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Thursday 2 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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Column Revolution? Who needs it – here’s what we can do instead
History tells us a popular uprising would do us no good, writes Derry Nairn – but that doesn’t mean Irish people are powerless. Here’s what we can do…

FOR THOSE IN Ireland not directly involved – that is, most of us – the waves of protest which swept the world last year made for momentous viewing.

The rule of several Arab dictators was ended. Wall Street remained under occupation for months. Russians finally stood up to Vladimir Putin. Students clashed with security forces in the UK and Chile. Violent protests broke out in Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Romania. Athenians and Madridrileños raised voices and fists. China rumbled with discontent. Web designers, football supporters, ice hockey fans, and Canadian photo caption writers got in on the act.

So why not Ireland?

These outbreaks provided Ireland with some much-needed distraction from the depressing home front. It was a year in which austerity bedded down. Unemployment continued to grow. Economic growth itself remained static. Everyone seemed to know several young emigrants and, tragically, a suicide victim or two. Our radios droned with relentlessly negative economic reports. Lucky enough to be writing a book on the history of popular revolution, one question kept nagging away at me: how had Ireland avoided its own 21st century revolution?

In recent weeks, as demonstrators requisitioned a NAMA-managed building in Cork, and economists delivered yet more damning reports on the state of the economy, the country issued a collective shrug. The Occupy encampment on Dublin’s Dame Street remains tiny. Even moderate reform proposals, such as Fintan O’Toole’s petition and Second Republic, have been handicapped by lack of support. Attempts to ignite modern Ireland in popular activism seem doomed.

Lessons from history

But, as I researched, I discovered that this is nothing new. Virtually all Irish revolutionary experiments, at least in the realm of politics, proved neither popular nor successful in their day. Glorious failure is the overriding theme of Irish revolutionary history. The sectarian rebellion of 1641, for example, led directly to the ravages of Oliver Cromwell. Outbreaks in 1848 (by the Young Irelanders) and 1867 (by the Fenians) were more political farce than full-blown revolution.

That is not to say that history cannot provide echoes of our current problems. The Rising of 1798 took place against the backdrop of a familarly restless world. The crisis at home – Catholic and Presbyterian groups united against British rule – was part of broader changes across the globe. With many Irishmen taking part, America had fought and won its war of independence from 1776 till 1781. The French Revolution kicked off in 1789. It had direct and multiple effects on Ireland, not least the attempted invasion in support of the rebels in 1796. In Haiti, beginning in 1791, slaves fought to establish the world’s first modern, independent black state. Growing literacy played a part too. Radical political pamphlets, such as Tom Paine’s best-selling Common Sense, strongly attuned Irish minds towards radical change.

The wrong question

The world which Ireland looks out upon in 2012 seems, if anything, more chaotic and unruly than in the late 18th century. As then, when Westminster had the final say on Irish politics, the Dáil finds its decision-making power proscribed from abroad. It is now the EU/IMF ‘Troika’ which directs Irish budgets. So why have we not risen up in anger? I’ve heard lots of explanations: our youth are too self-involved; we are too addicted to social media; we are inherently cautious and pessimistic; things are not actually that bad; and, my personal favourite: inspired by years of consumerism and colonial domination, our society suffers from general moral cowardice.

All of these hold some merit. It is the original question which is misguided. What good has political revolution done Ireland thus far? After all, most of our rebellions backfired. The valiant but ill-managed Rising of 1798 aimed to throw off colonial shackles. It resulted in the exact opposite. The strength of the British clampdown, the declared opposition of the Catholic hierarchy, and a lack of strategic direction led to a succession of ignominious defeats and the 1801 Act of Union; a closer relationship to British overlords.

This is not unique. A decade after guillotining its royal family, revolutionary France was ruled by a dictator. ‘All men are created equal’, the infamous line from the American Declaration of Independence, conveniently ignored the wives, slaves, and native neighbours of the US Founding Fathers. Few need reminding of Haiti’s downward trajectory since its uprising. Paralysis in present-day Egypt suggests that political revolutions of the ‘classical’ form will continue to descend into anarchy, then renewed tyranny, for some time to come.

Tahrir of the mind

Does history, then, leave Ireland with no hope? To avoid such a depressing conclusion, I would suggest a mental sidestep; a shift in the very concept of revolution. It is now a good time to re-institute the original meaning of the word. Before the late 18th century a ‘revolution’ meant a return to tradition; a cyclical restoration of former values. Though I’m confident they would be popular moves, we can no longer justify decapitating our politicians, or storming government buildings with red flags flying.

There are better historical models to mimic. Argentina, exactly a decade ago, defeated many of the same problems as Ireland now faces. Economic mismanagement and IMF debt had led to a breakdown in public services, empty supermarket shelves, and rampant crime. At first, chaos reigned. But Argentines quickly learned that money and politicians do not, contrary to popular assumption, make the world go round. They picked themselves up and formed local assemblies on street corners, subverting the role of central government. Today, in the midst of a global recession, Argentina boasts one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet. Positivity, togetherness, and a healthy ignorance towards authority shine brightest from the Argentine Cacerolazo of 2002.

Recently, saw a writer express the need:

To throw away the outworn doctrines and accepted wisdom of the past … to shove aside small minded special interest groups who stand in the way of progress and emerge from this lost decade as a generation who faced up to their challenges.

Revolutionary talk, by any standard. But the progress which Aaron McKenna alludes to will only start when our next generation of rebels choose non-political targets. Though the romantic idea of personalities like Che Guevara is appealing, it is figures such as Einstein and Marie Curie which have done more to change our world. Revolutions in the spheres of chemistry, ecology, and agriculture, often trump those of politics. This is true not only of their everyday influence, but with regard to their longevity and sustainability too.

And tackling everyday problems from a rational, scientific angle quickly becomes political anyway. Where would government representatives derive their raison d’etre, for instance, if every Irish town decided to meet online to vote on local issues? What if every household had a windmill or solar panel to produce its own energy? Or if every village grew its own food? What if barter systems could subvert the need for currency and interest-loaded loans? Crazy ideas, you might say. Impossible. But there are communities in Ireland and across the world already combining tradition with technology to pursue all of these goals.

What’s more, the causes for which the ‘classical’ revolutions were fought have reached heights of acceptance undreamed of by their former proponents. 18th century denizens would have dismissed as equally insane or impossible the notion that human rights, social welfare, and national self-determination could be enshrined in UN charters, EU treaties, and national law. As Bill Mollison once said, self-reliance is ‘the world’s most subversive practice’. We must start to challenge our situation with the greatest weapon known to revolutionaries of the past: imagination.

Derry Nairn is the author of Viva La Revolution!, a new book which looks at revolutions of the past to help us understand our current troubled world. His website is at

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