Historiography. What does this mean? It is the history of history. Unless time travel is invented, historical events are set in stone. However our understanding and interpretation of them is eternally variable.
A shortish example should suffice. It has been the explicit foreign policy of every German government since August 1914 to absolve Germany of the responsibility for triggering World War I. To do this, German officials removed incriminating documents from their ministries and paid sympathetic historians from the USA to promote this world-view, while discriminating against domestic historians who would work against this objective. The origins of World War I remain a controversial historical topic to this day in a way that is contrasted by how Germany was absolutely responsible for a flagrant breach of global peace in 1939. However, this has not entirely stopped the rest of the world from paraphrasing Lady Bracknell about starting world wars.
The BBC has been marking the centenary of the Easter Rising this weekend. Radio 4’s Today programme had Nick Robinson in Dublin to report on the commemorations of an ‘armed insurrection against British rule’ and the ‘Proclamation of the Provisional Government if the Irish Republic’. In Irish historiography, the Rising is seen as a defining act, on a par with the American Declaration of Independence and the stormings of the Winter Palace and Bastille for the Russians and French respectively.
Well, up to a point. All of the other events were successful. The Rising was put down. It was the ferocity with which it was suppressed that further fanned the flames of Irish independence and made it a tipping-point. But this ferocious response to the Rising may have been because the it took place right in the middle of the First World War. The Rising did have a lasting effect. The Irish Free State was created as a self-governing Dominion six years later.
The Easter Rising was marked by Today without much context. By contrast, when the seventieth anniversary of Battle of Britain day was marked last year, it was as part of the narrative of defeat and retreat in the Battle of France, evacuation from Dunkirk and the battle itself.
The Rising was the culmination of increasing antagonism between communities of different religious and ethnic heritage. Armed militias on all sides were in abundance and were unchecked by an increasingly impotent civil authority. Both sides were illegally importing weapons, the Republicans doing so in broad daylight and in open defiance of the authorities.
To get a modern perspective, imagine that the atrocities in Paris last November were preceded by various Islamist militias openly training and parading in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek with their Kalashnikovs and bomb-vests, and that the Belgian police were unable to disrupt this due to support of the local population and human rights legislation. This was analogous to what was happening in Ireland. Civil authority seemed to be collapsing well before the Rising. Of course this may just be my historiography.
Whose history can you actually trust on this? A well-annotated, detailed and hopefully objective account of the events of Ireland surrounding the Rising, written in 1922 for the 12th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, may be found here. It is written by Walter Alison Phillips, who was known to oppose Home Rule, but who was also the first Lecky Professor of Modern History in Trinity College, Dublin, from 1914 until 1939, when he retired in his mid-seventies. It has the benefit of being written as a current event by someone alive at the time who went on to live and work as an academic in the Irish Free State and Republic.
Today included a discussion about the current state of armed groups without any reference to the prevalence of militias a century ago. Armed groups do remain, but they are linked to organised crime. They number perhaps at most one-hundredth of the numbers under arms in 1914. Nick Robinson rather over-eagerly tried to suggest that there remained popular and governmental ambiguity in Ireland over the use of violence in the political process in Ireland. Why, Nick, why? This was rubbished by Professor Monica McWilliams, who appears to be impeccably non-partisan if her Wikipedia entry is anything to go by.
Another report by Robinson in the programme involved him suggesting that the events of 1916 could give new impetus to those who reject the peace process. Was this wish-fulfilment? That seemed to be the theme of his reports: the ambiguity over the justification of violence to achieve political ends by paramilitaries. When it causes genocide in Bosnia, we rightly condemn it. There is no reason to apply a double standard, especially on the BBC. We should be grateful that ethnic violence in the UK has never descended in modern times to the savagery experienced elsewhere in the world.
Robinson interviewed the President of Ireland, one Michael D Higgins. Again he pressed on his ‘ambiguity’ theme which he had carried on throughout the programme. Higgins acted almost, but not quite, like a ceremonial head of state, equating paramilitary violence with the ‘violence of empire’ in a manner reminiscent of our Mr Corbyn. The ‘violence of empire’ is accountable through officials and politicians of an organised state; arbitrary violence by paramilitaries never is. Once again Robinson asked about the Rising inspiring modern groups. Why? He tried to suggest that reconciliation was at a dead-end. So pessimistic.
The Easter Rising of 1916 is a defining event in modern Ireland. However, it is highly likely that Ireland joining the EEC in 1973 may be more significant as a driver for modernisation and allowing the country to move from being a peripheral rural backwater. Ireland’s economy and infrastructure were for decades quite backward, and this persisted into this century. I recall driving from Dublin to the border in 2002 on roads that were a travesty compared to the A5 that took me to Holyhead. There are now motorways.
The influence of the Catholic Church in political and social life, including women’s rights, has diminished in direct proportion to the revelations about the unseemly conduct of its priests. Ireland is now home to data centres used by people across Western Europe. It is becoming a modern European country. Ireland should no longer need a heritage of anti-British violence as part of its identity. The BBC should not talk up paramilitaries, as Robinson was doing.
Marking the Rising as a single, anti-British, point in history as the Today programme did this weekend, is to indulge in a historiography that validates political violence as a solution. Context was vital and this was lacking, but not for want of time. The British Government of the period was desperate to provide a form of Home Rule that would satisfy all parties to the point that the UK faced a civil war that was only averted when Germany invaded Belgium. This was not mentioned. Irishmen received 8 VCs in the battle of the Somme alone as constitutionalist Nationalists and Unionists forgot their differences and took the King’s Shilling. Pro-insurrection Republicans did not. The rest is history.
(Image: Liam Moloney)