Easter has a particular potency for the Irish. In the national mythology, the Easter Rising of 1916 is central to the story of Ireland and where it sits historically, culturally and politically. The power Easter 1916 exerts is felt not just by Irish nationalists – north and south of the border – it also is a reference point for Ulster unionism.
The proclamation of an Irish Republic may have guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” but that didn’t wash with a Protestant minority in the north east of Ireland which feared domination by a government informed by Catholic dogma.
We will never know how the presence of a million northern Protestants would have impacted on the emerging Irish State, but the way the Irish Free State, and the subsequent Republic of Ireland, unfolded gave credence to those who believed that Catholicism would dominate the affairs of state. For most of the 20th century, bishops had a disproportionate influence on social, cultural and political affairs.
What is not commonly understood is that, under Unionist majority rule, northern Catholic bishops too wielded considerable power. Successive unionist administrations giving the Catholic hierarchy carte blanche to do what it liked in the separate Catholic school system. Regardless of what was happening to their communicants on the ground in employment and housing, the Cardinal Archbishops of Armagh had a pernicious influence on Northern Ireland’s non-state education system (but I digress).
1916 was a different age, not least in people’s adherence to their religion. The Church in Ireland was well entrenched. People believed, and believed uncritically.
The notion of blood sacrifice – so important to the leaders of the Easter Rising – was part of the warp and weft of religious and political thinking. Its poets evoked the suffering Christ for their cause. Among the most powerful expressions was Joseph Mary Plunkett’s “I see his blood upon the rose” where the poet writes: “His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea/His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn/His cross is every tree.”
The men of 1916 were Christs looking for their crosses and, by one of those grim twists of fate, Britain produced the hammers and nails. The execution of the Rising’s leaders transformed them from irritants to martyrs overnight; and Dubliners who had been aggravated by the inconvenience their rebellion had caused were galvanised. In the words of W B Yeats “A terrible beauty is born”.
Britain’s unsubtle response to the rebellion was perhaps understandable. Its troops were in the middle of a horrible war, millions were dead or dying or about to die. England’s difficulty may have been Ireland’s opportunity, but – given the circumstances – the revolt was the equivalent of a stab in the back. What if the leaders of the rising had been spared – another of the might-have-beens of history? No doubt they would have been corrupted by the compromises of government – like De Valera, spared because of his dual citizenship, their halos would have slipped.
It took generations before Ireland was able to take its place fully in the ranks of self-confident and successful sovereign states.
The early years were ruined by misguided economic policies, informed by a romantic wistfulness about the importance of the land. They perpetuated emigration and poverty. Ireland did not need the English to keep its people poor.
The Church ensured that progressive social policies were killed off before they made it to the statute book – better a people beholden to hand-outs from St Vincent de Paul, than to the care of the fellow citizens.
When it came, and my goodness it came big in the form of the Celtic Tiger, economic success was short-lived – snuffed out by corruption, greed and hubris.
There can be little doubt. The signatories to the proclamation – Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, Plunkett and Ceannt (all executed) – would not have recognised the Ireland they fought to bring into being.
Neither would they have recognised modern-day Britain whose monarch bowed her head to the fallen Irish in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, stepped on the hallowed turf of Croke Park, and who intoned a welcome in Irish at the state banquet in her honour during her first visit to Ireland.
Easter is associated too with another moment in Irish history – the signing of the Good Friday agreement – which tidied up a little bit of unfinished business: the estrangement of the Ulster unionist community. (It has to be said this is still work in progress.)
In most Christian countries, Easter is an uncomplicated festival marking the death of a man some 2,000 years ago on a lonely hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
In Ireland, it is indivisible from the fight for freedom from British rule. In the eyes of republicans, Jesus’s blood has been intermingled with that of the inept leaders of a little local difficulty. The Holy Grail resides not in Glastonbury but in a mass grave for Pearse and his comrades in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Pearse and his comrades staked Ireland’s claim to be a “sovereign independent state”. What price independence when the stakeholders are not the Irish people, but the IMF, the World Bank and the leaders other nations in the European Union?
It is time to unhitch Ireland from blood sacrifice. It’s time to hand Easter back to the man to whom it belongs.