The C. B. S. Legacy Book/Record Album: The Irish Uprising, 1916-1922
The Parnell Tragedy
What can now usefully be termed the C.B.S. Legacy view of Irish history—glossy, reverential, hollow and glibly inaccurate—is enshrined within two shamrock spangled records that celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of “The Irish Uprising, 1916-1922.” The occasional literal inaccuracies are trivial; it is the lack of serious historical perception of which these are symptomatic that is important. “Four times in a hundred and eighteen years, small but absolutely dedicated bands of Irishmen etc…”—the egregiously sepulchral tones of the commentator admirably fit the banality of a production which can think of nothing better to do with Eamon de Valera than make him recite information that might be available in any guidebook. However, the marvelous traditional songs with which the whole thing is interwoven are well worth having, for it is the fake yet stirring quality of so many of their words, together with the genuine emotional content of their tunes, that suggests the historical complexity and true enigmatic nature of Irish nationalism. The C.B.S. Legacy view of course takes these songs at face value, believing doubtless that the Bold Fenian Men really were capable of making “the false Saxon yield/Many a red battlefield,” that the I.R.A. marched to Dublin with “bayonets glittering in the sun,” and that the reason no answering signal came “from lonely Banna strand” was anything but that Pearse and Co. had loused it up. There is no hint here that Rory Brugha’s father (we hear the son’s recorded voice) fought in Easter Week against other Catholic Irishmen, or that after “Ireland had won her independence” he was shot to death by “independent” Irishmen for over-devotion to the cause. The C.B.S. Legacy view of Irish history is the “sunburstry” of the twentieth century; it is partly redeemed here by the accompaniment of a book of excellent contemporary photographs, of which only one or two have been misleadingly captioned.
Irish nationalism was never an obvious or straightforward affair. Mr. Abels, though not over-subtle himself, has at least stumbled over this truth early in his readable account of one of the most enigmatic of all Ireland’s heroes. Charles Stewart Parnell, he tells us, “was a member of the invading class of English so much hated by the Irish”; and, two pages later, he relates how Parnell’s ancestors had “achieved renown as Irish patriots fighting…against the English.” There is of course a perfectly good sense in which these two statements can be reconciled, and by doing so one draws near to the heart of the problem, which is that the Irish and the English never confronted each other clearly as distinct and hostile nations. Descendants of the most ancient Gaelic families were always among the staunchest upholders of “British rule”; the best known founder of republican separatism, Wolfe Tone, was a descendant of one of Cromwell’s conquering soldiers. But all this is a bit too much for Mr. Abels who, having stumbled carelessly over …