Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Robert Ballagh, Tom Barry and an attempt to smudge
I see artist Robert Ballagh is under some fire in the Letters page of today's Irish Times. That's because, speaking at a commemoration ceremony for Tom Barry in Cork on Monday, Ballagh rejected Irish government plans to commemorate those who died in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence with those who died fighting in the First World War. I'm with Ballagh on this one but you can see what the Irish government is trying to do. You could also mistake what the Irish government is trying to do.
The mistake would be to think that the Irish government wants to give due respect to those who fought on the side of Britain in the First World War. It's certainly true that many of those who went to fight in British uniform did it for commendable motives like the freedom of small nations. It's also true that a lot of them did it, believing John Redmond's claim that there would be Irish Home Rule at the end of the war. There were also many who joined because it sounded like an adventure that'd be over by Christmas, and probably more still who joined because they desperately needed a job. So is the government working for a joint commemoration so we'll all give due respect for these men who died in an imperialist war of massive slaughter? Ah no, Virginia.
What the Irish government is trying to do is take the sting out of the coming commemorations of Easter 1916 and beyond. The fact is, Tom Barry and the men and women of 1916 fought for an Irish republic, one that, in that near-to cliched phrase, cherished all of the nation's children equally. And the republic they had in mind was not one that stopped somewhere between Dundalk and Newry, or Belleek and Ballyshannon. The government knows that the twenty-six counties, which has been screwed by a bunch of bankers and bloated developers, will look very shriveled and hopeless alongside the vision of Tom Barry and the rest. They also fear that people may ask why successive governments in the twenty-six counties did damn all for half-a-century and more about the partition of their country. So what to do?
Well, that's obvious. Hop on the respect-for-the-Irishmen-who-died-in-World-War-One bandwagon. And then hitch that bandwagon to the struggle for independence in the early part of the twentieth century. That way, anyone who objects to joint commemoration may sound as though they think little of those who died in the First World War.
I've interviewed Ballagh in detail on this matter and I know he has genuine respect for those Irishmen who died in World War One. It's in my book Whose Past Is It Anyway? But he's not going to let Fine Gael or the gallant Labour Party cow him into silence about the difference between men who died in a pointless war between imperial powers and men who died fighting for a self-governing, self-respecting thirty-two-county republic. He asks “Can you imagine any US president or French president calling for the proud republican commemorations of the 4th of July or Bastille Day on the 14th of July to be muted or balanced by commemorations of North American loyalism or the Bourbon dynasty ?"
That's what I call a good question.