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Opinion: Independent Ireland was established through violent revolution - there were few peacemakers

It is important that we don’t judge the events of the Irish revolution against fictional, sanitised versions of the Irish past, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

IN AN ARTICLE last week, the Irish Times journalist Kathy Sheridan commented that during the 1916 commemorations on Easter Sunday at the GPO, she felt a nagging sense that:

“In this street named after the Liberator, a man able to summon up crowds of hundreds of thousands and fire them up without drawing a drop of blood, surely another way could be envisaged to commemorate all those remarkable figures of peace.”

She was referring to Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond who she says helped to deliver Irish nationhood while also being “figures of peace”. 

This quote perfectly demonstrates the uneasy relationship many people in Ireland have with our violent past.

Independent Ireland was established through violent revolution. And as soon as it came into existence, the majority of those revolutionaries immediately tried to overthrow it.

With the IRA leadership claiming to be the ‘legitimate’ government of Ireland for most of the twentieth century, the political establishment in Ireland has always found it a bit awkward to explain why the violence between 1916 and 1921 was right and proper but any further attempts at revolution were (and are) morally wrong.

Instead, it has been much more comfortable embracing as its historical heroes those who fought for Ireland with words rather than bullets.

Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond have been imagined as champions of nonviolent resistance; Irish equivalents of Martin Luther King.

Nothing better demonstrates how eager some people are to place them at the centre of Irish history than the fact that Dublin City Council erected posters of the four men together as part of the centenary commemoration events for the Easter Rising.

Three of the men had died during the century before the Rising and the fourth was bitterly opposed to it. Clearly, the message was that these people are more appropriate historical role models for the people of Ireland than gunmen like Pearse and Connolly.

But looking at the history of the four men, one quickly realizes that it requires a selective historical memory to depict them as the pacifist forefathers of the modern Irish state.

Three of them (Parnell excepted) were devoted subjects of the British monarchy and the extent of their political ambitions was local autonomy under the governance of the crown.

There is nothing wrong with that, but it makes it rather complicated to imagine them as blazing a trail for the independent Irish republic that eventually emerged.

Even more problematic, however, is the idea that Grattan, O’Connell, Parnell, and Redmond were “remarkable figures of peace”. In reality, violence played a considerable role in generating the political power they wielded.

Let us start with Henry Grattan, who succeeded in winning legislative independence for all of Ireland.

In the years between 1782 and 1800, for the only time in its history, Ireland was ruled by a single parliament – albeit one that was deeply unrepresentative of the population in general.

How did Grattan achieve such a feat? Bluntly, at gunpoint.

The Irish Volunteers had been established in 1778 to ward off the threat of a French invasion but turned their attention to removing the influence of Westminster on the Irish parliament. Grattan declared the independence of this body with thousands of Volunteers lined up in formation on College Green.

It was the implicit threat of violence that forced the British government, weary from war in its American colonies, to concede the demand.

Daniel O’Connell is also a difficult fit for the label ‘man of peace’. For a start, he shot and killed a man in a duel. Not exactly a Gaelic Gandhi then.

More importantly, though O’Connell’s political power stemmed from his ability to organise massive meetings that carried the threat of disorder.

He often walked a fine line in his speeches with regard to violent rhetoric. He told one audience in Mallow, in 1843 “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”.

The phrase “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” has also been attributed to O’Connell.

It is true that O’Connell often denounced the use of violence. However, in his correspondence, there are strong hints that O’Connell rejected violence to achieve his aims because he believed such efforts would fail – rather than because he held a moral objection to bloodshed.

Charles Stewart Parnell is another Irish historical figure who doesn’t fit easily into the pacifist mould. In the 1870s, Parnell forged an informal alliance with leading Fenians with a view to increasing the pressure on the British government.

As president of the Irish National Land League during the Land War, Parnell was always reluctant to condemn the rural unrest across Ireland because it directly benefited him and his political goals.

More evidence of his ambiguity on violence was the fact that Parnell rarely denounced the Fenian dynamite campaign of the 1880s. Perhaps not surprisingly, when Parnell began to openly court the support of Fenians after the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1890, many were willing to rush to his side.

Was John Redmond a “remarkable figure of peace”? I would question whether such a label is appropriate. This is due to the fact that Redmond campaigned for Irish men to join the British army when the First World War broke out in 1914.

“No people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess,” he said – as he urged the people of Ireland to go off to war.

Of course, Redmond was encouraging violence on behalf of the state, not against it. The political establishment in Ireland has always been comfortable in accepting the legitimacy of that.

In the midst of the centenary commemorations of our independence, it is inevitable that difficult questions will be asked about the role of violence in achieving it.

It is important that we don’t judge the events of the Irish revolution against fictional, sanitised versions of the Irish past.

Caoimhín De Barra is an author and assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

His new book Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution is out now published by Currach Press. 

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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