Magazine article The Spectator

Tales and Truths of the Troubles

Magazine article The Spectator

Tales and Truths of the Troubles

Article excerpt

THE GPO AND THE EASTER RISING by Keith Jeffery Irish Academic Press, £50, £19.95, pp. 227, ISBN X0716528282

MYTHS AND MEMORIES OF THE EASTER RISING by Jonathan Githens-Mazer Irish Academic Press, £50, pp. 238, ISBN 071652824X

THE ANGLO -IRISH WAR : THE TROUBLES OF 1913-22 by Peter Cottrell Osprey, £9.99, pp. 95, ISBN 1846030234

The commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 is turning out to be an ideologically fraught affair. The Irish government of Bertie Ahern decided on a full military parade: the intention was simple and limited -- to pre-empt any attempt Sinn Fein might make to exploit and take over the patriotic 'moment'. So far, so good. But then the President of the Republic, Mary McAleese, weighed in with an original and controversial speech at a Cork conference. The Rising, it appeared, was required to smash the 'glass ceiling' for Catholics in Ireland: in fact the peculiarity of the Rising is that it was in large measure a revolt against those Catholics who had already gone through the glass ceiling. The result was an intensification rather than a relaxation of traditional animosities and a renewed cult of the gun -- not yet extinguished, as the recent brutal murder of Denis Donaldson reminds us. The Irish Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, insisted that we 'can no longer have two histories, separate and in conflict'. But everything about the 90th anniversary celebrations confirmed such an opposition. Ulster Unionists of all shades turned down their invitation to attend the commemoration in Dublin -- why should they respect a violent assault on the symbols and political arrangements which they held dear? The mob violence in Dublin which met the 'Love Ulster' march of victims of the 'Troubles' in February seemed to suggest that, for all the talk about pluralism and tolerance, Ireland was stuck in the same old place: two histories, separate and in conflict.

Such an impasse gives a particular importance to the books under review.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer's clever and serious book argues that the Rising acted as a 'cultural trigger' which invited many in Ireland to tap into the pre-existing myths and symbols of a long-suffering IrishCatholic Irish-nation. He points out that the Catholic Church itself untypically did not act as a force for stability in the aftermath of the rebellion. He might have clinched this more effectively by drawing on Patrick Maume's scholarly work -- rather neglected here -- which has pointed out that not only did the previously secular Marxist commandant of the Rising, James Connolly, make his peace with the Church before his execution by the British, but he asked (successfully) his Protestant wife, Lily, to convert to Catholicism. It is no accident that the most politically important piece in Keith Jeffery's excellent collection of contemporary accounts is Father John Flanagan's 'priest's tale': based at the pro-cathedral in Marlborough Street, Flanagan became unofficial chaplain to the rebel garrison in Dublin. His account hails their stoicism, their discipline, their temperance, but, above all, their Catholicism. The O'Rahilly's last moments are powerfully described:

When the word of command came for the charge into Henry Street, he turned to me, and, kneeling down, asked me for a Last Absolution and my blessing. 'Father, ' said he, 'we shall never meet again in this world. …

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