by Eugene MCCartan
A CENTURY ago this month, on 24 April 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army marched out and seized a number of sites mainly in Dublin and a small number of other places around the country. The Rising lasted six days, but its impact still reverberates a century later.
Tens of thousands of our citizens attended the centenary events organised by the government as well as the hundreds of locally organised events to celebrate the heroism and self-sacrifice of those who fought and those who gave their lives. They came out not in support of the government but in spite of the government. The government’s representatives were met with either barbed comments from the crowds or stony silence.
The government had its official celebrations to mark the Rising at Easter, which fell in March this year. There was no doubt a collective sigh of relief that it had managed to get over the centenary celebrations with the establishment’s dominant historical narrative intact.
In the official events the establishment continued to push their version of “reconciliation,” which is their constant drive to align this state with the political and military needs of imperialism. They constantly repeated that we should honour or commemorate “all those who died in 1916.” They never specify or define which day or month, or which events, we are all supposed to honour.
The men and women who took part in the 1916 Rising were motivated by political goals and aspirations, as distinct from professional or conscripted soldiers. To put them all on the same level is to imply that it was all a mistake, to take a non-judgemental view of the Rising in an effort to smother the real motivations and reasons that underpinned the Rising.
This was an uprising against imperial domination and for asserting independence and sovereignty and to establish a democratic state under the control of the Irish people.
Using the term “all those who died” means lumping those who fought for our freedom with those who oppressed our people, those who acted and fought in the interests of British imperialism, either in directly suppressing the revolutionary forces or on Flanders fields in defending the interests of the British empire. The establishment parties of Fine Gael and the Labour Party even invited relatives of the Black and Tans to sit on the reviewing stand in O’Connell Street on Easter Sunday.
This slíbhín and slave mentality that lies at the heart of the government’s strategy is seen in the unveiling of the “1916 Memorial Wall” in Glasnevin Cemetery on 3 April. It carries the names of the revolutionaries as well as of the civilians (mainly killed by the British army’s indiscriminate shelling) and the soldiers of the British occupation army who died during the Rising.
This is the equivalent of the Vietnamese government erecting a monument to the American soldiers who murdered tens of thousands of Vietnamese people—soldiers who were responsible for numerous massacres, who used chemical weapons against the Vietnamese people. Imagine Algeria, Angola, India or other colonised peoples paying homage to their oppressors; or the Palestinian people paying their respects to the Israeli army of occupation. What would be the reaction of the Belgian, Dutch or Danish people if their governments erected a memorial to “all those who died” during the Nazi occupation of their countries, including the names of the Nazis and Gestapo men killed by the partisans?
They are not the same thing. To remember all at the same time is to remember none.
This is a very definite rejection of the politics that gave rise to the 1916 Rising. The establishment’s approach is a clear political statement of what they think and what they wish to promote, a version of the past that is necessary for their present strategy. To control the historical narrative is to control how we as a people understand ourselves today and how we should act tomorrow.
They are attempting to shape the people’s understanding of the past to push ahead with the agenda of deeper commitment to NATO, to align themselves and this state in an ever-closer union and alliance in the first place with the European Union, with the United States politically and militarily, and of course with Britain itself.
And on the same day that the establishment unveiled their wall of shame six NATO warships were docked in Dublin Port, and four US military aircraft were parked at Shannon Airport.
The most positive outcome of the celebrations is the renewed interest in what happened in 1916 and what motivated the revolutionary leaders. After nearly four decades of assault by the political establishment, nine-tenths of academia and the establishment media they have not completely broken the great respect that our people have for the 1916 Rising and for the leaders and volunteers who took part.
That is why the establishment had to retreat from their original position, when they floated the idea of the attendance of the British “royal” parasites at the 1916 commemoration.
We as a people need to take ownership of our history and find inspiration from it and our historic heroes. There is no one history or historical narrative: the history and motivation of the oppressor and the oppressed are not the same. Those who exploit and benefit from exploitation are not the same as the exploited.
The 1916 Rising was an assertion of the need to establish a sovereign, independent, democratic state to meet the needs of our people. That was the core demand; all else is irrelevant and unachievable without the securing of independence and sovereignty.
The 1916 Rising and its aftermath pushed aside the compromisers and those among the Home-Rulers who only wished to get more crumbs from the empire, to have a seat at the imperial table and to have a junior partnership with British imperialism. It was in the interests of both the nationalist and the unionist business class to secure their ties with the empire.
These compromisers where driven back, but not defeated. They recaptured the leadership of the national struggle, which resulted in their political and economic interests and those of imperialism being secured in 1922 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The people’s aspirations were suppressed. We removed the royal crown and painted the post boxes green, but nothing else changed.
Today, progressive forces need to build upon the obvious popular support that still exists for the 1916 Rising. We need to deepen our people’s knowledge and understanding of the events of 1916 and the vision outlined in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and to present our own vision of what a new Ireland can be in the hands of the people, with a new Proclamation for today that builds upon the one presented by the revolutionaries of 1916.
Irish workers can achieve little and secure nothing while we do not have the essential tools for bringing about change—that is, national democracy and sovereignty. Just as the leaders believed in 1916, we know from experience that you cannot build a just and decent society while remaining within or being subservient to an empire.
Today, working people have made advances through long and bitter struggles. Nothing has ever been given to us without a struggle. The instruments and mechanisms of control may have new names; they have merely reshaped and refashioned the means of control, as we still remain subservient, now dominated and controlled by the European Union.
National democracy and sovereignty, then as now, were the essential tools required by the Irish working class for us to advance and take ownership of our country, to claim ownership of all the wealth that we produce. As the guiding brain of the revolutionary forces, James Connolly, put it, “Our demands most moderate are: we only want the earth.”
Eugene McCartan is general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland
This appears in the April issue of Socialist Voice