Dr Margaret O’ Callaghan, School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast

The key to articulated ambiguities about the idea of the republic in modern Ireland may lie in its history. I am going to approach this question of who owns 1916 from 1798 to the present day. In particular I will look at the transformation of the meaning of Irish republicanism through the Rising of 1916. And I will look briefly at the commemoration of the Rising in 1966, 1976 and 2006 and ask what we should be conscious of in the approach to the commemoration in 2016.

Republicanism in Ireland in the twentieth century has been a malleable and shifting signifier. One of the reasons for that fluidity is its very particular history, since its originary foundational moment in Ireland in the late eighteenth century. Embracing French and American ideas, republicanism in Ireland was primarily associated with the rebellion of 1798 and as such was labelled seditious and treasonable and anti-state by the authorities. Its origins are not like those of the American republic, or the French republics, because its foundational moment was one of defeat, failure and terror. Republicanism became, in effect, an underground movement in nineteenth century Ireland. Secret, occluded, hidden and represented as dangerous by the British state – that is the fractured profile of republicanism in nineteenth century Ireland.

The Republic was what the proclamation declared on Easter Monday, 1916. But the proclamation was also primarily a declaration of Irish freedom. The text of the proclamation focuses on a genealogy of the Irish desire for liberty, as articulated by Patrick Pearse. It tells a very particular story about Irish history. The republic is declared in the name of God and the dead generations but, at its core, is a declaration of egalitarian Irish freedom. Grabbed and claimed by different groupings, certainly since the civil war, republicanism was just one of a series of political strands that constituted the pre-independence ‘national movement’. Republican ideas and rhetoric had a purchase in the construction of the modern Irish written nationalist tradition and actions, throughout the previous century. But so had the rhetoric of the land ‘put the grabber from amongst you’, the language of attachment to place, of a desire to see Ireland free, of resistance to emigration, of catholic resurgence, of antiquarianism, of the ballads of the Bantry gang, the fenian rhetoric of Richard Pigott’s newspapers, and Parnellite and anti-Parnellite rhetorics, all coexisted in complex relationships with republican ideas.. They too lie behind the language of the proclamation, and the decisions of those who decided to fight on 24 April 1916.

In Ireland in the late nineteenth century the strongest expression of republican ideas at a popular level was in the widely disseminated language and actions from the Land War and earlier agrarian underground movements of entitlement to dignity and respect, associated with the idea of a free man in his own land, in a Home Rule Ireland. The popular and local ballad history, commemorations of 1798 in 1898, the fringe nationalist press of Griffith and Moran, showed just how various was Irish national sentiment. And that is excluding the cultures of Ireland as represented in artistic forms from the Yeats Abbey to the popular nationalist histories of Alice Stopford Green so widely distributed by Roger Casement throughout the country in 1913.

The more radical movements that fed into 1916 came into existence at the time of the Boer War out of a desire to commemorate 1798, not necessarily to plan a republic, but to commemorate the heroic Irish past and to galvanise discussion on what that generation would do with a Home Rule Ireland. ‘Ethna Carbery’ and Alice Milliken, through their important Belfast newspaper the Shan Van Vocht, were crucial here. The justification for Irish freedom, for its passionate proponents lay in Ireland’s proclaimed history as a nation, its distinctive language and that is why history-writing in all of its popular and journalistic forms was at the centre of radical and cultural movements in these years. The failure, yet again, to attempt to grant any acceptable form of Home Rule when the Liberals finally got in in 1906 radicalised further advanced opinion. The confusion of the 1912 Home Rule Bill and the growing suggestion in the following years of some form of Ulster exclusion further moved on advanced opinion through the founding of the Irish Volunteers. The fear too that Ireland might finally be successfully absorbed into the United Kingdom fostered a millennial mentality in many who subsequently fought.

In ‘Easter 1916’ Yeats argues with himself about whether the Rising was right or wrong – ‘For England may keep faith’. But Yeats’s poem also shows an acceptance of the power of what had happened and the transformative capacity. ‘Our part to murmur name upon name, as a mother claims her child’ represents his decision to claim the role of national poet, announcing the nation’s need to claim ownership of those who have acted, the now patriot dead. In writing ’where shall we draw water said Pearse to Connolly‘ he becomes himself one of the architects of the dubious blood sacrifice interpretation of the Rising. Equally importantly he recognised early on the potentially transformative effect of ‘MacDonagh’s bony thumb’ on the republican strand in nationalist thinking.

The proclamation of 1916 declared an Irish Republic. That mantra of the republic remained potent. After 1916 if you supported the Rising you called yourself a republican and it came to mean that you supported Sinn Féin, you were done with the old parliamentary party, you were broadly prepared to take a hard line with England, if possible. It may even mean that you supported the Anglo-Irish war. But it did not necessarily mean that you were doctrinally republican even in the sense that Tom Clarke, or other old fenians, were Irish republicans. The declaration of a republic in 1916 and the retrospective embrace of that Easter week as the initiatory moment of an independent Irish nation retrospectively elevated the republican strand in the complex web that was nineteenth century Irish patriotic and national thought. But other strands in this nationalist weave carried through.

During and after the civil war, to say you were a republican meant that you were not a supporter of the Free State, though republican ideas and mentalities may well have been as present in the group around Collins as in some sections of the Irregulars. After the establishment of Fianna Fáil they sought to appropriate the republican mantle to themselves but residual Sinn Féin, the Republican Congress, Peadar O Donnell’s friends, never conceded it to them. During ‘the Emergency’ the Fianna Fáil government loathed the interned ‘republicans’ in the Curragh, and it is clear that in the 1960s those who called themselves republicans around Cathal Goulding, known to the Department of Justice as ’subversives’. were what Fianna Fáil most despised politically.

Nineteen sixteen was fought in the name of the Irish Republic, but an Irish Republic was not formally declared again until 1948, ironically by those who had been labelled and defined as anti-republicans.

The idea of a just republic may well encourage a new patriotism in the future. But in 1966 the idea of the republic was discussed very much as it is discussed here today, as a rhetorical aide to action in the then-present, as Carole Holohan has argued. ‘Every generation has its task’ was Lemass’s key message and according to him the task of that generation was to make the declared republic economically viable, to strengthen Fianna Fáil, and to ensure the re-election of Eamon de Valera as president.

The origins of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are contested. One argument, advanced by Conor Cruise O’Brien was that the Irish government-directed commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin galvanised a new generation of young Northern Irish Catholics to seek to undo the partition settlement that was one of the outcomes of the post-revolutionary years. The argument essentially is that the conflict in the north was generated by a broader republican ideological culture that was island-wide. This suggests that nationalist or republican ideology promoted by the Irish government in the official commemorations of 1966 drove the northern conflict or at least provided the ideological underpinnings of the Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland after 1969. It is clear that his analysis is mostly based on what happened in the Republic of Ireland, ‘the South’, in 1966.

This powerful analysis is usually advanced without reference to what happened in Northern Ireland in 1966. Though it is clear that O’Brien himself reflected on what happened in Northern Ireland in that year more than did his supporters or critics. If however one actually looks at what happened in Ireland in 1966 around the commemorations north and south, both government-sponsored and freelance, the picture is rather more complex. It is important to explore Conor Cruise O’Brien’s important thesis, not just because it was espoused by the leading Irish intellectual of the 1970s, a government minister and a key thinker of the last decades of the twentieth century, but because these ideas shaped a generation or more of so-called revisionist-thinking on Northern Ireland in the rest of Ireland and shaped the debate on what republicanism had meant and was to mean for decades.

Commemorative projects cannot be fully corralled or limited by government’s intentions, and ‘ghosts walked’ in O’Brien’s mordant phrase in Dublin and throughout Ireland in those weeks around Easter 1966. In Northern Ireland in 1966 those designated ‘subversive groups’ , republicans outside the Irish state, old IRA men in Belfast , Cathal Goulding’s new-style IRA in Dublin and their associates saw the opportunity to stage their own alternative commemorations with Belfast as their temporary capital. The Irish government controlled or attempted to control the message of Commemoration in the Republic of Ireland; this marginalised and rendered peripheral ‘subversive’ republican activity there. Belfast, neglected and forgotten by the Irish state, provided these other republicans with a stage.

These primary northern republican-driven commemorations took place in their nationalist ‘own area’ of West Belfast in 1966, but other nationalist groupings across Northern Ireland like the GAA organised a range of other performances. That sought to deny or attempt to marginalise from acceptance the realities of partition and claimed their place in the Irish nation, even if the Irish state had no place for them. But those who paraded in West Belfast in 1966 did not vote in that year’s British general election for abstentionist republican candidates. They returned Gerry Fitt with a mandate to take their cause to the floor of the House of Commons.

My point here is that the republic or the republican tradition was not owned by the Irish state, despite the Irish government’s best efforts to control its meaning. Lemass had excellent relations with Terence O’Neill. Neither Lemass nor O’Neill anticipated that Ian Paisley would acquire the populist platform he had been seeking for years through opposing commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966.

Aspects of the governing ideology of the Irish state had come out of nineteenth Irish nationalist complexities inherited, appropriated and simplified by the language of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. This has, over time, resulted in an actual state – the Republic of Ireland – that is a republic and many of whose citizens now aspire to have that republic act as an aspirational template for the future. That is partly what the MacGill Summer School is about. Moreover, the state now is apparently called Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland. But you have too the existence of an Irish republicanism that has often been outside the twentieth century Irish independent state, and this is not simply a geographical divide.

There are then these two separate legacies. A state that is a republic and wishes to measure itself against the standards of what some contemporaries suggest it means to be a republic. And the idea of a republic sometimes articulated by those outside the state who see themselves as a part of the Irish nation. This is not confined to any particular political party, though Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland likes to claim ownership of it.

By the time of the sixtieth anniversary of the Rising in 1976, in the forcing house of the northern Troubles, the Provisional IRA were using the 1916 Proclamation and the Rising as a means of expressing a new narrative of resistance to British state power in Ireland, and attempting to challenge the Irish government through that process. The Provisionals’ desire to appropriate republican memory for themselves was perceived, accurately, by the government of the Republic as a threat to the independent Irish state itself. If, post-‘Peace Process’ ‘We are all republicans now’, the question of what it means to be a republican nonetheless continues to be disputed ground.

This was demonstrated early in the present century by Bertie Ahern’s disinterring of the bodies of Kevin Barry and others and the reintroduction of a large-scale military style parade in 2006 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Rising. These were key parts of his bid to ensure that Sinn Féin did not steal a march on Fianna Fáil in honouring the republican dead. The present Taoiseach Enda Kenny tells us that all in the state will be well by 2016. So, as the queue forms to see who will own, or steer what the republic will stand for, and what it means to be a republican in 2016 we should be aware that while the idea of the republic has been central to modern Ireland’s self-understanding, that idea has been, above all, ambiguous, and has been far from being the exclusive property of the independent Irish state. Its commemorations and evocations have been highly unpredictable in their outcomes.


Some relevant publications by Margaret O’ Callaghan

‘From Casement Park to Toomebridge – the Commemoration of the Easter Rising in Northern Ireland in 1966’ in Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’ Callaghan (eds) 1916 in 1966; Commemorating the Easter Rising (Royal Irish Academy, 2007), pp 86-148

‘Political Formations in Pre-First World War Ireland; the Politics of the Lost Generation and the Cult of Tom Kettle’ in Caoimhe Nic Dhaibheid and Colin Reid (eds) From Parnell to Paisley; Constitutional and Revolutionary Politics in Modern Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 2010), pp 56-77

‘Reconsidering the Republican Tradition in Nineteenth Century Ireland’ in Iseult Honohan (ed) Republicanism in Ireland; Confronting Theories and Traditions (Manchester University Press, 2008), pp 31-44







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