Divided still, the unfulfilled dream of the 1916 rising


Irish President Michael D Higgins

History rewrites itself many times, and then it emerges as myth. The Easter rising is a case in point.

Today, Easter Monday, marks its centenary. That fact will not have escaped you. Easter is as important to the Irish and Irish history as the day it celebrates its patron saint.

Such is the pivotal importance of the rising that it needs no big-nought birthday to get attention. But the centenary is an opportunity for reflection and a time to evaluate the values that underpin Irishness.

It is also a moment to think about the journey we have undertaken as a nation over the past 100 years – and to decide whether we need to recalibrate.

If any nation needs to think hard about where it’s at, it is this one. Today’s Ireland is a far cry from that envisioned in the Proclamation.

It’s not difficult to find evidence for that. The commemorations themselves give a sense of our modern day priorities. It’s all about the money. Take a walk through Dublin and you’d be forgiven for thinking the leaders of the rising made the ultimate sacrifice to provide us with a marketing peg to sell, sell, sell.

Quite what Socialist icon James Connolly would have made of the tawdry money-making trade in memorabilia is anybody’s guess. The souvenirs are cheap tat made in China for an audience that cares little for the ideals of the 1916 leaders.


Tasteless chocolate

You can even buy chocolate bars with wrappers emblazoned with images from the rising. Given some 500 people died – most of them civilians caught in the crossfire – this must qualify as the most tasteless chocolate in Ireland’s culinary history.

There was a day when myths were the stuff of song, when they were spoken of by poets and carved in stone. Today they are printed on plastic wrappers to be thrown away as litter.

But perhaps I am too cynical. Today is not a day for cynicism, but for reflection.

Violence is troubling, and it is unquestionably the case that Pearse acted without the endorsement of the people. The sovereignty he declared on the steps of the GPO was claimed without authority.

But it is important that we judge those who took part in this act of defiance by the standards of their own time.

It was only after the cack-handed British reaction – the executions (Connolly strapped to a chair), the imposition of martial law and the incarceration of many who had no involvement in the events of Easter Monday – that Ireland awoke. Legitimacy was conferred in retrospect.

But legitimised the rising was, and quickly too.

There is no doubting the idealism of the men who took up arms that fateful morn, or their bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. Pearse must have known Britain would mobilise its forces against him. His was an act of war in the midst of an even greater one.

Countless battles have been fought for power or wealth or other grubby motives. The Trojan wars were fought over a love affair, and Britain once went to war with Spain over a severed ear.

But this was noble. It was a poets’ revolution: a fight for culture and national identity. And it is hard not to be seduced by that, particularly from the distance of five score years.

There is truth in poetry, there is truth in the stories we create and tell one another. And there is truth in myth. This Pearse understood all too well. By tapping into that most potent of stories – the Resurrection – Pearse was consciously shaping the foundation myth for a fledgling nation.

It feels like heresy to articulate it, but in Ireland now the two stories are almost indivisible: the British the occupying legions in Palestine, the Redmondites, like the Pharisees, complicit in British rule, and Herbert Asquith Pontius Pilate to Pearse’s martyr.

“We are ready to die and we shall die peacefully and proudly,” Pearse wrote to his mother before his execution.

The unfinished business is uniting Ireland – a nation that transcends borders; a nation that embraces a global diaspora and, more important still, a nation that has yet to win the hearts and minds of a million or so people in the north east of the island.

“Cherishing all the children of the nation equally,” was the sentiment in the Proclamation, and that has not yet been realised.

That must be our ambition today. Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. In a world where national sovereignty is not about isolationism, and where borders are virtual and porous, the need to transcend petty sectarianism has never been greater.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on Easter Monday 2016, the anniversary of the Easter Rising.




A nation once again: Easter and the 1916 Rising


A sovereign nation: leaders of the Easter Rising 1916

Easter Sunday is one of the most potent days in the Christian calendar, and for someone brought up as a Catholic in Ireland it assumes an even greater significance. In a nation where, for so long, Church and State walked hand in hand, the religious symbolism of the day was amplified by its association with an insurrection that is seen as the foundation stone of Irish independence.

Politics is dangerous when placed in the hands of poets, and the Easter Rising was shaped by people with a deep understanding of symbolism and its potency. That is one of the reasons why its memory has endured.


The Resurrection: Piero della Francesca

One one level the rising itself was an abject failure. The British mobilised, and within a week it was quashed. Pearse surrendered, and his men followed suit. In a grim yard in Kilmainham prison, he and his fellow leaders were executed by firing squad. Soldiers shot by soldiers.

But Pearse forged a narrative that became the foundation story of the Irish State, a narrative that (for all the revisionism of recent years) persists – as we have seen in the commemorations in Dublin this week. And it is a myth from which successive generations have drawn sustenance. Irish paramilitaries, freedom fighters, terrorists – call them what you will – justify their deeds because of what happened in 1916.

We will never know what went through the minds of the 1916 leaders in their final hours – though we do know what they wanted us to think.

It’s there in Pearse’s final letter to his mother. This a document every bit as considered as the Proclamation of an Irish Republic read on the steps of the General Post Office.

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own,” he wrote. “Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.”

The dignity he displayed in the face of death must be seen as evidence of his conviction that he had struck a mortal wound at the heart of the Union; that he was right and would be vindicated.

Remembered by posterity, he and his fellow leaders have been.

Quite what Pearse would have made of the Ireland which emerged is anyone’s guess. The political class that took power after the War of Independence and the civil war was not up to the task. Generations of Irishmen and women were failed by them – betrayed it could be said. The Church, pernicious and conservative, held the forces of progress at bay. It controlled education, health and social policy. The Archbishop of Dublin was a de facto member of the cabinet.

Poverty and discrimination was fine as long as it was Irish poverty and discrimination, not British.

And worse, the Republic turned its back on the north.

There is a passage in the Proclamation – redolent of the American Declaration of Independence – which says: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Republic’s failure (and the failure of republicans) to come to terms with the realities of Ulster Unionism, and to demonstrate religious and civil liberty in action, became a mirror image of unionist isolationism. Both – unionists and republican – fostered the conditions for the appalling violence that erupted in Northern Ireland in the late sixties, and which was ‘settled’ only after some 30 years on another Easter – Good Friday 1998.

History is full of what ifs – what if the first world war hadn’t happened, what if the British had not reneged on home rule, what if the rising had happened as planned on Easter Sunday, what if the British had not responded in such an insensitive way… but we only have the history we have. Brutal, messy, contradictory history. A history where fact and fiction are intertwined, and where the heart can often rule the head.

Emotionally it relatively easy for someone from my background and upbringing to see the Easter Rising as a noble act, and to be seduced by the poetry of the revolt. ” I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge/My two strong sons that I have seen go out/To break their strength and die, they and a few,/In bloody protest for a glorious thing.” And I feel the tug.

But in my head I know that – like most conflicts – the pain is more often borne by the innocent. The majority of those who died in Dublin that fateful week were civilians. I remain convinced that there are better ways of effecting political change.

And somewhere, in the mind of someone who finds it difficult to come to terms with the human notion of god, the Catholic in me is conscious that Easter Sunday marks the day when a good man – a revolutionary in his own way – demonstrated that life can transcend death. Blessed be the peacemakers.



Obama lays Kennedy’s Cuban ghost to rest


Obama on a walkabout in Cuba

The inevitable has happened, and President Obama has walked the streets of Havana. The images of him – on the first visit of a US President to Cuba in almost a century – will become part of his lasting legacy. They are undoubtedly historic.

There is still a long way to go before US-Cuba relations are fully normal, with mutual suspicion and anger still running high. But the pressure to make the thaw work is greater and the diplomatic rebuilding is genuinely underway. The meeting between the President and Cuba’s leader Raul Castro, and Obama’s commitment to ending the US trade embargo could not have been envisioned 18 months ago.

An easy foreign policy win for an embattled and lame duck President perhaps. But it had to be done, and he will go down in history as the man who did it.

Cuba’s isolation was an anachronism, sustained more by the internal politics of the US (Florida in particular) than global politics. It is a loose end left by history – and it is rather satisfying to see a Democratic president tying up one left by another.

John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by Cuba, first in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, then in the stand-off with Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis.

The extent to which the crisis had transfixed America’s western allies is perhaps best illustrated in the memoirs of a prominent British observer, the Guardian editor of the time, Alastair Hetherington, which are held in the archive of the London School of Economics.

Britain, like the rest of the world, was a bit player during the missile crisis. As Peter Thorneycroft, Harold Macmillan’s defence minister, said: “We were all bystanders.” Macmillan offered support and a shoulder to cry on, but Kennedy was circumspect; this was the United States’ game. Britain may have had a special relationship, but like the rest of the world, Kennedy let Macmillan’s government know only what he wanted it to know.

The Guardian, which had opposed Eden on Suez, was just as concerned about the United States’ intentions against Cuba and opposed direct action. Hetherington, a former major in the Intelligence Corps, had been scarred by the reaction to his newspaper’s opposition to Suez and, as US-Cuba relations deteriorated ever further, he saw history repeating itself, but with much more serious – and more global – consequences.

A Guardian editorial on October 27 1962 addressed the issue of a possible attack on Cuba:

“Is the United States about to bomb or invade Cuba? This is now the question. Worse, there is even talk of a possible nuclear attack on Cuba. This is reliably reported as under consideration because the authorities in Washington are so troubled by the rapid approach to readiness of the intermediate range bases on the island. It would be madness.”

An American attack on Cuba, he wrote: “would seem to most of the world to be as much a piece of aggression as the British and French attack on Suez.”

The October 27 Guardian leader told Macmillan: “The British Government should make it clear that it must vote against the United States in the United Nations just as the Americans voted against us at Suez.”

Six weeks later, Hetherington met Kennedy in his study in the White House. The president talked for 40 minutes from his rocking chair. Hetherington’s note of their discussions, held in the archive of the London School of Economics, gives an insight into the mind of an editor whose views had been proved wrong by events, and a president who felt his allies had let him down.

In the memo, Hetherington writes:

“I began by saying I thought we ought to apologise for some of the things we’d said – for our misjudgements – at the time of the Cuban crisis. We’d been critical because we thought Kennedy was walking into a trap. We thought that the Russian objective was to establish the missile bases in Cuba as a bargaining counter against which they would try to trade all the American bases in western Europe and Britain. We also thought that the reaction would come with a new blockade of Berlin to balance the blockade of Cuba.”

The president was magnanimous: “Kennedy laughed off the apology, and said that perhaps our analysis hadn’t been so far out. But there had been a bit of difficulty with the British press. He hadn’t had the backing he’d expected.”

As Hetherington records it, Kennedy said there were three things about Cuba. There was “deliberate bad faith” on the Russian side. Khrushchev had given “a personal assurance to Kennedy that there would be no offensive missiles in Cuba”.

If the US had given in, its allies would have doubted its willingness to defend them in any future crisis. “This, the president said, was more important than the military effect of the missiles in Cuba… The Russians had brought about an open alteration in the balance of nuclear power. This had to be resisted.”

Kennedy told Hetherington: “Our intelligence had said that the Russians would never put offending missiles in Cuba. They would be too exposed… but their intelligence had obviously told Khrushchev that the Americans would not react.”

The most frightening thing about the crisis was just how far the two sides were from understanding each other. Hetherington writes: “Such misunderstanding could easily lead to nuclear war. This was what [Kennedy] found most frightening about the Cuba affair.”

In a statement Kennedy was fated never to see tested, he gave Hetherington his assessment of the likelihood of nuclear conflict: “How, he asked, can we get through the next ten years without nuclear war? He was not sure that we could do so.”

Asked whether there would be more progress on talks to ease tensions, Kennedy said he thought not. “It wasn’t possible to take their word for anything,” he said of the Russians.

The president then proceeded to lecture the editor on his editorial stance. “He thought the greatest flaw in what The Guardian had been writing was our failure to realise that the Russians were expansionist.”

He was dismissive about the need for a European nuclear deterrent. It would be too costly and the issue of political control was too complicated. “The bomb is great until you’ve got it,” Kennedy told Hetherington. National deterrents such as Britian and France’s, in his view, were unnecessary and dangerous.

Kennedy told Hetherington that America would welcome economic competition with the Russians: “It was a challenge that the Americans would like to meet,” Hetherington reported.

Kennedy’s view was apparently that if the two powers competed economically rather than militarily, the world could benefit. In an exchange that resonates with the agenda for the 2015 Summit of the Americas, Kennedy talked Hetherington through the challenges facing Latin American states:

Kennedy said that yesterday he had been entertaining the president of Honduras, 60% of whose people were illiterate. The day before he had had a long talk with the ambassador of Brazil, where the country was almost bankrupt, and the day before that he had seen another Latin American ambassador, half of whose people were either undernourished or near starvation.

It would be much more profitable if the Russians and the Americans competed in trying to raise standards in these countries. But unfortunately the Soviet Union was not prepared for this kind of peaceful competition. It had the urge to expand.

We live in a different world today. Instead of gauging a president’s attitude to nuclear war, The Guardian is reporting on the beginnings of a real Cuban-American thaw.

The Castros still bear intense antipathy towards Washington and its machinations but an American president has now gone walkabout on the streets of Havana. As relations between the two nations start to normalise some fine duty free cigars are undoubtedly on their way to the White House in diplomatic bags.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Conversation last April.

Suffer the little children: Dunblane 20 years on


Gwen Mayer and her class targeted by Thomas Hamilton – 16 children died alongside their teacher

In the cathedral church of Dunblane stands a simple carved stone. Its smooth surface is at odds with the weathered pillars supporting the cathedral’s ceiling. Until the roof was restored in the 1890s, the nave had been opened to the elements for 300 years, and the Scottish climate had taken its toll.

The building is one of those anomalies of the Reformation. It is a Presbyterian church built by a Catholic saint with the encouragement of the pope; and a cathedral without either a bishop or a grand city to sustain it – Dunblane is a sleepy little town, almost a village.

Just a few hundred yards from the cathedral’s entrance is a post box painted gold – a reminder of the 2012 Olympics, and the victory of one of its most famous sons in the tennis finals. A year later Andy Murray won the Wimbledon men’s singles title too – the first Briton to do so in living memory.

Dunblane is the place Murray thinks of as home, and the cathedral was where, last April, he married Kim Sears.

A commuter town, just an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Dunblane is the sort of place where nothing much happens. We all know places like that. But terror is no respecter of sleepy towns.

Dunblane’s time came 20 years ago. On March 13 1996, Thomas Hamilton – a bit of an oddball – entered its primary school and headed to the gym. He was carrying four legally-held handguns and more than 700 rounds of ammunition.

Hamilton murdered 16 children and a teacher before killing himself. It was mass murder on a scale almost unprecedented in Great Britain (in 1987 gunman Michael Ryan killed 16 in Hungerford).


Tennis champion Andy Murray speaking about Dunblane in a BBC interview with Sue Barker

Andy Murray and his brother Jamie were pupils at the school. Eight-year-old Andy’s class was on the way to the gym when Hamilton struck. It’s not something the Murrays talk about much, and who can blame them.

The two boys knew him, in an interview given two years ago to Radio Times their mother Judy said: “They had been to boys’ clubs he ran locally at the high school.

“I knew him too, I’d given him lifts from the boys’ clubs to the station. He was a bit of an odd bod, but I wouldn’t have thought he was dangerous. So he’d been in my car.”

There is controversy still about what could have been done to prevent the massacre. Concerns had been raised about Hamilton’s behaviour in the run-up to March 13. The inept handling of the aftermath too by the police added to the anguish of the victims and their families. And just last week questions were being asked about the independence from political considerations of the judge-led inquiry.

Had Hamilton’s arrival time been later, the course of British tennis could have been so different. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Murrays’ careers is their capacity to transcend this most appalling of events.

And who is to know what the 16 children who died would have achieved?

The stone monument in the cathedral is a fitting tribute to those young souls. It is not maudlin or macabre. It celebrates the joy children bring to our world, and the hope.

In every child there is the potential to be something great – a great mother or father, a great statesman or stateswoman, a great friend or companion, a great teacher, a champion.

On one face, the stone mason has carved words from Richard Henry Stoddard’s Children’s Prayer: “If there is anything that will endure the eye of God because it is pure, it is the spirit of a little child.”

I am not a great fan of anniversaries. They can trap us in the past. But if we do not remember the things that shaped our world, we cannot build a better one. It was right yesterday to mark the day a cloud descended over a small Scottish town, as it is right to remember the countless other dark deeds that robbed the world of young lives – each with so much to offer.

In doing so, we should also consider the Dunblanes happening around us now: victims of barrel bombs in Syria, suicide bombers in Afghanistan, the boy soldiers in Somalia, and the bodies of babes washed up on Mediterranean beaches.

We cannot save every child, but we have a duty to do what we can to create a world where children are treasured and given the opportunity to become champions.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on March 14 2016