Monday, January 09, 2006


Monday Madness - IRA's place

Forgotten Irish heroes The people pictured left were part of an IRA flying column in the War of Independence.

During the War of Independence which took place from 1919 to 1921, the IRA used guerilla tactics against the numerically superior British army.

As an Irishman who owes his independence to the men and women of the 'Old' IRA as they are commonly called (to distinguish them from subsequent versions), I must say it makes me quite angry that here in Ireland we aren't allowed to openly express pride in these people.

The events this past Friday, which saw the UUP's Tom Elliot and the DUP's Arlene Foster react with anger to a PSNI recruit wearing a medal commemorating the 'Old' IRA for their war against the Black and Tans, proved that there is still a big gulf for nationalists and unionists when it comes to viewing the events of the War of Independence and the 'Old' IRA.

I discussed the issue of the recruit's medal in my post on Friday so I don't want to dwell on that issue in this post but rather to take a look at how subsequent groups who called themselves the 'Irish Republican Army' have not only sullied the original group's name but have in actual fact sullied our own view of this point in time generally. It has gotten to the stage where in this country, unlike the majority of other countries around the world, it's almost taboo to express pride in the men and women who freed this country from British rule despite the fact that British rule was so miserable for Irish people throughout the centuries.

Let me offer you a personal account which details what I mean. When I was about six years old or so, around about the time I had just started school, I heard some older boys speaking about a group called the 'IRA'. When I enquired who this group were I was told they were the 'Irish Republican Army'. Fast forward to later on that day when I declared aloud to my parents how great the IRA were. Needless to say they were not impressed and my father told me I was to never say such a thing again. I could not understand what the problem was seeing as, like many young boys, I was impressed by things like army men and soldiers and all that sort of stuff. My father had to explain to me that while it was OK for me to be proud of the Irish Army, I wasn't allowed to be proud of the 'Irish Republican Army'. I guess you might say that was my first introduction to the intricacies of the Irish political situation. Of course my father and the boys at my school were not talking about the 'Old' IRA and with that being the case my father was right to rebuke me for unwittingly speaking well of a group which was but a horrible imitation of it.

The point I'm making though is that when the letters 'IRA' are mentioned, they don't conjure up images of Michael Collins' men hiding in a ditch somewhere in the country preparing to hit the Tans, but rather an image of men in balaclavas planting a bomb in some busy city centre in the North waiting for it to explode.

If I was sitting in a pub and I declared aloud that I felt pride in the IRA, I am likely to receive some angry glares from the surrounding people similar to the glares I received as a young boy from my parents! I think it's such a shame that the original IRA have become victims of retrospective history and I'm sure most Irish people understand what I mean when I say that.

I've always found it interesting how the War of Independence, which achieved the desired result of forcing British troops out of areas of Ireland, is in actual fact rarely acknowledged with pride by the Irish people. Contrast this with the failed rebellions of history such as occurred under the O'Neills and the O'Donnells which led to the Flight of the Earls, as well as the United Irish rebellions which failed, Emmet's speech from the dock, and of course the 1916 Rising itself. All of these events are looked on fondly despite the fact that, technically speaking, they were failures. Yet the one event which can be classed as technically being a success is almost ignored.

Why is that?

I actually think it is something that is inherent in the Irish character - the glory of defeat. It is something that manifests itself in sport I find. If you look at the mindset of Irish people whenever Irish teams have qualified for the World Cup, you see the manifestation of this attitude.

"Ah shorr it doesn't matter how we do. Qualifying's the main thing."

Look at the reaction of the country at what have been sporting failures - Italia '90, USA '94, Korea and Japan 2002. 'Oh what a brave display we put on'! 'Little old Ireland went down gallantly'! 'For a country of our size we did brilliantly'! 'Let's throw a party for the lads when they return'! In my opinion it's all a direct result of this almost uniquely Irish trait of being in love with the idea of the heroic downfall. 'Give it a lash Jack' as one of the chants went. This is in stark contrast to attitudes held by countries like America and Australia whose mindset is pretty much "win at all costs". None of the romanticised blarney bullshit for them and they have the trophies and medals to prove it.

There is something in the Irish character that is in love with the idea of a romantic and heroic downfall. Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn fell bravely, the Gaels from Ulster fell bravely, Wolfe Tone fell bravely, Robert Emmet fell bravely, Parnell fell bravely from the political scene, the 1916 rebels fell bravely, Collins fell bravely trying to make peace etc.

We, the Irish people, love it. We're obsessed with it. But God forbid we actually be proud of the men and women responsible for finally achieving our aims! What's wrong? Did it lack the romantic aspect? So what. It worked. Why must we continue to emphasise the gallant losses? Because it doesn't put anyone's noses out of shape?

Of course this phenomenon is an Ireland-wide phenomenon. When did the Provisional IRA begin to get significant support from Catholics? When did they begin to get significant media attention? Two big moments spring to mind - Bloody Sunday and the Hunger Strikes. This is what people focused on at the time.

When the Michael Collins film came out a few years ago, it proved of great benefit to the Irish people because it forced them to look at a period of history that had been overlooked. It forced the Irish people to make their mind up on it. Collins emerged from the film as once again the Irish hero. His legacy given a nice boost. However Collins' IRA remained in the limbo of Irish history. It seems the only historical moment that has been ignored as much as the War of Independence was the Civil War that followed it.

Nah, we can't focus on the Civil War. Too unpleasant. Where's the glory for us all to bask in? You can't revel in a glorious defeat when it's your own compatriots who have defeated you.

Collins found his place but will the IRA?
A great man

I would very much like to end this piece with a solution that neatly sets out what needs to be done to correct the selective interpretations given to Irish history and offer parity of esteem to all the main protagonists. Alas, I cannot. What I would say is that it would be a terrible shame for us to airbrush things out of history purely because they have been tainted by later generations.

This year we here in Ireland will bear witness to the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes. This year Irish history will be challenged and analysed like never before and that is of benefit to all of us for we must always be willing to question ourselves.

What we must be wary of however is those who seek to edit out the bits of our history which do not conform to their own particular viewpoints. Napoleon Bonaparte once wrote, "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon".

My own belief is that we the Irish people must stay true to our history as much as we can and true to our identity as much as we can, regardless of what the naysayers say.

A country that tries to fool itself is a country full of fools.


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