The simulacra of history in Ireland in 2016
Cork (where else?), April 2011
It is a de rigueur claim, one which usually devolves into sniffy auto-exoticism, that Ireland as a polity is the most ‘fixated’, ‘obsessed’, or ‘rapt’ by the figure of the past. No other country, it is argued in all seriousness, has a relationship to its past as brimming with futile energy and such negative connotations tantamount to the parameters of an indulgent, self-inflicted, mental illness. “Impervious to psychoanalysis”, quoth Freud, “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide” endeth Bertie Ahern, as last night riffed on by Enda Kenny.
Colonialist gas-lighting passes for historical discourse in Ireland: you are instructed to abjure the past, but take from it too this or that false or tendentious fragment, always in isolation from the whole context, to cement the overall confidence trick.
‘Civil war politics’ is the current cliché contorted out of all meaning (as much as ‘Trotskyite’) in the general election campaign; framed as something old, weather-beaten and above all primitive which we must strive to forget, or transcend. So much the better to turn the corner, or whatever metaphor of 80 proof whig historiography you’re having yourself.
It is a boast, delivered with chest-thumping braggadocio, that the very detail of the record, not only doesn’t matter at all, but must be obliterated from sight as an obstacle to ‘political maturity’, and ‘growth’. The latter I am undecided as to whether is psychosexual or psycho-fiscal, or some alloy of both, after the stylings of RTE’s nightly forays into Strength Through Joy, Operation Transformation.
Given that the Irish civil war was as much a bifurcation along left/right axes of political economy (and not partition as avid repeat viewers of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins seem to believe) this should all give us some pause for extreme suspicion.
Ireland’s predicament really would be tragic if it was not so clearly explicable by the agency of her post-independence bourgeoisie (politicians included), as evinced in their eagerness to evade a clear-minded account of rights and wrongs over the last century. As with denazification on the continent, a persistent civic myth held to be true supposes that Ireland was decolonised after 1922.
James Connolly famously feared we would merely run a new flag up the mast and daub the post-boxes green in a continuation of Anglo-American capitalism with native managers. Who could confound him from our vantage point in 2016? It is not as if we want for a century in which to have proved him wrong, and all we have to show his ghost now is Pat Rabbitte.
Perhaps here I am bidden to concede something singular, if still not unique, to Ireland. Is there another (ex-?) colonial context where quite as much cap-doffing, and special-pleading for empire’s constabulary and compradors, carries on so breathlessly, and, furthermore, with dissent from this farce being regularly pathologised as ‘lunatic’ and ‘fringe’?
Moreover, with what unfounded confidence, and entirely unaccomplished reading, does someone draw equivalence between the violence of the colonised and the violence of the coloniser? It is contemptible ignorance to so smugly brandish the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition of violence, so that capitalist control of the means of production can wipe the blood clean from its lapels and shoes. The Great Famine of 1845-49 then becomes an ‘accident’, and the bawdy peasants simply weren’t helping themselves.
Sainted Brian Lenihan Jr. would have
been apt to heckle in the House of Commons, after the winter of 1846, that ‘everyone partied’. Some had lazy beds in Bulgaria. The political science faculty would have wondered what Grattan’s parliament would have done, if it had been reformed.
Newspaper Columnism in Ireland (I have in mind the 1968 diagnosis of Ulrike Meinhof here), if transposed to other contexts of blatant imperial rapine and subjugation, would likewise produce comically perverse r
esults. We might be treated to an Amerindian Eoghan Harris valorising Hernan Cortés because the Aztec religion carried on human sacrifice, for example. And wasn’t there the boon of learning Spanish through prayer and brutalisation? Vote for the encomiendas parties on 26th of February – for stability.
The RIC or DMP constable ekes out a radioactive half-life in the head of every Irishman and Irishwoman who absorbs post-colonial cues and signifiers from a wider aether of prattle about ‘civic engagement’, aforementioned ‘political maturity’ and fucking Seanad Reform. Self-abnegation in Ireland really seems to surpass almost all other places the British have trod their jackboot. It is as if a spectral Helga is still moored out on the Liffey, the anti-Battleship Potemkin if you will; crewed by eldritch Irish sailors so obtuse that they settle for shooting the lad who suggests the mutiny over, and over, and over again.
You just know the loci of this st
uff too: The Marian Finucane Show, or The Week in Politics on RTE; Inside Politics at the Irish Times; screeds in the letters pages bearing addresses south of the river; any of Stephen Collins’, or Noel Whelan’s, or John Bruton’s, or Terry Prone’s incantations of ‘softly, softly, sociopathy’ across a b
asket of broadsheet newspapers; Hugh O’Connell’s Young Fine Gael cumann of one over at Journal.ie; the clown car of the entire writing staff (yes, Kerrigan too) of the Irish/Sunday Independent. I could be worn out from going on, and already am.
On this very point, cop humour is not a sectional interest as even still in the imperial core of Britain, but almost a popular past-time in Ireland, on which disgusting fortunes of social capital have been accrued. Panti
Bliss, The Rubber Bandits, Niall Breslin – all have smacked youthful lipstick on the pig at some stage or other to mutual benefit: inoculating ‘the guard’ from scrutiny, and mediating his presence into that of non-threatening ‘ally’. He’s a sound lad. He has a laugh, while doing a tough job, and yet you call yourself a socialist. The only bent copper an Irish liberal foresees was a member of The Village People.
Nobody’s been reading any Engels, evidently. His early visits to Dublin, in the 1830s, were a warning to him of impending milit
arisation of the public square (‘the plague of blue locusts’) that had yet to been seen even in England itself. Fitting really, that affection persists as strongly as it does for the filth, where the modern police state truly took seed all that time ago.
A recent Journal.ie headline spluttered about RTE’s flagship 1916 drama series, Rebellion, in its house-style of excessive familiarity, as follows: “Was an unarmed policeman REALLY shot dead at Dublin Castle during the Easter rising?” Which supposes this is almost a live moral quandary unlike actual British rule itself. In Ireland. Right now.
Consciousness is really only at its usual nadir amongst the petit bourgeoisie. I am describing nothing whatsoever of novelty. On the occasion of the Luas strike last week, one inconvenienced commuter thus exclaimed to the Irish Times that Jim Larkin (yes, really) wouldn’t support a tram stoppage
. Jim Larkin would have kicked him up the arse in 1913 for saying the exact same thing in a presumably achronic formula of words.
The cause celébre here though might be failed property developer Tom D’Arcy (neé Fianna Fáil) who, on RTE television in 2014, claimed of ‘Constant (sic) Markiewicz’ that ‘he (!) died in that park over there’, which was apparently of some utterly abstruse significance to his property portfolio being auctioned off by liquidators.
This general reproduction of colonial ideology in Ireland, abetted by (in fact) an exceptional dearth of historical knowledge, has lately segued into blatant recuperation of the ‘legacy’ of empire (cf. the neutralising use of ‘heritage’ in the United States about the Confederacy, passim) as a neat dichotomy of ‘two tri
bes’, or two sets of equally valid lived/historical experience that are putatively capable of ‘reconciliation’. Mutual exclusivity; right and wrong, where- and why-fore: get thee all behind me, because the skipper of ‘Ireland Inc.’ has this greasy till to ring up for green jerseys.
A colleague of mine, Niamh Puirseil remarked recently that the idiom of this imperialist revisionism cleaves heavily to words such as ‘forget’ and ‘forgotten’ – but which are used, in this case, to signal that the participation of Irishmen in the army of the British empire during the First World War ‘deserves’ memorialisation which is overdue.
Funny what we’re urged not to forget, isn’t it? Irish soldiers of the Indian Mutiny, who went AWOL in Punjab the year after the Amritsar massacre; or conscientious objectors; or those court-martialled and shot for shellshock, will likely not enjoy the uncritical genuflection which other, more willing, pawn sacrifices on the Western Front receive. An RTE camera crew certainly won’t be at any event held for them, when they would be quite unlikely to catch a scion of the British royal family passing wind while officiating, so as to parse that for geopolitical significance.
It is probably too mild to say the rank servility of it all is a betrayal of the wretched of the earth: those who glimpsed the revolution in Ireland (1916-21), the first overseas English colony, as a beacon of hope in the cause of their respective emancipations. The turning point of the course of Irish independence, after all, was not as much the execution of the rising’s leaders by military tribunals, in May 1916, but moreso the rejection of press-ganging and brow-beating into imperialist wars at the general election of November 1918. Home Rule was discerned then, unlike now, as a shabby self-determination which was no brake on the projection of British power with Irish (and other) bodies.
Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh both are reputed to have studied guerrilla warfare as practiced in Ireland. One of the first countries to recognise the Irish Republic when proclaimed (again) in 1919, at all, was the Soviet Union (our government proved tardy in returning that favour). Soviet textbooks in the 1930s over-egged the pudding considerably in characterising the 1916 Easter Rising as a ‘Red Week’ (even if this was being playful with contemporary right-wing reaction to the event) but the esteem in which the Rising was held abroad should be obvious.
Lenin was not going to chastise Pearse for taking a German consignment of munitions, either. Anyone getting a nosebleed from harping on the latter point is guaranteed to be seen elsewhere complaining that socialists (see also: refugees, water protestors, etc.) own smartphones, and you really need to tell your boyfriend to just stop.
Why is this specific aspect, of Ireland’s significance to global anti-imperialism, not the centrepiece of riotous public celebrations this year? The rich historical ironies that could be teased out are either too much strong beer for our establishment or (just as likely) simply elude them altogether; such as how Lord Mountbatten’s assassination in Sligo, in 1979, owed to the partition of a country which had been the blueprint for his own, of India and Pakistan, as the last Viceroy of the British Raj, in 1947.
Irish partition was not any less instructive for British colonial experimentation everywhere else; from South Africa’s Bantustans, to the sundering of the Palestinian Mandate in 1948. Both Afrikaner and Zionist aspired to what ‘the Ulsterman’ had achieved here, about an hour from Dublin by car: a resilient outpost of white supremacy amidst a dense thicket of ‘savagery’ and ‘superstition’. Enoch Powell retreating in political disgrace to Northern Ireland in the 1960s was scarcely a coincidence either.
Consider too by far the most resonant line of the 1916 proclamation to this day; that which pledges ‘cherish(-ing) all the children of the nation equally’. What neuters this passage’s original potency, in nearly all contexts in which it is deployed now, is the telling omission of its crucial subordinate clause ‘, oblivious to the differences carefully fostered by an alien government’, and the reference to Ireland as a motherland, ‘summons her children to her flag’, which preceded it.
This was an encapsulation of anti-sectarian ambition, at least, on the part of the proclamation’s signatories. It was clearly conscious that the dynamic of British rule in Ireland was that of Caesarist ‘divide and conquer’; and is a faint allusion to the ethnic cleansing and plantation of the interior of the island in the 17th century too.
This might chime with us for all kinds of reasons; such as how public and private sector worker are pitted against each other in a zero-sum game foisted on us regularly by parasitic, yellowpack media concerns owned outright by oligarchs. Or we might be minded of dregs of humanity such as Colm Keaveney TD, (Labour, then Fianna Fáil, but what’s the difference) who asked transgender patients awaiting sex reassignment surgery to cancel their planned operations so mooted ‘sick children’ could be seen first.
You get the idea. Hierarchies of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, by merely being mapped out, could function as an adequate social history of Ireland.
The oft misquoted passage could also prompt us to straightforwardly contemplate the partition of Ireland; something which, as I have said already, had tangible implications for the third world afterwards. As lately as 2002, the Bush White House found the legal framework for its Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib torture compounds, and global network of extraordinary rendition ‘black-sites’, in the precedent of Ireland v. United Kingdom (1977) at the European Court of Human Rights.
This is the so-called ‘Hooded Men’ case about the brazen evil of the British security service interrogators and gaolers in Northern Ireland, and which you’ve probably already seen re-enacted in the Abu Gharib photographs. Britain’s expert witnesses lied on the stand during the original trial of the facts, and now the case has just been listed for re-hearing this year; only in light of documents unsealed under the thirty-year rule.
Really, I have never been so charmed by any contention as that Ireland should be seen as an incubator in which imperialist crimes and libels are hatched to check for feasibility of their wider deployment. The evidence frequently conforms to this assessment, from the 1180s onwards.
However, it is sadly indicative of the wider malaise that, instead, ‘cherish all the children’ has been run down into a thought-terminating cliché used incessantly by the charity and NGO sector in Ireland. It is most often seen in the wild in pleas for more resources to stop up gaps in social goods the Irish state is too happy to shirk from providing, per mainline neoliberalism.
The witless usually take the line to be a reference to literal children. Others, by far more insidious, seem to take it to mean ‘foetuses’. The phrase is by now an heuristic with a high confidence interval for when someone is talking absolute shite, which should give it staying power right out to 2116, when Ireland is taken back by the sea.
So it really is with eminent predictability, and no surprise, that the outgoing government’s overall approach has been to convene a ‘decade of commemorations’ that notionally runs from 2012 to 2022, the prelude to which had been the first (and hopefully last) state visit of Brenda Windsor to Ireland in 2011. An event about which there was so much gushing, we needed flood defences in Cork.
‘Commemoration’ is, by intention, inoffensive and, in the government’s own words, ‘inclusive’. If you can imagine the patent absurdity of the same Soviet victory parade of 24th June 1945, except that Nazi banners weren’t hurled to the ground and instead respectfully flown at jaunty half-mast before being returned to their cases, then you get some of the picture. Perhaps General von Paulus of the encircled Sixth Army could have doffed his cap to Stalin on Red Square, for TASS to later remark what a classy gesture it was.
Arlene Foster, the new leader of the DUP, Northern Ireland’s obstreperous tribute act to the South African National Party, has already spurned all overtures to attend ‘commemorations’ of the 1916 rising planned by the outgoing government. This, despite the plainly useless minister whose brief it is, Heather Humphreys, pledging fun, Tayto, Club rock-shandy and (presumably orange) face-paint for all the family.
Foster has a point (at least of consistency). She is assured of her convictions. She is after all an Ulster Unionist: half-hearted white nationalists are almost a paradox. She has previously referred to the 1916 rising as a ‘rebellion’, encoding it in language of ‘order and anarchy’ redolent of, say, the French deep state’s description of fighting the Algerian war of independence as its ‘policing action’. And that might tell you nigh-on everything too about how RTE chose to name its flagship drama about the events of 1916.
In southern Ireland, meanwhile, ideological confusion simply reigns. Whatever we need to ‘move beyond’, it is not the past itself, but rather the outlandish images of it that are carelessly crafted to serve the journeyman niedrigpolitik of the southern establishment. They care only for Northern Ireland to raid for cheap rhetorical ploys, and a peanut gallery of balaclavas and Kalashnikovs with which to scare mythical ‘middle Ireland’ (apparently it’s like Ukraine: the kulaks stretch for miles) about those ‘terrorists’ in Sinn Féin staging, um, an electoral insurgency. If Northern Ireland did not exist, it might be necessary for them to invent it.
It’s all too much like the death throes of the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918, facing down the Sinn Féin of that time from which all the current political parties (except the eponymous) are now loathe to admit their descent.
The ensuing ‘good’ IRA/ ‘bad’ IRA problematique has previously enjoyed such famous exponents as Dara O’Bríain, playing plummy ‘safe’ Irishman to a British audience; and mad-as-a-box-of-frogs country squire (and erstwhile Fianna Fáil brains-trust) Martin Mansergh. As this shibboleth is told, the ‘old’, a.k.a. ‘good’, IRA achieved (nominal) freedom from the British empire by force of arms. Sometime afterwards, between 1969 and 1970, petrine succession was ruptured in unspecified circumstances when the ‘bad’, i.e. Provisional, IRA took up arms instead to, eh … get out from under the cosh of the British empire.
One threatens to miss the point asking after the finer subtleties (the ‘minutiae’ to others) if so much as basic narrative coherence has already been jettisoned: such as whom were members of a certain proscribed organisation the Irish state interned throughout the Second World War; or what portent exactly to attach to that kaleidoscope of splinter IRA factions after the first split in 1970. Don’t accept less than a Daily Edge quizicle telling you that you’re Samantha from Sex and The City and a member of the INLA.
Meanwhile, the government has dispatched the Irish army (huist, ‘Defence Forces’) to every primary school in the country with a copy of the 1916 proclamation and a folded tricolour. This, John A Murphy informed us in December, is to act as a demonstration of ‘the legitimacy of the state’. Quite.
History can never be value-free, yet even most Irish historians themselves have failed in this duty and fallen into cognitive dead-zones about the centenary’s obvious political content. It fell to President Higgins to wonder aloud, just before the election was called (30th January) who was writing the story of the oppressed, and not that of the oppressor, or the oppressor’s lackeys:
Certainly it hasn’t been self-appointed conscience of liberal Ireland, and primus inter pares of the advisory panel to the state’s commemorations, historian Diarmaid Ferriter. He can only find time to wish British-style internment on people who wear tracksuits and others he vaguely charges with ‘abuse (of) the past’.
That he is far from the worst offender either gives some hint of the grim prevailing conditions. Really sophomoric historical analysis, being either barely disguised Redmondite propaganda clinging to impossible counter-factuals, or unreconstructed platitudes riffing off of Seamus Heaney poetry, has predominated. It isn’t so much tumbling out of the woodwork as stripping the paint off it, with fumes from ordure.
There are however, promising signs of a popular reclamation of history from the gatekeepers that have failed us in academia no less than in politics. Witness recent protests to save Moore Street from becoming a shopping centre across the road from another shopping centre.
Still though, my favourite remains Enda Kenny being called a ‘cunt’ by a member of the public inside the GPO (while water protesters banged on the windows outside), when the commemorations programme was officially launched there back in 2014. There’s hope for the republic yet.
Image – Fiona Hanley
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