Magazine article The Spectator

As like One Another as Half-Pence?

Magazine article The Spectator

As like One Another as Half-Pence?

Article excerpt

REBELS AND INFORMERS by Oliver Knox John Murray, 20, pp. 304

Even more than the Easter Rising of 1916, the United Irishmen and the rebellion of 1798 fire the imaginations and the mythology of the IRA of today. For unlike today's IRA, the republicans of Ulster who rose against English rule 200 years ago were Presbyterians. And like alchemists who think they have glimpsed gold in their retorts of base metal, the IRA theorists of today are convinced that if conditions are altered a little, a bit of pressure here, some heat there, the Ulster Presbyterians could be called back to that true identity, the republicanism of 1798.

It is all rubbish of course, made plausible by imprecisions of language. The republicanism of the IRA is merely virulent Catholic nationalism. The republicanism of the Presbyterian United Irishmen of 1798 was consciously copied from the French model and based on very Protestant notions of citizenship and individual duty. There was, it is true, a virtually simultaneous rising by Catholics of the south-east of Ireland, where United Irelander activity was marginal, but in large degree this was simply jacquerie incandescence, atrocious in execution and repressed with even greater atrociousness. As with 1916-22, and 1969 onwards, the disputes within Ireland in 1798 were not so much between the Irish and the British, but between different forms of Irishness.

And no forms of Irishness contrast quite so dramatically as rebels and informers, the two traditions which have co-existed since popular politics emerged in Ireland in the 18th century. Yet maybe they do not contrast at all; both belong to comparable traditions of conspiracy, both involve betrayal of some kind or other, both require coolness and courage. The fundamental difference is in perception. The informer is loathed by virtually all; the rebel, especially in failure, tends to be revered.

Now I believe there has been no rising in Irish history which was justified by circumstance or by outcome, and therefore any subversion of insurrectionary conspiracy must be good; yet when I consider the activities of Leonard McNally, the informer who for years betrayed his fellowconspirators, his friends and his own clients (he was an attorney), I can only wish him to hell.

Am I being reasonable? Probably not. …

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