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Ireland: The Mirage of Peace

Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland

by John M. Feehan
The Permanent Press, 152 pp., $16.95


Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland is a 152-page piece of propaganda on behalf of the Provisional IRA. It consists in about equal parts of hagiography and bad history. The hagiographical part, of which I shall have more to say, concerns the story of Bobby Sands—the young IRA man, and elected MP for Fermanagh, whose death on hunger strike, in Long Kesh Prison, in May 1981, attracted worldwide media attention. Mr. Feehan’s treatment of the story contains little information about Sands, and almost nothing about the activities which led to his arrest and sentence. The “historical” part of the book applies the usual techniques of propagandist historiography: highlighting of enemy atrocities; failing to mention those of one’s own side; converting a far-fetched interpretation of a given event into the narrated event itself, and so on.

In itself, Bobby Sands and the Tragedy of Northern Ireland would not merit extensive attention here. But the phenomenon—Irish Republicanism—of which this book is a product does, I believe, deserve such attention. I propose, therefore, in this essay, to consider Irish Republicanism, both historically and in relation to the present condition of Northern Ireland and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, which in March 1986 led to a general strike and violent protest in Northern Ireland and will almost certainly be the cause of more such protest in the months to come. I shall take account of Mr. Feehan’s book insofar as it sheds light on the Irish Republican mystique, the source of the initial drive leading to the present troubles.

The father of Irish Republicanism was Theobald Wolfe Tone, in the French Revolutionary period. Wolfe Tone was one of a number of European patriotes who during the 1790s—in Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland, and various parts of Italy as well as in Ireland—sought to shake off monarchical, aristocratic, clerical, and/or alien rule and turn their countries into sister republics, républiques soeurs of la Grande Nation, Revolutionary France.

Wolfe Tone died, by his own hand, in 1798, as a prisoner of the British. His life and death remained, and remain, an inspiration to Irish physical-force separatists. His aim “to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils,” was also the political aim of the hero of the 1916 Rising, Patrick Pearse, who called Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown “the holiest place in Ireland,” thus deliberately putting Tone above Saint Patrick.

Today the members of the Provisional IRA (“Provos”) claim, not without some warrant, to be following in the footsteps of Tone and Pearse. The considerable element of truth in this claim is a source of constant embarrassment, dull rather than acute, to the principal established democratic political parties in today’s Republic of Ireland. These parties—Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, especially Fianna Fail—profess a commitment to the ideals of Tone and Pearse. Yet it is obvious that today’s Republic of Ireland is not the republic for which Tone and Pearse died. Their republic—never attained in fact, but undying, or undead, as an ideal—was a republic of the whole island of Ireland, totally separate from Britain.

The real-life political entity which today bears the same name as that ideal entity—the Republic of Ireland—is territorially deficient, by the exclusion of the six northeastern counties, still a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And today’s republic—the real-life one, as distinct from the ghost one—is spiritually deficient also, from an Irish Republican point of view. A real-life republic, a democracy expressive of the material demands of ordinary citizens, cannot possibly live up to an ideal, ever-unrealized republic, for which heroes and martyrs died. Yet citizens of the real-life republic feel—at times and dimly, for the most part—a bit guilty about not living up to the ideal republic, the ghost, and vaguely aspire to catching up with it somehow, someday.

The aspiration is feeble—because common sense keeps breaking in—and it is also hopeless. It is hopeless because the ghost republic is not about living up to. It is about dying up to, and killing up to. And these, the sacrificial elements, which are the sole substantial elements of the cult, are looked after by a minority subculture, a sort of hereditary priesthood of blood: the IRA; today, the Provisional IRA.

The ghost republic and its bloody priesthood have a perennially unsettling effect on the real-life republic. Most citizens of the real-life republic don’t really want Northern Ireland; that is, the real-life Northern Ireland. But they do yearn a bit, when they happen to think of it, for a kind of ghost Northern Ireland, an imaginary entity which will someday be united, by consent, with today’s real-life republic, thus making that republic identical, territorially at least, with the republic of Tone and Pearse. This would close a schism (of sorts) in the soul; it would also, it is supposed, make those frightening priests redundant, and end the blood sacrifices.

So successive democratic governments, in the real-life republic, are impelled to lay claim to Northern Ireland, and to assert that the separation of Northern Ireland from the republic constitutes an injustice which must be repaired. It must be repaired, the democratic leaders insist, peacefully and by consent. But as a majority of the population of Northern Ireland passionately and consistently refuses its consent, the injustice in question is most unlikely to be repaired, peacefully and by consent. Since this has become rather obvious by now, the attempt to unite Ireland, peacefully and by consent, turns in practice into unintended legitimation of the Provisional IRA, those who are most committed to the rectification of the injustice which must, by common consent of the majority (around 65 percent, according to polls) of the republic’s citizens, be achieved.

Thus there are “hard” and “soft” versions of the demand for a united Ireland; the hard version being directly inspired by the vision of the ghost republic, and the soft version reflecting the same vision, at second hand. And the two versions share the allegiance of the consciously and politically “Irish” elements in the population of the United States. The hard version in America is what keeps the Provisional IRA going in Ireland itself through money collected in American cities, and through pro-IRA propaganda exercises, using occasions such as the annual St. Patrick’s Day march along Fifth Avenue.

The soft version—of which the principal contemporary exponents are Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—condemns the violence of the Provisional IRA. But it agrees with the Provisional IRA, to the extent that it insists that the only acceptable “solution” to the “problem” is a united Ireland. “By consent,” adds the soft version. But how exactly do you get unity by consent, when that consent is firmly refused—as it is by the Ulster Protestant population, nearly one million people, a majority of the population of Northern Ireland?

I have put that question, on various occasions, to a number of exponents of the soft version, both in Ireland and in the United States. The answers are invariably offhand and hazy, amounting to little more than a verbal shrug. But what the shrug has to imply in the context of “we must have unity by consent” is that, if the Ulster Protestants (Unionists) go on refusing their consent, they have no one but themselves to blame if the Provisionals go on attacking them. Thus the soft version abets the hard version, as the “nice cop” works together with the “touch cop.” New forms of this relationship have now appeared as a result of the Anglo-Irish Agreement concluded between Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher, at Hillsborough in County Down, last November 15. I will consider these later.

At this point it is necessary to consider the religious dimension of Irish Republicanism, which has undergone a notable mutation since the ideology first took shape under the guidance of Theobald Wolfe Tone in the 1790s. Wolfe Tone and his friends, like their contemporary patriotes everywhere, were militant secularists, deists, or atheists, contemptuous of superstition, and especially of Roman Catholic superstition. Wolfe Tone, like most of his comrades in the leadership of the United Irishmen, was a secularist of Protestant background. He and his friends saw themselves as the advance guard of the Enlightenment in still-benighted Ireland, leading their backward Catholic fellow countrymen toward enfranchisement, both from material despotism and from their Romish superstitions.

But when the flame of Irish Republicanism was relit, in the early twentieth century, by the Catholic Patrick Pearse, in the name of Tone, it was a different kind of flame. Tone’s secular ideology meant less than nothing to Pearse. What interested Pearse about Tone was Tone’s sacrifice, which Pearse proposed to emulate, and did in 1916 when, after his surrender, he was promptly executed. And Pearse was emulating not just Tone but Jesus Christ, as the dating of the Easter Rising was meant to exemplify. Pearse’s ideology, wildly remote from Tone’s, was a syncretic mysticism, fusing Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism into one. And it was Tone’s ironic fate to become the major saint in the Pearsean pantheon. The grave of the man who had set out to emancipate his country from superstition had become “the holiest place in Ireland.”

Anthropologists tell us that, on the collective farms of contemporary western Siberia, shamanism has taken syncretic forms, blending communist teaching with traditional beliefs. In this way the Parisian Communards defeated in 1871 took refuge in Lake Baikal where they were metamorphosed into otters, to whom the Siberian collective farmers of today offer sacrifice in order to ensure fulfillment of their quotas under the Party’s fishery plan.*

The metamorphosis of Theobald Wolfe Tone, in the thaumaturgic hands of Patrick Pearse, is hardly less fishy.

In any case, the mystical Republicanism of Patrick Pearse, unlike the secular Republicanism of (premetamorphic) Tone is an ideology of and for Catholics. Ulster Protestants reject it in all its forms, hard, soft, or disguised (as in the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement). And so, to seek to incorporate Ulster Protestants in any kind of Irish republic is a recipe for holy war. Which is what is already going on, on a small scale and intermittently.

The point is made effectively, though quite inadvertently, in John Feehan’s book on Bobby Sands. Sands’s self-immolation was thoroughly Pearsean, and Mr. Feehan’s exaltation of Sands is in a Pearsean mode (though lacking any trace of Pearse’s power with words). “The conflict has very little to do with religion,” says Mr. Feehan at one point, but his own metaphors and analogies and those of his hero, Sands himself, say something different. Like Pearse, Sands saw himself as one of a line of martyrs for the republic (beginning with Tone) whose sacrifice repeats the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. On receiving a fourteen-year sentence for possession of arms with intent to endanger life, Sands wrote the lines:

  1. *

    If you doubt me, see Caroline Humphrey, Karl Marx Collective: Economy, Society and Religion on a Siberian Collective Farm (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 408.

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