John Bruton puts Easter 1916 in its place


by Jude Collins

When John Bruton gasped that the visit of Prince Charles to the twenty-six counties was the happiest day in his life, he was of course speaking for tens of thousands of us. And now that he’s spoken out about Easter 1916, you may be sure tens of thousands of us will pump the air and shout “GwanyehboyyehJohn!”

The former Fine Gael Taoiseach was speaking as part of a panel discussion at the Irish embassy in London. The meeting was to have been held at the home of the Commons Speaker John Bercow, but then Bercow discovered this would involve some Sinn Fein MPs attending so of course he refused to have a meeting at his place at all. So they took the second-best: the Irish Embassy.

What did John say? “If there hadn’t been the introduction of violence into nationalism in that demonstrably dramatic way in Easter Week..there wouldn’t have been a Civil War...I read what Pearse has said about the use of violence. He praised the Ulster volunteers...saying that this was a great day that they were armed. He couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Now I know that there are some nit-pickers among you out there who’ll say that Irish nationalism was well acquainted with violence over centuries and didn’t need any introduction from Easter Week. And I know there are other nit-pickers who’d say that if there hadn’t been the threat of violence from the Ulster Volunteers, there’d not have been equivalent violence in Easter Week. Others again would say that John Redmond did some pretty good introducing of violence when in 1914 he sent well over 27,000 Irishmen marching to their deaths in the war to end all wars, the Great War. But that as I say is to be picky picky picky. If it hadn’t been for Easter Week, as John says, there wouldn’t have been a Civil War. OK, you could say that if Ireland hadn’t been partitioned there’d have been no Civil War, either, but sin sceal eile.

Fine Gael Minister Jimmy Deenihan contributed to the discussion by saying the Home Rule Act was a really significant piece of legislation and Daniel Mulhall the Irish ambassador said the discussion was part of ongoing efforts to look at the history of Britain and Ireland “in an inclusive way”.

Well indeed. What John And Jimmy and Daniel seem to be hinting at is that the Home Rule Act was banjaxed by Pearse and his crowd with their introduction of violence. The fact that the Act was passed and then shelved until after the Great War was beside the point. Pearse was wrong to use violence when he had the peaceful, democratic path laid out by Home Rule leader John Redmond.

As it happens, I’ve been reading a book on that period by Professor Ronan Fanning of UCD called The Fatal Path. Here he quotes from Bernard Lewis, a Middle East historian, about what motivates some revisionist historians:

“[They] would rewrite history not as it was or as they were taught it was but as they would prefer it had been. Their purpose of changing the past is not to seek some abstract truth...Their aim is to amend, to restate, to replace or even to recreate the past in a more satisfactory form”.

Fanning then tackles the question of whether it was necessary for Pearse and company to resort to violence, when the Home Rule Bill offered so much:

“There is no shred of evidence that Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated government would have moved beyond the 1914-styled limitations of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 unless compelled to do so by the campaign of the IRA. Indeed, as Charles Townsend has argued in his seminal work on the British campaign in Ireland, ‘on the British side some form of military struggle was inevitable before Irish demands would be taken seriously”.

Finally, Fanning points to a danger that some - nit-pickers all, I hasten to add, - that some might claim was in action in London the other day.

“Commemoration is an entirely laudable if somewhat utopian political objective. But it is not history. The danger is that its practitioners will propagate a bland, bloodless and bowdlerised hybrid of history, designed to offend no one, in the pious hope that it may command unanimous acquiescence. Theirs is but another variant of the propaganda branded by Bernard Lewis as ‘history not as it was...but as they would prefer it to have been”.

What’s that? I should send a copy of The Fatal Path to the former Fine Gael Taoiseach? Ah no. John has the look of a well-fed, happy man living in a well-fed, happy world. Sure what would I want to go upsetting him for?

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