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Jeering the men of 1916

It is well known that, as the volunteers were being marched to various barracks around the city following their surrender in 1916, Dubliners jeered and abused them, especially in working class areas. According to one account:

As the prisoners marched to Richmond Barracks, crowds stood at the kerbsides to hoot and jeer them, “Shoot the traitors!”, they cried. “Bayonet the bastards!” In one of the poorer quarters the shawlies pelted them with rotten vegetables, with the more enthusiastic disgorging the contents of their chamber pots …”

There are a number of similar accounts. But there is also general agreement that a certain “grudging admiration” emerged which was followed ‑ after the executions ‑ by enthusiastic admiration.

What should we make of all this? It’s a question worth asking if only because it is one that has not received much attention. Instead of an answer, there has been a sense around the issue that, well, the Dublin working classes of that time were a mercurial lot – some of them might even have been pro-British! But anyway, it doesn’t really matter because they ended up on the right side, God bless them. This kind of vagueness has facilitated a negative account of the rising.

Mindful of the jeering, some of those inclined to dismiss Easter 1916 as “a conspiracy within a conspiracy” have been emboldened to suggest that British soldiers were welcomed as liberators. Mind you, no one pushes that line of argument too far as it quickly runs into the difficulty of explaining the enthusiastic admiration for the rising which quickly followed, not to mention the popular nationalist mood in the city for many years prior to the war, which on one infamous day manifested itself in the jeering of soldiers.

That was when, in the summer before the war began, crowds turned out on Bachelor’s Walk to celebrate the landing of arms at Howth and to jeer the soldiers of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who had failed to prevent the landing. (The soldiers responded by firing on the civilians, killing four and wounding thirty seven – this was the city’s first “Bloody Sunday”).

Once the war started many on the nationalist side took the view that supporting the British war effort was the best means of ensuring political autonomy for the country. Others believed such an approach was madness and a split duly followed. Thousands of Dubliners who took the advice of the Irish Parliamentary Party leadership joined the British army.

Of course, not all who joined up were doing so in the belief that they were ensuring Home Rule. Many needed the money and for others there was a tradition of serving in the British army. In relation to this latter group it is worth remembering that Irish Catholics were once forbidden from serving in the armed forces and that the overturning of this prohibition was one of the earliest erosions of the penal laws and was welcomed as such by Catholics in the eighteenth century. The local, mostly Protestant, loyalist population also provided many soldiers who served out of duty. Their memory is honoured in the many WWI plaques found in Dublin’s Protestant churches.

It is hardly surprising that among the families of those who had followed the IPP advice ‑ particularly as evidence of slaughter and death in Flanders mounted ‑ some felt a visceral hostility to those of their people who had rejected the tactic of supporting the war and taken up arms against British soldiers. One of the abused volunteers noted that those who were shouting abuse at him were neighbours who had been at school with him and who called out his name. He said that for the first time in his life he gave thanks for the presence of British soldiers.

It is possible that the emotional extremity of the response reflected an emerging doubt over the wisdom of getting involved in the British war in the first place. Indeed a major change was imminent in nationalist Ireland. Two years later there was virtual unanimity in opposition to conscription and massive retrospective support for the rising. The passionate hostility towards the surrendered volunteers was surely driven by commitment to family members exposed to mortal danger on the front. It was the final moment for such feeling. The mood was about to shift irrevocably. Everybody would be affected, including the returning soldiers.

In a new book from Liverpool University Press, Paul Traynor looks at the experiences of southern Irish soldiers returning from the Great War. It seems they quickly embraced the altered mood in their communities and that “far from being British Loyalists, many served in the IRA and the Free State army and became republican supporters”.

The mini-civil war within Irish nationalism pretty much disappeared after 1916. In the years following, no significant element advocated collaboration with the British as the best means of winning autonomy. (Today John Bruton stands as a lone voice advocating that position.)

Undoubtedly, one of the great moral failures of independent Ireland was the mean-spirited refusal of the governing Sinn Féin factions to acknowledge the losses and sacrifices of those Irish who died in Flanders and whose motives were patriotic. It amounted to a falsification of history.

Tactics – including mistaken tactics – enter every conflict and it is an undeniable fact that tactical engagement with invading forces was a recurring element of the Irish response to intruders throughout history. Instead of acknowledging this fact Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael asserted, as a near dogma, that armed opposition was the only moral option throughout Irish history. This myth was peddled remorselessly and became an unquestionable orthodoxy in the new state, with all sorts of negative side effects. One pernicious side effect was that a moral and political opprobrium was attached to the Irish who fought in British uniform during WW1.

Once the inevitable revisiting of Irish soldiers in the British army took place and the massive losses of the Great War were publicly highlighted, it became clear there was there was no historical context available in the culture to aid a comprehension of the phenomenon. There was a cultural vacuum.

Ironically, the long years of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael history effectively lent credibility to specious interpretations. In the cultural vacuum it became possible to suggest that the huge numbers in British uniform meant the rising did not reflect the aspirations of the citizens of Dublin who, for the most part, were content within the empire. Not bad going for republicans!

In recent times the old Sinn Féin factions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have abandoned their historical propaganda. However, they have not turned towards the sort of nuanced historical inquiry that might lead to a serviceable account and explanation of the various forces active in the revolutionary era. Instead, they have given up history altogether. The public is now subjected to an empty fog of emollience, as politicians vie with each other to embrace an historically uninformed and vacuous rhetoric of inclusion. It is hard to know which is worse.

21/05/2015