Watching the Irish state commemorate the Easter Rising in Dublin this morning, I was struck by the battle of ownership over this pivotal moment in Irish and British history.
President Michael D Higgins has been at pains to emphasise that a ‘spirit of humility’ must prevail in marking such contentious historical events.
On the other hand, these events always and perhaps inevitably have a certain stiffness to them, with television cameras delightedly scanning rows of assembled ‘VIPs’. Then there is the national triumphalism – understated, I think, in this case – but undeniably present.
This speaks to a battle of ownership over the Easter Rising. The more bigoted sections of Irish-Ireland have always wanted to keep 1916 to themselves. To effectively make it a small and Irish-only event. Despite the procession of brightly coloured flags carried by Irish soldiers who served under UN mandate, there are those who want 1916 to be solely about the wearing of the green, the foinse, national exclusiveness. There are bigots and small minded people who revel in 1916.
But the Easter Rising was not just about Ireland, of course. It was about Britain and – by extension – imperialism and – by extension – the world.
The Easter Rising occurred in the United Kingdom, as it was, and in the middle of a global war of competitive and murderous imperialism in which many Irish, English, Scots and Welsh died.
In the most basic sense the Rising, too, was not just an Irish event because a decent swathe of its participants – although of the Irish diaspora – were British by birth had strong imperial links.
To illustrate: here are just some of the British influences among the leadership:
Thomas Clarke: born on the Isle of Wight
James Connolly: born in Edinburgh, served British Army aged 14-21
Michael Mallin: fought with British Army in India and Afghanistan
Joseph Plunkett: Educated at Stonyhurst, England
Roger Casement: once Favourite son of the British Foreign Office, fought its imperial propaganda war
The list goes on, but this sample is illustrative. Yet some people out celebrating in Dublin today would baulk at the fact that two of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence were ‘Brits’ by birth.
After death, there were strenuous attempts by Irish Irelanders and even family members to hush up the fact that the likes of Clarke and Connolly were British-born. Connolly’s birthplace was relocated to Monaghan by those ashamed of the mere fact that he was born on the British mainland. Stupid (if of its time and place) because the Rising was never just about Ireland.
Yes, the Rising was separatist. Yes, it was motivated by a desire for ‘racial’ and cultural difference. Yes, it was anti-anglicisation. Yes, some of its participants were Irish Irelanders who couldn’t see beyond the end of their noses.
But it was also undertaken in the best egalitarian traditions of European, and pan-national, republicanism. It contained a good dose of feminism and socialism; it was anti-ancien regime, and it was – and this is the most important thing – anti-imperialist.
This might all sound too misty-eyed and hands-around-the-world in describing an event which was, like the terror attacks of today, undertaken at civilian expense by a small clique of ‘radicalised’ ‘extremists’. But the war – the WORLD war – was integral to the Rising and to the imperial system it challenged. And despite its latter-day ownership by conservatives, it was an event which would part-inspire the Russian Revolution of 1917.
It was – in terms of the class and attitude it opposed, in terms of its context, and in terms of its circumstance and real meaning – an event which transcended national boundaries. Don’t rush back to the shop with your emerald green giant foam finger but the Rising was then, when seen in a certain light, a British Rising as much as an Irish one.