History As A Moral Tale

Barra Ó Seaghdha

An Irish Century: Studies 1912-2012, by Bryan Fanning (ed), University College Dublin Press, 352 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1906359652

As its title suggests, this book is an attempt to present a hundred years of Irish life through the lens of a journal that celebrates its centenary this year. Bryan Fanning, a professor in the School of Applied Social Science at UCD, has undertaken the difficult task of presenting what is most interesting and relevant as we look back over that hundred-year history.

Devoted to “social, political, cultural and economic issues”, Studies was founded by the Jesuits in 1912 and has had a home in UCD since then. Fanning, well known for his work on issues such as racism and immigration, has been on the editorial board for the best part of a decade. The speaker who launched the book was not someone from Fanning’s own area of expertise but the former Taoiseach and European ambassador to the United States John Bruton. As we shall see, there is a certain logic to this: Studies was born in the intellectual and social world of Home Rule Ireland and for much of its history was part of the UCD/Cumann na nGaedheal/Fine Gael nexus.

Mr Bruton was in any case delighted to welcome “an exceptionally well chosen, and contemporarily relevant, selection of essays”. Describing it as the most startling in the book, he singled out “The Canon of Irish History, A Challenge”, by Father Francis Shaw SJ, for special attention. This is the essay, written in 1966 but published only in 1972, that famously attacked Patrick Pearse’s glorification of violence and sacralisation of the nation. Bruton mentioned some other important articles, on a variety of subjects, and noted the “excellent biographical essays” on Tom Kettle, who died in the First World War, and on John Redmond, the man who is to be credited with getting Home Rule onto the statute book in 1914. He echoed approvingly the dismay expressed by another contributor, Stephen Collins, at the fact that Redmond’s memory had been “systematically buried” since the Free State came into being in 1922. Mr Bruton’s appreciation is largely couched in terms of lessons for today. Happily for Mr Bruton, his reading of An Irish Century appears to have confirmed rather than challenged the kind of lesson he has been dispensing to the Irish public since his years as Taoiseach.

It is perfectly reasonable on Bryan Fanning’s part to focus on “a century of debate and analysis of Irish social and political debate”, but readers of An Irish Century should be aware that for its first fifty years at least almost every issue of Studies carried a significant number of essays and book reviews on non-Irish matters, from Albania to Zambesi (along with translations from the Irish, poems, and even, for a time, essays on Irish birds). For a state in formation and then in the process of building itself, the ways in which other countries organised and thought about themselves was naturally a subject of great interest.

One simple question arises for the general reader of the selection that Fanning has made: is there anything valuable in this book that is not easily or at all available elsewhere? Here we can endorse John Bruton’s positive opinion and note, from the first thirty years or so, essays such as these: Patrick Pearse beating the drum for Irish literature in 1913; George Russell (AE) reflecting on the Irish revolution in 1923; John Maynard Keynes taking a measured look at the question of national self-sufficiency in 1933; Daniel A Binchy offering (also in 1933) his personal recollections of the young Hitler and penetrating observations on his anti-Semitism and oratorical powers. 1930s debates about Daniel O’Connell and the Gaelic past are really about the future direction of Irish society, a trend continued when figures like Patrick Lynch and Donal Barrington lay out economic and political possibilities that would soon enter the mainstream.

Since the 1970s, Studies has taken a leftward turn and devoted a lot of attention to social change, to the eradication of poverty, to Northern Ireland and to inter-church issues. This, presumably, is how Bryan Fanning ended up on the board, devoting a substantial portion of his book The Quest for Modern Ireland to Studies, and ultimately producing An Irish Century. Fanning’s selection from the last few decades is, with few exceptions, of as high a standard as the rest. For example, the concrete detail and narrative energy in John Sweeney’s 1983 article on social equality still grip the attention; and liveliness, variety and a degree of surprise are on the menu when Margaret MacCurtain, Raymond Crotty, TK Whitaker, Tom Garvin and John McGahern are brought together. It is a tribute to the quality of the material that, whatever the interests and prejudices the reader brings to it, An Irish Century is almost guaranteed to trigger reflection and argument. What follows is one of many possible responses.

Editors do not speak in their explicit statements alone; they also speak in the selection and arrangement of the material they present. It is difficult not to see the hand of the editor at work in shaping the perspective that is offered on the 1912-23 period. The first essay is an argument for Redmond by Stephen Collins. The second, from 1913, Patrick Pearse’s only contribution to Studies, is a rather excited hymn to the Gaelic tradition in literature; in its excess, it makes all around it appear reasonable. The third, by Arthur E Clery, is in its context an unusually challenging piece on the case for giving the vote to the very young. The fourth, from 1966, is an appreciation of Tom Kettle, the Home Rule economist, essayist, soldier and poet, by Denis Gwynn, himself a Great War veteran. The fifth, also from 1966, is a brief and cool-eyed look back at 1916 by Seán Lemass. The sixth is the much cited challenge to 1916 myths by Fr Shaw. The seventh concerns the fate of the flag of the Irish Brigade at Ypres; a peculiar or politically determined choice at first glance, it furnishes a rare example of reportage from the war. The eighth is a disillusioned look at the preceding years of strife by George Russell, whose gentleness (as Nicholas Allen’s study of the man and his work made clear) turned into something rather sterner and more elitist after the Civil War.

Given the amount of material available, it is not fair to argue for a particular essay over another. Nevertheless, it must be said that Fanning’s selection is a little too tailored to a Redmondite-Brutonite world view. There is no space for PJ Gannon’s report of a visit to Belfast in 1922 – which painfully acknowledges the fate to which northern working class nationalists were being left: “It is pathetic indeed when fear-frantic women have to appeal to powerless soldiers against the Special Constabulary of Northern Ireland.” Gannon does not need to spell out why, for two years, such powerlessness on the part of the military has been “one of the mysteries of Belfast”. Other notes sounded in Studies go unrecorded. The Irish Century finds space for the Denis Gwynn who remembers Tom Kettle in 1966 but not for the younger Denis Gwynn who in the December 1922 issue displays the less benevolent face of a section of the Redmondite bourgeoisie. In “A Prophet of Reaction: Charles Maurras”, Gwynn (a former St Enda’s boy who loathed Pearse) is very understanding of the French reactionary’s problem with democracy itself, and with those Protestant and Jewish elements whose educational and intellectual influence “has naturally tended in every case towards a repudiation of French national tradition”. He elaborates: “In finance, above all, the alien elements – and especially the Jewish elements – drawn from every part of Europe have amassed an overwhelming weight of influence that is inspired by ideals not those of traditional France.” This article and a more nuanced 1922 one on Hungary by L McKenna are by no means typical of the journal. Taken together with certain socially elitist articles and with Gannon’s, however, they suggest that the intellectual world of Studies in those years is more complex and challenging for readers today than the naive political morality tale retailed by John Bruton and lent a little too much credibility by Fanning’s selection.

The prime positioning of Stephen Collins’s 2009 essay on Redmond cannot but be read as an editorial statement. It also links the present generation with the Redmondite flavour of Studies in its first decade. This is why it is singled out for extended treatment here. As Fr Shaw’s 1966 essay is cited by Collins, is frequently misrepresented, and provides an interesting and, in many regards, overlooked bridge back to the world of Home Rule Ireland, it too is given extended treatment.

That Collins’s essay is very much an argument for Redmond’s legacy quickly becomes clear. The opening sentence says that Redmond died a political failure and a broken man. The next contrasts “the tolerant values of parliamentary politics that he stood for” with the “bloody tide of revolutionary violence”. Collins concedes that “an independent Irish state was established on sound democratic principles”, though this was after “a vicious civil war” and involved systematic burial of Redmond’s memory. The next – and strikingly formulated – sentence accentuates the polarity between Redmond and the 1916 rebels: “The 1916 leaders, who had effectively rebelled against him, and not simply against the British Government, became the icons of the new state.” For the second time in his opening paragraph, Collins seems to puzzle over the speed with which the Free State, despite its cult of blood sacrifice, “developed into a functioning parliamentary democracy that owed very little to the revolutionary values of 1916”.

This paragraph in itself encapsulates a certain understanding of Irish history. The following points – none of them contradicted by what Collins writes in the remainder of the article – are noteworthy. First, British institutions and policies are mentioned in passing and approvingly, but they are not analysed. Second, Westminster is associated with tolerance but not with any of the violence or misdeeds of colonialism or imperialism. Third, Redmond is associated with politeness and order, but not with the problematic aspects of the imperial order he increasingly identified with or with the bloody deaths to which he sent Irish young men. Fourth, in contrast, presumably, with the clean, constitutional and democratic killing carried out by those wearing British uniforms during the First World War, the violence of the Irish Civil War is “vicious”. (It is the obfuscation of British- and Redmond-sponsored violence here that is objectionable, not the appropriateness of the term “vicious”.) Fifth, the behaviour of the Tory establishment in 1912-14 and the willingness of the British government to go to war in order to deny the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people in 1918 are dealt with in only glancing fashion.

A sixth and more conceptual point may need amplification. Collins’s difficulty with the constitutionalism of the new Free State order cannot be addressed from within his own framework of understanding. What we might call the conservative revolutionaries of the 1916-22 period were aware of the selective application of democratic principle to Ireland; unlike Stephen Collins today and Redmond at the time, they therefore did not fetishise the British (unwritten) constitution or the political order which transformed Edward Carson (who had stood over gun-running and threats to the state before the war) into attorney-general, the voice of the law in cabinet, in mid-war. As soon as they had what they considered a constitution and political order of their own (though one partly shaped by the demands of the British state from which it had been wrested), they settled down to working it and were willing to fight for it against those who insisted on the total realisation of the republican dream. The speed and commitment with which they settled down is what allowed so many of the supporters of Home Rule – writers in Studies; the Catholic hierarchy; ordinary voters – to transfer their allegiance to the new state; they in turn formed a link strong enough to win the tentative trust of some unionists towards the new order. The relative speed with which stability was achieved – despite the bitterness, it took de Valera only a few years to decide to enter the system and only a further few to take control – suggests that interpreting this period in terms of constitutional and unconstitutional nationalism is of limited usefulness. Just as the strife-torn countryside of the nineteenth century, with endless Coercion Acts failing to control a people seen as innately disorderly, gave way to a remarkably peaceful rural world after the settlement of the land question, the rapid establishment of a twenty-six-county democracy in the 1920s makes it difficult to sustain the notion of a dramatic post-1916 conversion of the populace to irrational violence.

The world in which the 1916 Rising took place was saturated with violence. The male population of Ireland, as of Britain, was being exhorted to take part in the fray; failure to come forward could be seen as a mark of cowardice. A section at least of the Redmondite volunteers were putting their lives on the line. If nothing else, in the atmosphere of the day, the advanced nationalists who had demanded that Ireland assert itself and reverse its slide into British provinciality were going to look passive and even cowardly if they sat at home. For centuries, what is more, participation in military and naval activity had been a central element in the culture of England – and then of the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was a part. It was not Patrick Pearse but Field-Marshal Earl Roberts, VC, KG, OM, etc. who wrote “An Appeal to British Boys and Girls” (in the fortieth and concluding offering in Essays on Duty and Discipline (1910), which also included “Endure Hardness” by the Rev and Hon E Lyttleton, MA (Headmaster of Eton College), “Nursery Drill” by Lady Massie Blomfield and “British Discipline” by Lieut-General Sir RSS Baden-Powell, CB, KCVO, FRGS):

And I trust that, in a short time, every British boy will receive a certain amount of military training and be taught to use a rifle with skill. This training cannot begin too early in life. It is not necessary that every boy should enter the army or the navy; but every able-bodied boy should certainly prepare himself to be a useful citizen-soldier and to be able to help his country in her time of need. He should be taught that though war, if wanton and aggressive, is a bad and cruel thing, it is nevertheless a most sacred duty and imperative every man – most of all imperative on Britons, the inheritors of so great an Empire and so glorious a past – to be able to defend in war, if necessary, that Empire, and to guard every right and tradition that hold dear.

Now the United Kingdom was engaged in a life and death struggle with Germany. In spite of the sincere commitment to Empire articulated by Redmond and his call for young Ireland to demonstrate its virtue and political trustworthiness by joining the British war effort, in spite of the huge majority of Volunteers who went with Redmond rather than the separatists at the time of the split, still only a small minority of the Redmond-inclined National Volunteers had joined up by Easter 1916 and, when conscription in Ireland was mooted, almost all nationalist and Catholic voices were against its imposition.

Here we might talk of the horizon of expectation. While Redmond was the nationalist leader before the war, and while the British parliamentary system seemed to offer serious steps towards Irish autonomy, it was hard to believe that anything more than limited autonomy could be won for Ireland from what was effectively the world superpower of the period. As Ireland’s sympathy for small nations was played on in the recruiting drive, as the autonomy promised by the Home Rule Act (itself extremely limited) was curtailed in relation to Ulster and suspended at the outbreak of war, as nationalist volunteers were treated quite differently from their Ulster equivalents within the structures of the British army, as the leaders of Ulster sedition (formerly importers of arms from Britain’s enemy, Germany) were embraced by the Establishment, as the small-scale importation of arms by nationalists was met with violence while the large-scale importation and distribution of arms by the Ulster Volunteers had been mysteriously invisible to authority, it is reasonable to suppose that the hopes and expectations of ordinary Redmondite nationalists were being hollowed out from within – though the consequences were not being thought through or achieving political articulation for the moment. What the Rising did, then, was to make visible this hollowing out and to extend (or re-extend) the horizon of expectation. The dramatic shift towards the new Sinn Féin may have been precipitated by the Rising but it could not have happened without the preceding lessons in political reality. John Dillon’s urgent call for Britain to avoid a harsh response to the Rising suggests, not that the Irish nationalist population were a flock of weak-minded sheep ready to change political direction completely on meeting the first poetically baa-ing suicidal leader or politically stupid General Maxwell to come their way, but that even some of the most experienced practitioners of the British parliamentary game in Ireland had sensed that withdrawal of popular belief in that game was potentially imminent.

This view is supported by some of the more interesting passages in Ireland: A Study in Nationalism (1918) by the Irish writer Francis Hackett, a Parnellite who had emigrated to the United States. Having supported Irish participation in the war in 1914, Hackett had the combination of sympathetic involvement and intellectual distance to re-evaluate recent history. Of Redmond he writes:

But the very ease with which he was acknowledged “leader of the Irish race at home and abroad” disguised the realities of Irish feeling, as distinguished from those realities of which he was master, Irish party organization.

Or again, as he discusses the energies flowing into various non-parliamentary channels in the preceding twenty years:

All these activities seemed rather unimportant to the men at Westminister. No member of parliament got it into his head that the energy of the nation was being seriously diverted from constitutional interests.
A fighting captain like Parnell would have arrested this. The clash of his steel would have stirred young Irish blood. But when John Redmond became leader of the united party the constitutional movement did not become a national inspiration for young Ireland. Redmond was the leader of a party, not the leader of a people.

Hackett’s appreciation of Redmond’s parliamentary achievements – “[t]o put home rule on the statute books was no ignoble destiny for an Irish parliamentarian”, for example – differs little from Stephen Collins’s, but his political understanding is deeper:

It is the tragedy of John Redmond’s career that he allowed constitutionalism to impose on him, to dictate his method, to hamper his will. He was, for an Irish leader, prematurely conservative. A man of courage and faith and rectitude, he made the one mistake of an agitator. He accepted the established code before the order which he strove for was established.
Before John Redmond died he knew the deepest bitterness a moderate man can know, the bitterness of having his restraint taken as weakness and his concessions manipulated. This in itself warned Irishmen to beware of restraint and concessions. It pointed to extremes.

Francis Hackett in 1918 knew that Irish nationalism was not a self-sustaining and self-propagating growth but one of a number of forces at work within the operations of power at that particular historical juncture, all of which needed to be analysed.

While making as strong a case as possible for Redmond, Stephen Collins is honest enough to acknowledge some of his imperfections. In his desire to avoid another split in the party, Redmond “was personally inclined to accept the Wyndham Land Act” but “sided with Dillon and other critics of the legislation against [William] O’Brien”, who as a result “was forced out of the party and marginalised”. Collins does not enter into detail here but the party was thus preventing Conservative reform that would have benefited the peasantry in order, as Dillon would have seen it, to keep the pot boiling for Home Rule. The Irish Party was also tying itself inextricably into dependence on the Liberal Party. Soon after, as O’Brien campaigned to give agricultural labourers a patch of land and a cottage on which to live, Redmond and Dillon (and here their class background and attitudes are by no means irrelevant) were ruthless in putting the long-term goal of Home Rule (and the marginalisation of O’Brien) ahead of helping the rural underclass.

Collins mentions that Redmond “repeated the performance” on the Irish Council Bill of 1907. This would have brought about a very gentle form of Home Rule and some local control in all Ireland. Redmond “privately backed the measure but did a rapid u-turn when it was denounced by rank-and-file party members at a national convention”. O’Brien supported the bill, as he had done other measures, as a means of drawing landowners and unionists onto common ground with nationalists, thus breaking down the distrust that could lead to partition if immediate Home Rule were demanded. As Redmond is given excessive credit for his conciliatory attitude towards unionism, both this U-turn away from conciliation and his allowing the Ancient Order of Hibernians to grow within the party should be acknowledged. Redmond was not the paragon of John Bruton’s imagining; he was a pragmatic politician, enormously respectful of the House of Commons and its internal culture and willing to soften or drop his principles when party unity (with himself at its head) demanded it. In his concluding section, which seeks to situate Redmond in relation to the present day, Collins (to his credit) acknowledges both that Redmond lacked courage in pursuing conciliation in the first decade of the twentieth century and that, when Home Rule promised to become a reality, he “completely underestimated the strength of Unionism” and made serious political errors. As if to make up for this, he goes on to suggest that the state ideology attacked by Fr Shaw is still in place. The points made here are intended to show the simplifications inherent in some of the pro-Redmond case presented by Stephen Collins – and indirectly endorsed by Fanning. They are not arguments for Pearse’s vision but concern the context in which both Redmond and the 1916 leaders are interpreted.

Stephen Collins is one of many historians and commentators to invoke Fr Francis Shaw’s “pioneering reassessment of modern Irish history” simply as a step in clearing away nationalist myths. Collins goes further: the erasing of nationalist/republican myth will allow the truth of Redmondite constitutionalism – the values that, despite official myths, “have underpinned the history of independent Ireland” – to shine again in this time of crisis. As “The Canon of Irish History: A Challenge” is listed in the contents of The Irish Century, it appears that we are being offered the opportunity to visit and judge for ourselves one of the foundational texts of revisionist history. (We may take as read the usual caveats and clarifications regarding the inadequacy of the term revisionism itself.)

Though written in 1966, “The Canon of Irish History” was published in Studies in 1972, after Fr Shaw’s death. The delay is sometimes mentioned as if a lone voice of dissent had been silenced in order to maintain a massed chorus of national celebration. Fr Troddyn, the editor of Studies in 1972, was a little vague on the mechanics of the delay:

The essay had its origin in a request to Father Shaw to contribute to a special number of Studies (Spring 1966) commemorating the Easter Rising of 1916. In response he wrote a long article – more than twice the average length for Studies: It was not published, however, because, as he himself wrote later: “It was judged, very understandably, that a critical study of this kind might be thought to be untimely and even inappropriate in what was in effect a commemorative issue.”

Both Fr Troddyn, the editor, and Fr Shaw make use of the passive – “was not published”; “was judged” – so that whoever made the decision remained unidentified. Bryan Fanning, with access to the archive, makes it clear that the editor in 1966, Ronald Burke-Savage SJ, considered the piece too controversial. Whether he was influenced by others in his circle or not, the key point is this: if the article was truly important and challenging, it was the world of Studies that lacked the courage to publish it. Bryan Fanning, for one, believes that it was the tone of Fr Shaw’s essay rather than its argument that distinguished it from several other essays critical of the 1916 Rising that appeared in Studies in 1966. (Studies was not alone: Conor Cruise O’Brien’s indictment of the Irish state for its failure to live up to the ideals of 1916 appeared in The Irish Times, as well as in New Left Review, in 1966; it was not the only questioning note sounded in the newspapers in that year.)

One might imagine that this failure of nerve, or access of diplomacy, was remedied in 1972, with the publication of the suppressed text. It appears, however, that Fr Shaw worked on and added to the essay again after its rejection, but soon dropped the project. Fr Troddyn said that he had tidied the text to some extent, and – intriguingly – altered or omitted “references, now dated, to the contemporary scene”. The opening paragraph announces in no uncertain terms that a sacred cow is about to take a beating:

In the right corner virgin Éire, virtuous and oppressed, in the left the bloody Saxon, the unique source of every Irish ill and malaise; round eight, the duration of every round a hundred years: this might be said to be the accepted mise en scène of the Rising of Easter Week, and it may be added that the seconds in the English corner are usually degenerate Englishmen. It is a straight story of black and white, of good ‘guys’ and bad.

The third paragraph maintains the tone: “One of the commonest occupations in the Ireland of today is the plying of sleeping dogs with tranquillizers.”

This uninhibited style (less evident in some later sections) may indeed have struck the editor and his circle as inappropriate. If Bryan Fanning questions the essay’s originality, he accepts the general interpretation of Shaw’s thinking. We may take it that, with many other demands on the space available to him in The Irish Century, he felt that he was doing his readers a service in abridging “The Canon”, as he did in the case of several other long essays. The pruning of this sprawling plant has the effect, however, of creating a twenty-first-century Fr Shaw who is much closer to Stephen Collins or a Sunday Independent opinionator than the real Fr Shaw was. Simplistic polarities – emotional, myth-driven nationalists versus scholarly seekers after truth – do not hold up when Shaw’s essay is examined in its entirety. This should become clear if we step back from the style and from the detail and turn our attention to Shaw’s critical procedure. First he sets out his broad vision: in 1966, a democratic, peace-loving population is being asked to honour only separatists and rebels; this means that ordinary people are being asked to disrespect the mass of Irish people whose love of country has not, down the centuries, been expressed by means of rebellion. Crucially, Shaw is arguing for “the common Irishmen who were not attracted by the new revolutionary ideas, but who adhered to an ancient tradition”. In contrast with the Pearsean vision of waves of Irish rebellion or resistance against successive invaders, rebellion is painted as a modern invention.

Two reversals must take place in order to reinstate “ancient tradition”: the common Irishman should no longer be invited “at least implicitly to apologize for their fellow-countrymen who accepted loyally the serious guidance of the Church to which they belonged”; nor should Irishmen be invited to “despise as unmanly” their countrymen who “preferred to solve problems, if possible, by peaceful rather than by violent means”. The second reversal will come as no surprise; the first, a crucial element of Shaw’s vision, has received little attention.

The true nature of Fr Shaw’s vision will emerge from a brief summary of the first section of the essay: ordinary Irish people have generally borne the brunt of the struggle for independence; Wolfe Tone was an Anglo-Irishman who had little knowledge of or respect for the lives, language and religion of ordinary Irish people; in 1916, a tiny number of people deceitfully set in motion a rebellion that was against the wishes of the overwhelming majority; James Connolly’s case is very interesting but (oddly) need not be discussed because it is part of world, rather than Irish, history (though we are assured that his notion of early Gaelic society as communistic is nonsense); 1916, in retrospect, “had no strong link with the past”. The strategy is clear: Fr Shaw is unlinking 1916 from the course of Irish history and painting militant nationalism or republicanism as alien; his own vision of Ireland, in contrast, is ratified by Irish history and tradition.

To convince us of the alien, un-Irish nature of the 1916 rebellion, Shaw has to demonstrate the falsity of the values espoused by Patrick Pearse, the effective creator of the Irish state. If he can convince his countrymen of their falsity, a fifty-year aberration in Irish history will be brought to an end, thus enabling Ireland to reconnect with its true historical identity. Shaw acknowledges briefly that Pearse was a complex character, had stimulating ideas about education and that he expressed his thoughts clearly and incisively but he also holds that he was neither profound nor original in his thinking. Not only did Pearse lead Ireland away from its true nature, but he did so against his own true nature, Shaw suggests:

One feels that by temperament Pearse was a conservative. In his religious beliefs he was strongly traditionalist. He was a revolutionary malgré lui. He wrote fiery words about shooting people but he did not himself use any weapon; we would be surprised if he had.

Thus Pearse deviated from his own better self when he fell under the spell of “the four evangelists” of Irish nationalism: Tone, Davis, Lalor and Mitchel. Of these, Tone is the most important. Before returning to him, Shaw says that when Pearse envisioned a redistribution of property immediately after Irish independence, he was again borrowing an idea, this time from Lalor. Throughout the essay, Shaw seems concerned to undermine the idea that early Irish history can be evoked as a precedent for attacking the rights of private property.

It is to Tone’s overwhelming influence that Shaw ascribes Pearse’s obsession in his last years with bringing about separation from England, as quickly as possible and by violence. Shaw formulates his point very strikingly: “In 1914 an armed soldiery stood between Ireland and its destiny; but that body was not the British Army; it was the Ulster Volunteers.” If a legitimate question is being asked of Pearse’s actions here, it must be said that Shaw does not provide the broader narrative and context which would allow it to be answered; nor does he track the evolution of Pearse’s thought and political intentions.

Though Fr Shaw, as we have seen, regards Pearse as hugely indebted to Tone, he credits him with introducing two themes of his own: first, the sanctity of nationalism; and second, the idea that Ireland should not only be separated from England in a political sense, but that the separation should also be cultural and linguistic. It is, however, as a Catholic, outraged by Pearse’s hijacking of the language of holiness, that Fr Shaw speaks out. His vocabulary quickens notably at this point: Pearse’s idea is “startling”; his words at Bodenstown in 1913 are “solemn and alarming”; the equation of “the patriot and the patriot-people with Christ” is “even more disturbing”. From an orthodox Catholic point of view Shaw is quite correct. JJ Horgan and others had noted this long before, but neither Catholic churchmen (once they had discreetly made the jump from the Home Rule to the Free State dispensation) nor Catholic nationalists (who were happy to accept the connection between those two terms) chose to acknowledge what a peculiar – and effectively heretical – kind of Catholic Pearse was.

Fr Shaw presents what is almost a mini-anthology of Pearse’s sanctification of the nation. Having quoted the infamous (and rhetorically powerful) sentence from “The Sovereign People” (“The people who wept in Gethsemane, who trod the sorrowful way, who died naked on a cross, who went down into hell, will rise again glorious and immortal, will sit on the right hand of God, and will come in the end to give judgement, a judge just and terrible”), Shaw writes: “It is hard to imagine anyone reading these lines today without a shudder.” Though many of us may indeed shudder, it may not be the affront to Catholic orthodoxy that induces this reaction. Shaw goes on to quote the notorious passages in which Pearse the writer (though in person “a man of obviously sensitive and gentle disposition”) glorifies the shedding of blood. For Shaw, Pearse is inspired by Tone’s gospel of hate; the true Gospel is one of love. (As we shall see, Shaw’s dislike of violence is by no means a general principle.)

Shaw now fills out his portrait of Tone as an outsider driven by hatred and personal disappointment and as a man ignorant of Ireland – and even more so of Gaelic Ireland. The details need not be recapitulated here. The shape and direction of Shaw’s counter-narrative are, however, becoming clearer. If Pearse was inspired by a false gospel, who could be trusted to offer proper guidance? The answer is simple: “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the movement which was founded to promote the ideals of Tone was explicitly condemned by the Catholic bishops.” Here Shaw is echoing ecclesiastical denunciation of secret societies like the IRB. Setting overt polemics aside, and barely alluding to the disregard for fiercely condemnatory church opinion demonstrated by a significant element of nationalist opinion from the time of the Fenians to the Civil War, Shaw adopts a mild and saddened tone as he gently manoeuvres the reader towards accepting the oneness of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the common people:

It is odd how widely the myth has been accepted that the bishops were pro-British hacks and that they were out of sympathy with the national aspirations of their own people. The truth is that they had the courage to condemn the unhealthy ideas of Tone, and they were true to the best in the Christian tradition when they strove to preserve their people from violence and blood-shedding. The passage of time has shown how wise they were, and a little thought will reveal that it was the bishops and not the Fenians who in this were in line with the older Irish tradition.

This lauder of ecclesiastical wisdom and rewriter of history is a curious figurehead for the project of creating an objective Irish history.

But what of Pearse’s second contribution to separatism, the idea that Ireland should not only be free but Gaelic and Gaelic-speaking as well? One senses here that, as an orthodox Catholic, Shaw is affronted by the equal footing on which Pearse puts Cú Chulainn and Colum Cille, the two heroic models that he proposes for the education of Irish boys. Logically, this equation is a denial of the superiority of Christianity and therefore of the necessity of Christianising Ireland. Shaw sets about demolishing Pearse’s scholarship and grasp of the Gaelic sources (a theme to which he returns); he paints Cú Chulainn as an incestuous and unpredictably violent figure and not a patriotic soldier. If Pearse sees the Táin as “almost a sacred book”, Shaw, with something approaching glee, quotes a comment in Latin that appears at the end of one version: the tale seems to be in part the work of the devil; “some part of it is a poet’s invention, some of it seems to be probable, some not, and some of it is but for the entertainment of fools”. As if anxious to deflect any trivialisation of his own position in relation to Pearse, Shaw says that the comment should be taken seriously and not interpreted merely as “a clerical reaction to a secular tale”. He goes on to argue very strongly that there is no foundation for Pearse’s notion that Colum Cille would have died for an excess of love for his people: “Christ, we may repeat, did not live or die for one people; fortunately for us he lived and died for all men.” Once again, Pearse is placing himself “in opposition not only to the ancient Irish tradition but to Christian tradition generally”. (That centuries of Catholic accommodation with states, armies and war are excluded from consideration says much about the nature of Fr Shaw’s undertaking.)

Shaw argues that, in turning towards violence, Pearse was not only willing to personally betray his good friend, the gentle scholar Eoin MacNeill, but to wreck the Gaelic League. Here again, his history is far from rigorous: he speaks not only of the league’s “comprehensive cultural and national ideal” having at one stage given promise “of uniting all Irishmen of every creed and class” but also claims that it “was received with enthusiasm in every part of the land”. Shaw’s rather vague apprehension of industrial Ulster need hardly be dwelt on. He is not concerned simply with rectifying a false image of the past but looking to the future: the Gaelic League ideal, he suggests, “could still unite all who dwell in this island” – another aspect of his thinking that is not frequently invoked today.

If Pearse is the great enthusiast for “the new testament of Irish nationality”, Fr Shaw is going to restore (if this can be done by a series of vaguely periodised grand statements), “the old testament of Irish nationality”, as the third major section is titled: historically, the Irish, it appears, had a sense of themselves as a nation but not a state; they did not fight for an abstraction; such idea as they had of state and sovereignty was expressed through the vocabulary of kingship; they were indifferent to political and national labels; in the early centuries of the English/Irish relationship, they were not driven by hatred; it was ill-treatment rather than a clash of nationality that fostered hatred; many would later serve happily under English arms; when the Wild Geese served a foreign army, their new master’s relationship with England was a matter of indifference; when they took to shooting landlords, “it was not because they were English, but because they were bad”; and the Irish did not generally respond when the (essentially alien) standard of revolt was raised in 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 or 1916. In other words, the republican desire for a separate republic is an alien imposition on a relaxed Irish political tradition. (Vincent Morley’s outstanding and innovative study, Ó Chéitinn go Raiftearaí, paints a rather different picture of the historical culture of the Irish-speaking populace.)

Shaw’s next step is fascinating: he seeks to explain and justify the participation of peace-loving Irishmen in the First World War:

Ireland’s reaction to the threat of conscription during the First World War is full of significance; Irishmen by the thousand volunteered to fight in the British army; in the Irish tradition that was a free man’s privilege; but to be compelled to fight for Britain was a different matter and was in fact judged to be incompatible with the Irishman’s conception of nationhood [...]

Irishmen have no inclination to fight for an Irish state but, as free men, will express themselves by volunteering for the British army. England’s administration of Ireland at the time of the Rising “is seen to have been singularly benign and certainly well-intentioned” and to have merely been concerned with the anti-recruiting drive and “the fear that extremists in Ireland were plotting mischief with the King’s enemies, the Germans”. This concern was understandable, as “Britain at the time was engaged in a desperate struggle for its own existence”.

As we have seen, Fr Shaw’s anti-republicanism is by no means a denial of the existence of (non-state-centred) Irish patriotism. Most Irish people, Shaw claims, whether they were British civil servants or Gaelic Leaguers, were patriotic; this would extend to not actively working against the rebels. Fr Shaw does not approve of those in Ireland “who were not only pro-British but who were in fact British in mind and allegiance”. Trinity College, which had nurtured Tone, Emmet and Davis, further proved itself out of touch with Irish tradition by turning itself into a barracks in 1916. Thus far, Fr Shaw’s essay has been implicitly mild in its attitude towards British rule in Ireland; and armed rebellion has been presented as morally unjustified. At this point, an argument phrased in moral terms turns on itself and begins to tilt towards the purely pragmatic – as if Shaw were fearful of having gone too far and thus losing the sympathies of the audience he aims to influence. (Could these pages be a late addition?) Shaw claims that the people, “it might be said, were moving always towards an ultimate goal of independence or self-determination, but at their own pace and in their own way”. Parnell is not to be criticised for stating that “no man had a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation”. He quotes Redmond speaking on similar, or even stronger, lines – saying that methods of resistance to the Union “will remain for us a matter of expediency”. Without examining the evidence, without considering Redmond’s evolution towards a fully imperial nationalist position, and without noticing that he risks reducing Redmond’s call to British arms in 1914 to an entirely calculating ‑ and amoral if not immoral ‑ gesture (one involving the lives of tens of thousands of Irishmen), Shaw states that “there is no reason to think that these were not still Redmond’s views in 1916”.

In his concluding pages (written not long after the horrors of the Algerian War, with the Indonesian massacres still in progress and the Vietnam War escalating), Fr Shaw rather optimistically sees the contemporary world as “discarding extreme nationalism” and inclining men “to view all warfare as barbarous”. Another grand pronouncement follows: the resort to arms in 1916 has been responsible for partition, the Civil War and for the failure to honour the dead of the First World War – though Lemass’s step in that direction in February 1966 is praised. Shaw (resuming his friendly tone towards England) feels that there is no danger of good relations with England leading to a dissolution of the sense of Irish nationality – which has in fact strengthened since Irish people learned English. Instead, the two countries have a common enemy in the “common cosmopolitan vulgarity which threatens all cultural standards and the individuality of peoples everywhere”. In a rather curious move for someone who has just completed an argument from history, his penultimate sentence proposes that “it is time that we as a Christian people should forget the past” – though the reference is primarily to the “long history of strife” between Ireland and England. The final sentence is unambiguous: “There can surely be no more criminal disservice to Ireland than the determination to keep the fire of hatred burning.”

What emerges most clearly from this journey through Fr Shaw’s article is how deeply rooted his thinking is in a pre-Great War, bourgeois, Redmondite Ireland. Individual family background may have been at play in his repeated attention to the rights of property, in his resort to the language of ancestral obligation (“Irishmen of today owe it to many generations of their countrymen ...”) and in his concern with the “honour” and “manliness” of the Great War dead, but these take their place fully within a world view. Curiously, most later commentary, regardless of ideological hue, has focused on only one aspect of the essay. In Writing Ireland: Colonialism, nationalism and culture, David Cairns and Shaun Richards see Shaw as questioning “the prevailing understandings of 1916”, especially the sense that Ireland was destined to be unified in one state; they seem blind to Shaw’s own mythologising. In an essay in The Making of Modern Irish History, D George Boyce alludes vaguely to the problematic aspects of the essay (“ ... whatever its motives, and however questionable some of its historical judgements might ...”) but concentrates on the challenge it posed. In Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism, Ciaran Brady mentions both Shaw’s “splenetic debunking of 1916” and its firm rebuttal by FSL Lyons in The Irish Times; not all the writers he anthologises follow suit. Roy Foster mentions Shaw as one of a number of writers to correct Pearse’s portrayal of Celtic literature; he goes on to describe the essay as an “intemperate and violent attack” on Pearse for his identification of England rather than the Ulster Volunteers as the real obstacle to his goals and for his “falsification of past history in the interests of present politics” but does not refer to Shaw’s own falsifications, preferring to dwell on the delay in publication. In a footnote, Brendan Bradshaw refers to Shaw’s “crude debunking”. Shaw is footnoted in Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s essay as one of those who debated history “in overtly political and moral terms”. Elsewhere, others – Luke Gibbons, Declan Kiberd, Bryan Fanning, Diarmaid Ferriter, John Bowman and Colm Tóibín – may differ in emphasis when mentioning Shaw’s polemic but they do not refer to or scrutinise the creative accounting involved in Shaw’s balancing of the testaments.

Some detailed criticism has been made: FSL Lyons’s Irish Times review made some very sharp observations (on lack of contextualisation, on Shaw’s exaggeration of his own solitary position) and warned of the dangers opened up by the section on expediency, but passed over some other weaknesses. In a Sunday Press review in 1972, Proinsias Mac Aonghusa attacked Fr Shaw’s snobbery, arrogance, neo-Redmondism, double standards and “cavalier approach to facts” from an anti-clerical Republican point of view. Pádraig Ó Snodaigh was also openly critical at the time of publication (and he would return to the fray seventeen years later in Comhar, noting Shaw’s “cúlra impiriúil” [imperial background] and pietas). This kind of specific and ideologically aware criticism is largely absent over the decades that followed, though Ruth Dudley Edwards notes that Shaw’s intense dislike of Pearse had led him to create an equally distorted counter-position. The major exception is Joe Lee, who (in a volume of responses to Desmond Fennell’s writings published by Veritas in 2001) points out that Shaw is more interested in administering moral lessons than in writing history and that the essay is littered with unsupported assertions, internal contradictions and linguistic slippages; crucially, in view of the use to which Shaw’s essay was put in the context of the Troubles, he also notes how little account Fr Shaw took of unionists. One very different writer should be mentioned: in her Trials of Irish history: genesis and evolution of a reappraisal, 1938–2000 (which sees, or imagines, common ground between Edwards/Moody and postmodern theorists), Evi Gkotzaridis’s few paragraphs offer a perceptive intellectual portrait of Shaw; on the other hand, and unusually, she sees Pearse as employing the language of mysticism in almost utilitarian fashion, as a “tool” to touch the collective psyche and draw people to the cause.

Let us attempt to contextualise Fr Shaw. In his concern with middle-class values and in the priority he gives to cultural identity over political statehood, he is not far from D.P. Moran. In his attitude to republicanism, he is close to those elements in the Catholic Church which had not forgotten the doctrinal fog and dishonest manoeuvring that had accompanied the Church’s accommodation with the new state and its cult of Pearse – elements such as Archbishop McQuaid, who was notably unenthusiastic about celebrating the Rising in 1966, but was determined to avoid being drawn into ecumenical gestures. In his relaxed attitude to mercenary and state-led violence, he is at one with those churches, Catholic and Protestant, which have for centuries blessed violence in a uniform. In his selective condemnation of violence, he is at one with most of humanity. In his failure to question the morality of sending thousands of young Irishmen to their deaths in 1914, he is mirroring the conventional and self-justifying British world-view of his day, itself sacralised by annual state commemoration. In his notion of republicanism as an alien tradition, in his propagandistic rewriting of the political relationship between priests and people in Ireland, in his remarkably Catholicentric view of the Irish people, in his harking back (in earlier writings) to pre-Reformation Ireland for inspiration and in his rejection of the unfounded appropriation of the Celtic by the Anglo-Irish writers of the Celtic Twilight, he is reformulating or simply repeating ideological positions scripted in the 1920s and 1930s, if not earlier. In his non-analysis of unionism and British power, in his failure to examine power relationships across Britain and Ireland and in his willingness to disregard historical complexity where it interfered with desirable political goals, he foreshadows the self-preserving reflex of the intelligentsia that served a broad section of cultural and political society in the Republic.

As suggested here, the divide between Fr Shaw in 1966 and Stephen Collins in 2009 is substantial. When we look at matters generationally, however, continuities may also be acknowledged. Fr Shaw was speaking as a man of his time, class and religious and political tradition. If he emphasised the claims of “the common Irishman”, he was thinking of a common Irishman who would take advice from his religious and social superiors. Today, it is the secular priests of the new economic order who must be listened to but, towards common citizens, benign condescension (if they are compliant) and exasperation (if they are asserting rights of participation or dissent) live on.

John Bruton and Stephen Collins wish to simplify history, to bypass the complex challenge to the Republic and its narrative posed by the Troubles, and to invent an easy and morally simplistic path through history to where they stand today. Their counter-narrative needs a presiding figure of virtue; they have chosen John Redmond for the role and have attempted to set the whole Irish Parliamentary Party tradition in his glow. We have seen that they are demanding too much of Redmond. Let us grant that he was a genuine convert to imperial nationalism rather than a cynical calculator as he urged young men to war. Others, however, had simply calculated that Redmond and the campaign for Home Rule were the most realistic bet for Ireland in a fluctuating, uncertain game of power. They got Home Rule on the books; they got world war; they got 1916. They lost their bet, in one of history’s many twists.

The common citizens of Ireland decided to express themselves within an Irish polity and not within the United Kingdom and the Empire – dismaying, and displacing from their presumed right to power and privilege, the leaders of the Home rule elite; the people also decided that it would be better to put into power those who had sought the new order. This is a political heritage like any other. In celebrating it, the state simplified it, as states do. Neither recognition of such simplifications nor recoil from the horrors committed during the Troubles nor our present economic and social plight requires that the pre-1922 order be reanimated, that simplistic counter-myths be invented, that readymade solutions (left or right) be imported or that belief in the legitimacy of the, or an, Irish state be dissolved.

Celebration and display became ends in themselves during the Celtic Tiger. Few bothered to think of what values would ensure societal cohesion and belief when the fall came. The fall has come. Again, there is a temptation to evade complex narratives and responsibilities. One solution is to dissolve what remains of Irish autonomy in the new European order. Let others make the policies and take the decisions; whatever happens, in any case, the managerial class will always have a role. The political-intellectual wing of the neo-liberal order is creating a historical alibi for the dissolution of Irish autonomy by refounding the hollow appearance of an Irish state in a Redmondism that was happy with the hollow appearance of autonomy while power remained with Westminster and the Empire.

Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, music, cultural history and politics to a wide range of publications. He is currently based at DCU, where he is researching Irish music history.


19/11/12

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