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Events must be balanced, not a partisan ode to republicanism

By Henry McDonald

Published 27/10/2015

Patrick Pearse
Patrick Pearse

Patrick Pearse's critics often portray him as a dreamer-poet whose romantic Gaelicised vision for Ireland was more akin to the mysticism of German Volkish nationalism than the secular, anti-clerical democratic republicanism of the American and French revolutions.

This depiction of Pearse is partially justified if you scan his writings as well as his obsession on blood sacrifice. However, the leader of the Easter Rising was at least grounded in reality when it came to one vital issue - Ulster.

Belfast saw virtually no action in Easter Week 1916, even while the centre of Dublin was burning and civilians as well as soldiers and insurgents were dying in the capital's streets. The North in general remained quiet during the armed insurgency, and this is in large part down to Pearse's authority. Away from the mysticism and the fiery graveside oratory, Pearse was realistic enough to know that plotting a parallel uprising in Ireland's second city, in the industrial Protestant heartland of Ulster, would only result in sectarian slaughter.

Indeed, Pearse was so concerned about the units loyal to him in the North of Ireland that many were force-marched across into Connacht to aid a mini-rebellion by Liam Mellows and his forces in the west, conveniently removing them from mimicking the Dublin rebels by causing trouble back in Ulster. In effect, then, thanks partly to Pearse, there was no rising north of what would become the border.

Five years later, the majority of the IRA's units in Belfast demonstrated reciprocal realism - Pearse now dead, of course - by backing Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty forces after the Free State was founded and the civil war loomed.

It is worth remembering this background, particularly the absence of armed insurgency in Belfast in Easter Week 1916, when considering the republican launch in City Hall on Monday of a range of commemorations planned for next year's centenary. The top news line from the launch came from Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein veteran, former deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast and a formidable local historian whose last book Milltown Cemetery was a superb, invaluable and balanced piece of historical research.

Hartley invited loyalists in the city to take part in the commemorations as he noted that, within the working-class Protestant communities, there is a burgeoning local history movement at present. His intentions are wholly benign, and presumably he is realistic enough to acknowledge that any Ulster loyalist/unionist participation in these events are not going to turn them overnight from "misguided Irishmen" into fully-fledged republicans.

The trouble with 1916 is that to the loyalist community, it really means one thing only - July 1, the Battle of the Somme, rather than the Rising, which unionists to this day regard as a "stab in the back" during war time.

The sacrifices on the Western Front, the thousands killed going over the top, the courage in the face of what First World War historian Lynne McDonald called "hurricanes of steel" flying through No Man's Land will also resonate much more with the unionist and loyalist community than the valour displayed by the 1916 rebels, who at the time did not appear to command massive public support, even in Dublin. That came later, thanks mainly to British stupidity in executing and making martyrs out of the leaders, and then the imposition of conscription, which deeply alienated Catholic Ireland.

None of this is to suggest that unionists and loyalists should not engage in debate and discussion with republicans about Easter 1916 and its legacy.

Republicans in turn have been re-analysing their own histories and the personal connections in their families back to Irish Regiments like the Connaught Rangers that fought in the Great War. Yet the unionist and loyalist community will not be attracted to any commemorations that are simply glorified pageants with people looking ludicrous in period uniforms and costumes.

Rather, any key events to mark the centenary should be historical think-ins, debates and conferences asking hard questions of everyone about the rising's legacy. They could start with this important question: why Dublin back then but not Belfast?

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