The Green Flag: The Turbulent History of the Irish National Movement
Towards a New Ireland
Irish historiography has for a long time been overshadowed by a dominant ideology: that of Irish Republicanism. The central element of this ideology consists of the Jacobin separatism of Theobald Wolfe Tone, as refracted through a particular form of Catholic-Nationalist mysticism: that of Padraig Pearse. This view of Irish history was enshrined in the Proclamation of 1916, and further sanctified as a result of the execution by the British of the signatories to that proclamation.
The proclamation called for the complete independence of all of Ireland from England. Since the setting up of an independent Irish state at the end of 1921 it has had pride of place in government offices and schools, and young minds have been encouraged to approach it in a spirit of uncritical veneration, a spirit which is also promoted by other aspects of the culture. In many ways the position of the proclamation, in Irish schools, is analogous to that of the Declaration of Independence in American schools. But there is an important difference. The American War of Independence is generally accepted as being now over, while no one adhering to the Irish Republican ideology is likely to concede that Ireland’s struggle for independence against Britain is over.
There is a paradox involved here: a paradox which endangers both progress and stability in Ireland, and which has brought tragedy into many homes both North and South. The paradox is inherent in the fact that the official ideology, which the State enjoined on the young, is an ideology to which the State does not in practice adhere, and whose consistent adherents it finds itself obliged to punish.
According to the official ideology from Tone to Pearse, the sense of Irish history lies in breaking the connection with England, “the never failing source of all our political evils,” according to Tone; and according to Pearse, “While Ireland holds these bones [the bones of the patriot dead] Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
When exactly can the connection be said to be broken? When does Ireland cease to be “unfree”?
When the Irish Free State was set up in 1922 its government claimed it had not departed from the ideals of 1916 and also maintained that through the armed struggle “freedom to achieve freedom” had been won—that is, the remaining stages toward breaking the connection could be worked out in peaceful negotiations. But Ireland still held those bones, and Republicans considered the Irish Free State to be in fact unfree. This was the justification for the continued existence of the underground Irish Republican Army, and it must be admitted that in the ideology of Tone and Pearse it was a convincing interpretation. When young people read the proclamation, and the better known and more inflammatory utterances of Tone and Pearse, and when they then looked at the state in which they lived, and which thrust these texts into their hands, they readily and justifiably convicted their elders of hypocrisy.
When in opposition, Mr. de Valera …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.