisionist historians. James Connolly was very clear about what was going on, in an article entitled ‘Tell the Truth: A Challenge to Mr Birrell’ published in The Irish Worker on November 28 1914 (Augustine Birrell was British Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1907 to 1916) Connolly boldly declares: “Let the truth be known! Count every corpse that the Empire requires us to pay for its victory; add up the total the wrecked human lives of the wounded soldiers, let us know the sum of the tears that the women and children must shed in oceans that Britannia might rule the waves and browbeat the nations.” Unfortunately today we are instead being subjected to a nostalgia fest of militarism based on the myth of the “war for the freedom of small nations”. It is a revisiting of what Connolly described in 1914 as a “…carnival of English jingoism.” Connolly warned that the consequences of embracing this cult of empire would be: “…the abandonment of all the high hopes and holy aspirations that sanctified Irish history and made the sacrifices of the past the foundation of noble achievements in the future.” That is exactly what is going on today. We are being asked to abandon the high ideals that inspired that revolutionary generation of a century ago and instead embrace the mythology of empire. It is evident that in the decade of centenaries the political establishments of Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster are determined to draw a line under Irish history. By demonising and isolating Irish Republicanism and refusing it access to public debate they hope that it will simply fade from the public consciousness, robbed of historical or political legitimacy. Joe Duffy’s column in The Irish Mail on Sunday on August 10 refers to “our war dead”. The First World War was not our war, our war was fought here in Ireland for the freedom of Ireland. The First World War was an imperialist slaughter in which sadly many of our countrymen were caught up. They were victims of empire but alas they cannot be numbered among the pantheon of our patriot dead. “Oh, had they died by Pearse's side or fought with Cathal Brugha Their graves we'd keep where the Fenians sleep, 'neath the shroud of the foggy dew.” Canon Charles O’Neill


  1. When will RSF burn an American flag outside of Shannon air force base ? NEVER!

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