To truly honour the 1916 Rising:
let’s heal the rift of the Civil War
While revering the 1916 Rising and its leaders, people freely criticize their military tactics, and their military failure.
Yet among those who still sometimes refer to contemporaries as “Free-Staters”, it seems to be taboo to similarly criticize leaders or tactics of the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Indeed, the news hardly seems to have reached some that the Civil War has been over for some time now. (Of course, perpetual war has always a way of dampening open criticism of leadership; conveniently or otherwise.)
I am forced to the conclusion that we have yet to fight the British in the northeast.
– Michael Collins 1922
(letter to the Free State Provisional Government)
Collins’ prophecy proved dead-on. The evidence seems indisputable that he was planning that campaign when he died. Ironically enough, it may very well be thanks in no small part to those who cried “no surrender”, to those who kept the guerilla tradition alive, that there is hope of lasting peace in the north today.
If the anti-Treaty side was not entirely wrong … perhaps neither were all who accepted the Treaty. If there was good intent on both sides, if there were achievements in the national interest on both sides … Is it not past high time to finally bury the hatchett?
If the Rising Centenary of 2016 is to have real meaning, there is a need to re-open debate about ideas and values handed down through oral tradition, and in republican ideology: especially concerning what happened in history. If we are to have a hope of a united, democratic Ireland, it’s necessary to sort out in our minds the wheat from the chaff.
What worthwhile values do we need to preserve? What mistakes do we need to admit? While revering those who died for their country, is it possible to acknowledge good intent in those who killed them? Who was sincere in their dedication to Irish freedom, however mistaken some may consider their methods? When were they right to fight? When right to negotiate? Is not an end to the war, the ultimate goal of every war? When were some, if perhaps misguided, at least sincere? Whose sincerity must we question? Whose leadership can we admire, although flawed? Which leaders must we suspect, as having had worse motives? What about the travesties which should never be condoned? Which actions can only accurately be called atrocities? What actions can no civilized people accept, for any cause whatever? How did we come to such a pass? Would we wish to hold up to our children as role models, anyone who could not tell the difference, even in the heat of battle?
A lot of politics and policy have been based on what happened in the Tan War and Civil War. Yet as Collins’ story itself demonstrates, that period remains so controversial, that there is still a great deal of confusion about what in fact actually did happen. That child-bed of the nation was so recent, so chaotic and volatile, that public discussion and public record about it has been distorted: both in institutions of the south, and in rhetoric of dissidents.
Although Michael Collns’ leadership saw the British Army off more territory than any other campaign in Irish history, he is viciously condemned by some self-proclaimed nationalists today; by nationalists that revere those 1916 leaders who wrested not a single acre from the Crown. Collins is villified by some nationalists that praise the two Hughs, who were obliged to flee the country, abandoning it to British rule.
It is the very fabric of Irish nationalism, to sympathetically celebrate and applaud its every small, partial success; as well as the merely symbolic victories, and indeed, even the failures of Irish leaders. How so can any condemn Collins, on the argument that his achievements were less than absolutely complete?
“Those who serve their country are rarely mourned by the public.”
Perhaps we’d like to keep 1916 commemorations a pristine shrine, where all can praise one shining moment, one principle on which all can agree, which unites us as a nation: that principle that we are a nation.
Yet ultimately we know that what 1916 led to was the Civil War. And we know that we’re still living with those divisions, and with betrayals of the Proclamation’s promises, today.
This is the reality we need to face as a nation. To quote (with permission) an anonymous poster on a republican forum: “[The Rising centenary] opens a huge debate on the meaning of 1916 and its sequel; on unfinished business & broken promises of the Proclamation. This is a vitally important debate. it’s a debate that desperately needs to happen now. 2016 is perhaps above all an opportunity to re-open that debate, on new levels, with new depth never seen before.”
This writer would add a suggestion that the most meaningful way to commemorate the Rising, would be to finally heal the rift of the Civil War. For all factions to acknowledge that on each side in that conflict there was both right and wrong, both good and bad intentions, cause for pride and for apologies, tactics to be admired and to be condemned; both sincere patriots and the other sort.
What we owe to the patriots of 1916 is to thoroughly deal with the legacy of the struggle up to now; so that we can at last move on, as a people, to the next level.
S M Sigerson is the author of “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened At Béal na mBláth?” www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714; Parts of this article were excerpted from the book.