Troubling the waters.


Within Irish historical discourse the term revisionism is a swear word. It is bandied about at will but most often when anyone disrupts the narrative thrust of the nations historiography. I find it all very odd, particularly since revisionism is essentially just a reassessment of the sources, which surely should be at the heart of historical study? In Ireland we stand in the middle and at the beginning of marking important anniversaries. The Home Rule crisis, the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Irish Volunteer Force, the 1913 Lockout, World War One and the 1916 Rising to name but a few. These were the events that would shape my nation for ill or good. Around these events hagiography and shibboleths abound and as a result it becomes very difficult to critically examine the various merits and demerits of events. In such an atmosphere revisionists become reviled. A former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) questioned whether those involved in the 1916 Rising (an armed resurrection which occurred largely in Dublin against British rule) had done more harm than good especially since Ireland was to be granted a parliament of its own as soon as the war had finished.

To some this was the equivalent of desecrating the graves of the executed leaders. In my mind though it is a worthwhile question as the events of 1916 ultimately dictated not only the course of Irish history but also Irish historical discourse. To paraphrase Standish O’Grady Irish freedom was to have three components the first was cultural which he said was minor, the second political which was also minor and then finally the most important one: the military. For freedom to be won bloodshed and death was the most important component.  In the Ireland of today we create a narrative that we are on the side of the oppressed of the world, that we have some special understanding of what it means to be oppressed, we have open disdain for American gun culture and we hold our neutrality to be sacrosanct. Yet, we gladly forget that in Ireland we had at one point in the early twentieth century three armed organisations running about namely The Irish Volunteers, The Ulster Volunteers, the IRB and this was also on top of the crown forces.

Because of this O’ Grady was right: militarianism became the most important facet of our revolution and indeed the gun would remain in Irish politics for a long time after (with one organisation purporting to represent the Irish people buying guns off a regime that brutally suppressed its people, but you know, we are on the side of the oppressed and all). This era needs to be revised and done so constantly and especially when new sources come to light. Patriotism can be a noble virtue but it can also be the place were rabid bloodlust is unleashed. I am a citizen of the Irish republic and we are quick to point out the deficiencies of our Northern Irish neighbours. However, let us revise that old Unionist adage: Home Rule is Rome Rule. Can any of my fellow countrymen and women, with hand on heart say that Unionist fears weren’t well founded? In light of the revisionism that has shined a light on the history of the institute of the Catholic Church can we not, in some degree, see the validity of Unionist fears. All reasonable I am sure you will agree? However, there are those in Ireland that will accuse you of forgetting about the wrongs of the ‘other’ side.

You see in espousing the military over all our founding fathers (and fathers they were because once Britain was gone women had to return to the home. Check it out in our constitution) set up a dichotomy and one that has grown ever since. Our culture became secondary and one that was largely confined to us rediscovering our soul by the transmogrification of the dreaded Bearla (English) into Irish. How this was to be done was never fully explained. Our politics descended into corruption and gombeenism that haunts us to this day. The dreary middle class men that took over from the dreary middle class British were one and the same (yes there were minor differences but these were largely superficial). The post boxes went from red to green and the job was all but done…except the ‘troubles’ but that is another story altogether and one that is long overdue a bit of revision.

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