Stories, Research & Projects
A bit of context...
Historian Fearghal McGarry has written that many of the rebels in 1916 fought not for a republic, but for the cause of Irish freedom. When talking about 1916, I therefore find it integral to first identify the meaning of Irish freedom. I think it's a useful exercise to look at how the art of the revolution influenced this definition, for better or for worse. Looking at some of the famous poems and songs associated with the 1916 Easter Rising, I'll present some of the interpretations of Irish republicanism. But it's up to the reader to draw her/his own conclusions. Moreover, the text of the 1916 Proclamation is revolutionary in itself and merits discussion - and more importantly, analysis - in Ireland today.
Presumably, the dream of Irish freedom relied on a version of self-governance whereby the Irish were governed of the Irish, by the Irish, for the Irish (to paraphrase US President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 19 November 1863). But who exactly were “the Irish”? Which citizens would this new definition of “the Irish” comprise? Whose interests would be served?
At the Sinn Féin conference of 1917, Éamon de Valera apparently justified the adoption of a commitment to the Republic as “a monument to the brave dead”, according to McGarry. So was de Valera’s Republic the very same republic that the brave dead died for? This is unlikely. These deaths – the martyrs – were appropriated by de Valera and by a new political elite upon the foundation of the brand-new Irish state in 1922. Patrick Pearse’s “blood sacrifice” was a strong rallying call in the years leading to the War of Independence. Subsequently, of course, this same sentiment was invoked by thousands of Irish citizens as justification for decades of conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998.
As is well-known, support for militant Irish republicanism in 1916 was not widespread.
Interestingly, republicanism had been regarded as out-of-fashion: “every sizeable town possessed a tiny sprinkling of diehard separatists… they were respected as idealists, living in a world and an age to which they did not belong” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 1770 (Kevin O’Shiel)]. Further, “a republic did not appeal to the masses, as they considered its attainment impossible… Outside the IRB, there were few republicans… we were mere propagandists and we realised it.” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 99 (Patrick McCartan)].
Indeed, McGarry posits that “cultural nationalism, Catholicism and militarism were more influential than republican ideology”. In 2016, we should ask whether any of these elements is a strong enough banner under which to unite as a democratic state. Cultural nationalism, as defined by a 19th century Gaelic Revivalist will be very different to the conception of Irishness of a pro-EU student living in the technological, internet hub that is Dublin today. Many young Irish citizens might very well identify with US culture more than with traditional modes of Irish life. This is not a facetious point and shouldn’t be dismissed in any discussion of Irish folk culture.
According to Michael Wheatley, the prevailing discourse of the Irish nationalism during the second decade of the 20th century was one of “Catholicity, sense of victimhood, glorification of struggle, identification of enemies, and antipathy to England.” McGarry argues that “the patriarchal, clericalist and conservative state that emerged from Ireland’s revolution was perhaps less a betrayal of the Proclamation than a consequence of the fact that its ideals were never deeply rooted within the nationalist movement that won independence.” Its legacy, however, is indistinguishable from independent Irish statehood. This can be seen in the momentous heritage of the MacBridge/Gonn family.
John MacBride (married to the infamous Maud Gonne) was executed by British soldiers in Kilmainham jail on 5 May 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising as second-in-command at the Jacob’s biscuit factory. His son, Seán MacBride, became an international advocate for human rights throughout the 20th century in a remarkable and fascinating career. He acted as Chief of Staff of the IRA (1936), but was called to the Irish Bar a year later and soon resigned from the IRA. He went on to chair the Amnesty International Executive from 1961-75 and chaired the Special Committee of International NGOs on Human Rights (Geneva) from 1968-74. In 1974, MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize, won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1976 and was awarded the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980. I recommend Elizabeth Keane's fantastic biography of Seán MacBridge if you're even slightly interested in this towering figure of foundational Irish statehood.
This single life brings many of the contradictions of the modern Irish nation to bear. As Halbwachs has said: “Commemoration, after all, is shaped by how those in the present choose to remember their history rather than the atavistic passions of the past.”
Speaking Truth to Power
Back to 2016 and we could legitimately argue that the idealism in the Proclamation remains unfulfilled. This leads us back to our definition of Irish freedom. US agitator Saul Alinsky believed that freedom is synonymous with participation in power. He believed that democracy must attempt to facilitate the actions of as many citizens as possible within the realm of governance. Here's an interesting point on the consequences of marginalisation:
...the powerless will remain powerless, and therefore exploited, discriminated against, marginalized, and otherwise taken advantage of, as long as they remain isolated and divided. They don’t get involved because their past experience proves the adage: "You can’t fight city hall.” And their socialization in a mass, consumer, media-driven society tells them that they need some hero, advocate, charismatic leader to speak for them. [Miller, 2010].
This participation in power comes from community organisation. Alinsky himself argued that so-called "middle-class hygiene" had made terms like ‘conflict’ and ‘controversy’ dirty words. However, in a healthy democracy, it is broadly supported that conflict, dialogue and debate are tolerable and should be promoted to sustain political and cultural exchange between communities.
The democratic promise of equity, inclusion, and accountability requires an organized citizenry with the power to articulate and assert its interests effectively. [Marshall, 2014]
Song & Poetry of the Rising
The influence of art on society can be seen if we use the 1916 Rising as an example, given largely to the fact that the volunteers were perceived to be ‘poets and idealists’. This seems to have been an extra weapon in the fight against British imperialism - certainly in hindsight! It's valuable to witness the greater Irish public’s appropriation of literature and music in the century since the Rising. It has become a form of participation in Irish society; so-called Irish rebel songs became an uncompromising show of national identity on both sides of the border. The poetry and songs surrounding Easter 1916 have influenced Irish republicanism over the past 100 years.
The tragic world is a world of action and action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they intended; it is terribly unlike it. [Bradley, 1904]
A.C. Bradley's quotation refers to Shakespeare but it could be applied to any process of tragic martyrdom. As Fearghal McGarry says, “the Rising became burdened by the weight of its own myth.” By analysing some of the lore connected to the Rising, we can see how the fighter’s sacrifice was considered in retrospect to be something almost inevitable, almost divine. The use of poetry to explain and define what happened during the Rising lifts it above mere reportage and manages to create something aesthetically beautiful. To this dead, the importance of poetry and song to Irish republicanism cannot be understated.
“‘mid the leaden rain, seven tongues of flame did shine o’er the lines of steel [guns]…
Their names we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew”
“In prison ground they’ve laid him, far from his native land /
Now the wild waves sing his Requiem on lonely Banna Strand”
" The night was dark, and the fight was ended,
The moon shone down O’Connell Street,
I stood alone, where brave men perished
Those men have gone, their God to meet.”
The imagery of these songs conjures pictures deliberately timeless. References to the natural world alongside catholic sentiment tailors it particularly to a 20th century Irish establishment audience, so accustomed to natural references in ancient and traditional (particularly Irish language) texts.
‘Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming
on strong manly forms and on eyes with hope gleaming,
I see them again, sure, through all my day deaming,
Glory o’, glory o’, to the bold Fenian men!
Apparently, the old woman in Kearney's song is a representation of Ireland who longs for renewed efforts in the search for Irish self-governance. It is basically a call to arms. The melody of Down by the Glenside is particularly strong, and I have to admit it is probably my favourite of the melodies associated with 1916. Peadar Kearney was well aware that a strong message coupled with a strong melody could stand the test of time, even where some in the audience might oppose the its message.
Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be of you.
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.
The poignancy of this story, relating to the execution of Joseph Plunkett on 4 May 1916, is more powerful than any historical statistic fact about the revolution. The emotional narrative – a universal bond of love and the tragedy of an ill-fated marriage – is so cleverly devised in its lyrical form that it's sure to last for years.
“out of the depths of misery,
we march with hearts aflame,
with wrath against the ruler’s false,
who wreck our manhood’s name”
This masculine, military language seems typical of its time. Ideas of flawless manhood and courage might pall with some of us a century on. Connolly’s own daughter recalled on national television in 1966 how he had told his wife not to cry at his hospital bed for fear that she would “unman” him before his imminent execution. This sentiment can be seen also in Pearse’s poem, “The Mother”, which excuses what his family went through by usurping his own mother’s voice: “I do not grudge them, Lord... My sons were faithful, and they fought.”
This culture of stoicism surrounding the 1916 Rising is perhaps one of the things that may jar with today’s citizens. 20th century film and photography has surely dispelled the romantic mythology of war and conflict, where bravery is rewarded neatly with martyrdom. To forbid family members from grieving publicly at the imminent loss of a loved one might seem, for families in 2016, more of a restraint on their freedom than something worth celebrating. Sean O'Casey devastatingly portrayed this facet of the female experience of the Rising in "The Plough and the Stars", when Nora Clitheroe is treated with disdain for her public reaction to her husband's part in the conflict.
In the military psyche, this may well be a usual tactic in order to reduce the appearance of weakness. Of course, this stoicism can’t but resonate in our recollections of the 1981 IRA hunger strike, when some pleading mothers were coerced into silence in the cause of Irish freedom.
We must also consult the Proclamation itself to understand with more clarity the mythology of the Rising:
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.
This last line is a reference to Wolfe Tone’s third submission in 1791 prior to the foundation of the Society of United Irishmen, seeking to attain political rights for catholics and “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen”. Of course, this followed hot on the heels of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary publication The Rights of Man (1791). In it, Paine defended the motto of the French revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Indeed, we see too in the 1916 Poblacht na hÉireann echoes of the US Declaration of Independence of 1776: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Any commemoration/remembering of the poetry, songs and ideas of 1916 cannot be limited to reverence. These words ought to be challenged according to our present values. The words are there to be contested, to be debated, so that the ideas behind them may be strengthened through practice and experience; not just to criticise or to ridicule. These words can also guide us back on course towards the ideals of a democratic republic. Otherwise, these words remain static, mere relics of a moment in time.
As citizens today, we can (and should) write our own words, imagine our own world. This way, we can help the rights-based liberal philosophy of the 18th century to evolve so that a contemporary citizenry may exist in an equal and peaceful society. It seems appropriate here to quote the current Head of State, President Michael D Higgins, who made these remarks the day before this blog was published:
"All of us are invited, then, in this year of 2016, to reach for the ideals and hopes that animated so many of the men and women of 1916 in their struggle for freedom, equality and social justice.
Fearghal McGarry, “1916 and Irish Republicanism: between Myth and History" in John Horne and Edward Madigan (eds) Towards Commmemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2013)
Michael Wheatley, Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland 1910-1916 (Oxford, 2005), p. 266
Maurice Halbwachs, “On collective memory” (Chicago, 1992)
Miller, Mike (2010), "Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing. Dissent. Winter, 57, 1, Research Library, p. 45. Read the full article.
Ganz, Marshall (2004). "Organizing." In George R. Goethals, Georgia J. Sorenson, and James MacGregor Burns, eds. Encyclopedia of Leadership. Vol. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
A.C. Bradley, Shakespearian tragedy  (New York, 1968, p. 28-29
Keane, Elizabeth (2006). An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: The Nationalist and Internationalist Politics of Seán MacBride. Tauris
Written as part of course study in Music and Social Action (Yale/Coursera).
Speaking at Amherst College in 1961, US President John F Kennedy said: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world, in pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time.”
He was continuing the American discussion of a “cultural democracy”, a concept dating at least to the New Deal era. In the 1960s, the tensions of the Cold War were deepening.
I am not an Americanophile (why isn’t there a better word for that?) by any means, but this Yale course is presenting US ideas on the arts alongside an American interpretation of democratic values. They're worth the analysis, particularly for how we comprehend the social role or artists.
Philosopher and aestheticist Maxine Greene remarks on Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s (MLK) “I have a dream” speech. She says he was opening possibilities for the audience. MLK's words didn’t guarantee anything but drew attention to the suffering of the characters he invoked. The speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener.
Greene believes that artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually."
Art may also have a role in criticising institutions. In these lessons, I’ve found myself considering the critical role played by journalism in upholding democratic values such as transparency, accountability, etc. It’s certainly important to distinguish the functions of art (aesthetics) and journalism (reportage).
Journalism employs evidence to construct arguments about a given situation. Whether as an editorial, a comment piece, or investigative reporting, journalism is vital to our knowledge base. Bias is, therefore, an even more important concept to understand in all its complexity. We only see what we are shown.
According to this course, the artistic process has a public role while also being intensely personal. I think it's the capacity for abstraction that grants art its power; we can learn about something by experiencing something else. We can learn about the natural world by looking at a painting. We can learn about the gods by listening to a violin.
The artist cannot necessarily impact on people’s behaviour. The artist can only influence the minds of those who engage with the artwork. Art doesn’t have a concrete effect on how you view the world. There's no tangible way to quantify its effect. Do I walk out of a concert more able to view my state as corrupt? Or my romantic relationship as unique?
Rather, art encourages creative thinking; about beauty, about love, about religion, about governance, etc. It's often a personal experience, a private reflection. Maybe an artwork invites you into a community with others?
On this point, I recently read an article about the phenomenon of the silent disco. There were commentators bemoaning the breakdown of social relations, especially via the arts – dancing to music alone. Not merely alone, but deliberately shut off from a communal experience by wearing earphones. The horror!
But isn’t this missing the point? The communal experience is relative to that community, and the audience is always evolving. Technology dictates the possibilities of the day, and silent discos are still a novelty for many of us. So why shouldn’t we share in this unusual communal experience?
Another commentator remarked that record players, and the subsequent culture of solitary listening, could be seen as a negative indictment of the communal function of music. However, bringing songs into the home means that thousands, millions can share in the same experience of a commercial recording. I can listen to a song anywhere in the world and know for a fact that someone on the other side of the world is doing the same thing – for precisely the same length of time, sharing a moment. Isn’t that a feat of communal experience?
Especially if we engage with the song. Regardless of where in the world I may listen to a song or watch a YouTube ballet clip, I can be challenged by the work in the same way as an old woman in Japan. This sense of shared openness is intangible and immeasurable, but it serves to bond an audience into a community.
Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming. - Maxine Greene
We can be bold in the way we perceive the future, but we must accept that it’s going to take generations to evolve that vision. Community is a constant process of ‘becoming’; constant challenging, constant striving, never-ending. It’s a community-in-the-making. So the question for us is: what can a community of creative citizens achieve together?
I am doing a good bit of research these days into the connections between folklore and community identity. This has involved a long hard look into folk songs and traditional song, in particular. I’ve been reading a short book I found in a charity shop called Ireland: Towards a Sense of Place. It’s interesting because it was published in 1985, though many of its ideas have yet to bear fruit in Ireland today.
A lot of Irish lore delves into life on this island – as well as life off this island. Emigration is a major theme in the songs and stories because it seems we are never done leaving. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Irish about emigration, or indeed about any of the recurring themes in our local stories. The reason they are popular is that they are universal, human themes: love, loss, death, revelry, magic, etc. Irish folk culture has been influenced by other western European cultures for as long as we can tell.
In the category of the so-called emigrant’s farewell, we can understand the sense of place that has become so important in Irish culture. With a diaspora spanning continents and millions of people who feel Irish, this sense of place is a fascinating one 100 years since the foundation of an independent Irish state. Although a very young political entity, Ireland’s sense of history seems timeless.
If this sleep were on you in Cill na Dromad or some grave in the West,
It would ease my sorrow, though great the affliction and I’d not complain.
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, No. 68
In this poem, it scarcely matters where Cill na Dromad actually is. It could even be fictional, for all that it matters. The point is, as Seán Ó Tuama reminds us, we all know what Cill na Dromad is: “the centre of one’s universe, the beloved home-place”.
In all of this literature connected with place – even in the nature lyrics written by the monks in the golden age of early Christianity – there is no sense of the mystic presence of God or Spirit such as one finds in the literature of other peoples. Rather one is continually struck with the feeling that place and natural phenomena connote above all stability, certainty, eternity on earth… The traditional treatment of home-place and territory in literature survived in good measure the linguistic changeover in the nineteenth century from Irish to English.
In my research of religion in Irish folksong, I've repeatedly come across this idea that Christian values are largely absent from early Irish texts. Instead, there are much stronger pagan themes relating to the aesthetics of the natural world. Seán Ó Tuama reminds us that “there is no sense of sexual sin” in most of Irish literature.
no priest or friar will I believe
that it’s sin to couple in love
- Ó Tuama and Kinsella, An Duanaire, Poems of the Dispossessed, no. 73
Since the sagas of early Ireland, throughout the learned writings of the Middle Ages, up to contemporary folksong, Irish poetry would seem to embrace a carnal comprehension of love. It often alludes to the physical act in the wilderness of the land itself.
Interestingly, this love of home-place was tied up with the landscape, the indigenous animals, the rivers and hills, and the local language itself. Thanks to the translation from Gaeilge to English, we can now listen to the thoughts and ideas of our ancestors even if we weren't lucky enough to study Irish in a good school that encouraged us to keep it up long enough to interpret ancient Irish poetry. With poetry, melody or mythology, we can better relate to people who historically lived in Ireland.
I do not like referring to people who lived in 19th or 17th or 15th century Ireland as “Irish” because I struggle to accept that we have enough in common with their culture to claim to be compatriots. As far as people can be connected from such a temporal distance, we do share a lot. But I share as much with the people who lived in Dublin as I do with my own great-great-great-grandfather. Very little. I share genes with my family. I share the physical experience of this city with its former residents. But the city has changed so much; almost unrecognisably in many parts. So is it really the same place? Not to mention the evolving cultural influences that have impacted the city’s shapes, sights, sounds, smells, etc. Thanks to the supremacy of American media, Dubliners now have more in common with the Kardashians than with their own grandparents' generation.
As William J Smyth said in 1985,
“sense of place is bound up with memory, identity, caring; with articulating the true nature of our past experiences so as to enable us, more creatively, to engage the present, and through that the future.
It is possible to share these past experiences through the songs and music of the past. We can use these memories to help us define ourselves. Only with an appreciation of what's gone before can we cast judgement on our own past and our own identity. If we can't engage with our own community, we're left alone to forge meaning and identity through other sources; like American media.
Who we are is much more complex than our family history. Likewise, where we're from is much more complex than the physical space in which we find ourselves. Like a map, a physical location is “static” and “does not capture the rounded sense of place as experienced by the insider”:
This experience involves all the senses – of seeing, feeling, of sound, or touch or taste. The map does not capture the Proustian smell of hayfields and the cowhouse, the ritual of the calendar feasts, of places saturated with pain and love, meanness and meaning. Neither does the map capture the excitement and roguery of the market, the squalor and the songs of the back streets, the variety of human life in city, town and kitchen.
It's these 'memory-moments' that make us who we are. They grant us our cultural references. I believe that culture is behaviour; we are what we do. Smyth said in 1985 that, "To know who you are as a people is vital to the balance of all our lives." We have to be careful to stave off the gradual dissolution of local memory and therefore local identity. This could easily happen if we don't remember the things that brought us to where we are. It has happened before. Indeed, it's already happened in large parts of western Ireland where songs, stories, language has been lost. Looking at Dublin in 2016, is the cult of progress is "eliminating part of our memory, part of our identity, part of our future"?