Archive for the ‘ History ’ Category

Remembering Michael Collins

August 22nd 1922, Béal na mBláth, County Cork. The escort carrying the Free State army Commander-in-Chief came under fire from Irregular troops. Instead of moving on or transferring their Chief to the armoured car they were ordered to stop and return fire. Michael Collins, who had fought alongside Padraig Pearse inside the GPO, who masterminded a successful intelligence war against Dublin Castle during the War of Independence, and who joined Arthur Griffith in negotiating the first ever treaty of peace between Ireland and England, was shot dead while exchanging rifle fire, killed by his fellow Irishmen before his time, before he could fulfil his vision for free Ireland.

We could certainly do with him today. In a time when Ireland has been humiliated financially and in many other ways, a charismatic figure like Collins, with his unearthly work ethic, financial acumen and a great love for his country to the point of self-sacrifice, would be of boundless help to us. Gone are the days when one’s life was put at risk for Ireland, now claiming expenses and trips abroad seem to be top of the list. Where one time Irish people risked imprisonment and death to participate in a once illegal Dáil Éireann, today they make excuses concerning why they cannot attend, and often find more ‘important’ things to be doing.

Collins was a man far ahead of his time, and certainly underappreciated by many of those who surrounded the Corkman. Confident to an extreme from a young age, he started work with Royal Mail, before moving to London in 1910 where he worked as a messenger for a company of stockbrokers. It was also in London the young Collins joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Collins’ financial abilities didn’t go unnoticed and he was soon put to work as financial advisor to Count Plunkett, father to one of the Rising’s organisers, Joseph Plunkett. And it was his shoulders, several years down the line, on which the burden of organisation of the National Loan fell, after he had been made finance minister in 1919. Despite the responsibility of running the war, maintaining his intelligence units and looking after his people and their families, all the time cheerfully evading the British who scoured the city and country looking for him, not one person gave money and didn’t receive a receipt. Collins had a sharp eye for detail and a dislike of wasting energy, a moment not spent doing something constructive was a moment ill spent in his book.

And unlike many politicians today it sometimes seems, Collins understood the need for both the support of the nation and its people, and the importance of allowing the populace to make the most important decisions. Without the monetary support of Irish people at home and abroad, the loan would never have come into existence and the IRA would have been armed with hurleys and a prayer. And for the flying columns whose job it was to strike the enemy quickly and melt back into the countryside, the support of the locals was of far more importance than anything else – locals who fed and sheltered them from the British army and a certain death. Following the ratification of the Treaty in the Dáil, Collins was adamant that the people must be the ones to decide on its acceptance or dismissal, and would follow them either way. They accepted it, as did he, though many didn’t, and thus began the Civil War as the Dáil and the IRA split in two, and the rest, as they say, is history.

There is plenty more that could be said about Collins, his activities and his personality. I could talk and write for hours about his victories, his plans, his friendships and enemies and his dreams for Ireland. But many pages in many books have already been devoted to those topics. So all I will say is this – Michael Collins, you are sorely missed.


A History of Bigotry – Should Orangemen March Through Dublin?

In a way, the predicament of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission each July is one that can be sympathised with, in a limited manner. On one hand they have the mobs of loyal Orangemen demanding they be allowed to forcefully remind those pesky Catholics how a Dutch king once beat an English king ensuring Scottish settlers would remain on the lands of dispossessed Irish Catholics. On the other hand lies the genuine Nationalist/Catholic complaints which arise over said Orange triumphalists needing to march and wave their banners through Catholic streets, something which often seems like a move to fulfil some errant craving for attention. Who do they favour? As of now, the Orange march routes which apparently exist solely to bait Nationalists and Catholics routinely set off riots and fights each twelfth of July. This year was no different, as Orange marches through the predominantly Catholic area of Ardoyne in Belfast ended in what has been called a “night of serious rioting,” with the usual violence and arrests on both sides of the coin. Chairman of the Commission, Peter Osborne, has attempted to shift the blame. Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster, he said “It is complete and utter nonsense to blame the Parades Commission for the violence last night. There has been violence in this location for many, many years now. It is time for politicians to take ownership of contentious parades… that’s the way forward.”

But really the solution lies at the feet of the Orange Order. Sinn Féin and the IRA were often criticised for failing to do their bit in helping to heal the rift in the Northern part of Ireland, and now the Orangemen must take some blame. Controversy has followed the Order since its inception. Founded in 1795 the new organisation took a leaf from the Peep-O-Day Boy’s book – a Protestant and sectarian group which often clashed with their Catholic rivals, the Defenders. The aim was the suppression of Irish nationalism and Catholicism and the upholding of the Protestant Ascendancy (the political, economic and social domination of Ireland by members of the Protestant faith). By the time the Order came into existence, the United Irishmen, who were still led at this point by mainly Protestants, had morphed into an organisation seeking an Irish republic, one in which Catholic, Protestant and dissenter alike could find freedom. Several historians have argued that in an attempt to thwart such aims, the government backed the Orangemen and promoted sectarian feelings. And, when in 1798 the United Irishmen rebelled, both the Orange Order and the Peep-O-Day Boys were among those who aided the government in suppressing the insurrection.

And since its early days, the sectarian nature of the organisation hasn’t changed. Following a revival in the 19th century, they were instrumental in the formation of the Ulster Unionist Party and were influential in organising constant opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, including the famed Ulster Covenant, in which 500,000 people pledged themselves against such a move. Early armed Orange militias were gathered into a central organisation which became known as the Ulster Volunteer Force and since 1921 and the creation of the Irish Free State, the Order has been influential and often central to Northern Ireland. From 1921 to 1969, every single Prime Minister of Northern Ireland was a member of the Order, ensuring that the state would remain for decades a Protestant state, and an Orange state, keeping Catholic citizens in the second class. During the Troubles the Order once again showed its usefulness, encouraging many members to join Northern security forces, while others opted for Loyalist paramilitary groups, although officially, the organisation had a fractious relationship with these groups. Around 300 Order members were killed during those thirty odd years. Orangemen were often found in possession of weapons or documents likely to be used in acts of terrorism while bands hired to play during marches have previously and openly declared support for Loyalist paramilitary groups. In recent years the Order has still attempted to exercise influence amongst unionists, holding talks with both the DUP and the UUP in an attempt to unite the two parties before a recent general election in the province. Grand Master Robert Saulters has openly called for a single unionist party in the North so as to maintain the union with Britain.

The order’s anti-Catholicism is clear as day; members must be of the Protestant faith, Catholics are banned from holding membership. In previous years such a ban was clearly stated against Roman Catholics, nowadays the various laws require vaguer wording. In particular the Grand Master quite recently referred to the oppositional dissident republicans as the “Roman Catholic IRA”, something which isn’t so surprising when issued from the mouth of the Orange Order, who have, since the beginning, attempted to link Catholicism with nationalism and the enemy, in an attempt to unite unionism and promote and promulgate sectarian feelings. Some have attempted to draw links between the Order and the American Ku Klux Klan. Though former Grand Master Martin Smyth rejected such comparisons, writer and historian Tim Pat Coogan argued that in America, the Order manifested itself in the form of the Know Nothings (a xenophobic and anti-Catholic organisation during the 1850s) as well as the KKK, with whom they share an extreme bias towards Roman Catholicism and somewhat exotic leadership titles.

Perhaps even more well-known than their anti-Catholic stance and attempts to unite Protestant Northern Ireland against Roman Catholicism is their incessant marching practices each July and in particular, the Twelfth. This, more than anything, has been the cause of troubles over the past several decades, troubles which so easily could be avoided. The Order insists on marching through Nationalist areas, such as Ardoyne, despite the hassle and grief it causes. Memories take a while to fade, and many people still remember the violence the Order sparked each year with their insistence on rubbing the memory of William of Orange in Catholic and Nationalist faces, like a spoilt child waving a fistful of sweets at a deprived neighbour. And despite their attempts to maintain a dignified stance, the Order is well able to toss their toys from the pram if they don’t get their way. In 1998, the first year the authorities dared challenge their power and rerouted the march, protests erupted. Orange followers set fire to a Catholic house in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, in which three little boys were burned alive. The thunderous banging of the drums long served to ignite fear in anyone who stood against them, while their marching through rival streets highlighted how their kind held the power, and they could do what they liked. Would a Republican march bearing IRA banners and shouting anti-Protestant slogans through the Shankhill Road receive Unionist support? I think not. Double standards are at play here, as the Orangemen desperately attempt to cling onto the six counties in which they once ruled as they desired.

While this may appear as an entirely one sided diatribe against the Orange Order and its Loyalist ways, it doesn’t forget the other side which can often be guilty of anti-Protestant sentiment. A war waged solely partly based on the two opposing religions, as nationalism has boasted quite a few supporters over the centuries, while not all Catholics are in favour of splitting with Britain. Nationalist and republican history may indeed boast quite a few scholars but precious few saints. But while republicanism in the form of dissident republicans fighting a war which ended years ago can be criticised, and rightly so, so too can the other side of the coin. Because the Orangemen are not exactly doing their part in easing tensions between the opposing peoples. Quite recently, the Order addressed the Irish senate, seeking a second shot at an Orange parade through the streets of Dublin. One might remember the clashes that occurred the last time the Order attempted the Love Ulster parade. Much of the violence was instigated by thugs with precious little knowledge of our history and driven by a mindless desire to hurt and break, but those genuine protestors had genuine reasons, similar to anyone who might protest should the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church come to town. Perhaps one day in the future, when the Order forsakes its long held tradition of sectarianism and triumphalism, and finally shakes off its links with a Protestant Ascendancy and Loyalist thuggery, then they might walk through our streets without fear of disruption. Until then, our roads have no place for ancient bigotry – from either side.

McConville Case Still Resonates Within Northern Ireland

An interesting showdown, with potentially important ramifications for both journalism and academia, has been slowly unfolding over the course of several months, involving a journalist in the middle, paramilitary soldiers seeking to tell the truth on one side and the PSNI and the families of the so-called ‘disappeared’ on the other.

The controversy circles an academic historical endeavour known as the ‘Belfast Project’, conducted by Boston College, whose aim is to create an oral history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a history which would offer a much more frank and realistic view of the conflict, from both sides of the coin. Paramilitary volunteers from either side were interviewed for the large scale project. None of the Republican interviews, however, were authorised by the IRA. In fact, the only reason they were given by the participants was on the condition that they be released only after their deaths. Understandably this was because the IRA was and is very secretive and controlling, and those interviewed revealed operational secrets, the IRA’s methods and often criticised key decisions and people within the organisation. At present, the interviews are kept under lock and key at the college. However, on July 6th the first circuit court of appeal ruled that the College and Ed Moloney, the journalist in charge of the project, didn’t have the right to promise to withhold the information they were given, and have ordered that information be turned over to the PSNI by next month. This test case has brought out academics and journalists decrying the court’s decision, proclaiming source protection as sacred. The National Union of Journalists in particular, which is a joint British-Irish organization, has condemned the ruling. General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet has argued that the ruling has “significant implications” for academic and journalistic research, while others have criticised the College for not acting like other journalists and protecting their sources to the point of going to prison.

One of the main reasons the PSNI want to get their hands on this treasure trove of information is to help them discover what happened to certain people during the conflict, a collective known as the ‘disappeared.’ This is the name that has been given to sixteen people who vanished during the Troubles at the hands of the IRA, believed to have been abducted and killed, then buried in shallow graves. In 1999, the IRA admitted to killing nine of the victims on that list, and gave up the burial sites, although only three were found at that time. Since then, a further four bodies have been recovered. The most infamous of these cases was that of young mother, Jean McConville, whose body was finally discovered in 2003 by a family out on a walk, a mile from the location the IRA had given for her grave. McConville was born into a Protestant family in East Belfast though converted to Catholicism when she married her husband, Arthur. One of her sons, Robbie, was in Long Kesh for Official IRA related activities although he defected to the INLA in 1974. In December of 1972, she was abducted from her home by 12 members of the IRA, men and women, and killed by a single bullet to the back of the head, her remains buried on a nearby beach. The IRA refused to admit responsibility for many years, and then claimed that McConville had been a British spy, passing information on local republicans to British security forces through a radio transmitter. Her children have consistently rejected this claim, and have repeatedly called on the IRA to clear their mother’s name. An official investigation revealed no evidence to prove the IRA’s claims. Enter Boston College and their Belfast Project. One of those believed to be have been interviewed, Dolours Price, could reveal she was part of the murder as the driver of the car which took McConville to her death, and more importantly, the role of Gerry Adams in all of this. Such allegations concerning Adams are nothing new. In Voices from the Grave, based on two interviews from the Boston project, former IRA operative Brendan Hughes said as much of Adam’s role, claiming that it was Adams who established the IRA unit which killed McConville, and he who gave the order for her secret burial, to avoid the negative publicity surrounding the murder of a women and the orphaning of her children.

But the families of those disappeared by the IRA during the Troubles aren’t the only ones who could be affected by the court’s ruling. Those still living ex-IRA members and their families could be in for trouble should their testimonies reach the light of day. Carol Twomey, wife of Anthony McIntyre (former IRA gunman who conducted the interviews) believes that her husband and other ex-IRA men will risk being killed should the interviews be handed over, and used to secure prosecutions. Retribution, she argues, is a very real fear for men who have been branded by some as ‘touts’ for revealing IRA secrets.

Then of course there’s the impact on Northern Ireland and the peace process to be considered. The country may be at peace but nobody can deny it isn’t somewhat shaky. If Hughes’ allegations are confirmed by a second IRA member’s testimony, given in the knowledge it wouldn’t be revealed until after her death, what does this do for the stability of Northern Ireland and its government, bearing in mind that Gerry Adams always shrugs off accusations of IRA membership, and leadership. It’s hard to predict the reaction from the Republican camp. A Northern Irish government which is dependent on its members possible past criminal lives being ignored isn’t exactly a solid foundation in the first place. But it has worked thus far. And an appeal is already in the works. Several prominent politicians in America, including the former presidential candidate John Kerry have lobbied for the interviews to remain sealed. It just might stick and it could be years before the Boston tapes see the light of day, and all those involved are dead and buried, and a new generation will have to deal with the mistakes of their forbearers.

So, to reveal or not to reveal? Do we make an attempt to forget our past in the interest of the future or do we strive to excise all of its demons. It’s a tricky one. How do you decide which is more important – the need for truth and closure on the part of Jean McConville’s family, and any others who might have something new to learn about the disappearance of their loved ones or the fact that to reveal the identities of any former IRA members who participated in the Boston project is to pass a very possible death sentence on them. Some might argue that death is what they deserve for the activities they and their Loyalist counterparts were involved in during the Troubles but to essentially have them killed makes us no better than what they are and were. The truth shall set you free, it has been said. But in this case, perhaps it might just do more harm than good. Should Gerry Adams be finally proven to be an utter liar, should he be proven to have been in the IRA command when he said he wasn’t, such a thing wouldn’t be a terrible event by any stretch of the imagination. But if Boston College can be forced into giving up these precious oral histories of such an important and tragic part of our history, where does it stop? So many hidden histories, so many stories are dependent on the assurance that can be provided by the interviewer that the identity of their source will be protected at all costs. So who in their right mind would ever again trust a journalist or in particular an academic into telling their story?

No, let sleeping dogs lie, as they say. Wait until those involved are dead and gone. With any luck, Gerry Adams and co will still be alive when that time comes. If not, then we can see the contents of that historical treasure trove for ourselves, and history can be the judge of it all.

World War II and the Irish deserters

Fighting for the Crown has always been a touchy subject in Ireland. Those who would take the King’s shilling were often looked down upon by friends and neighbours and even family members simply for joining the enemy. Despite the nationalist reasoning behind a substantial number of volunteers who left to fight Germany in World War I, returning soldiers were cast aside, branded traitors to Ireland by a society successfully brainwashed into believing the nationalist narrative driven into their minds by both the nationalist leaders and of course the Catholic Church. Coming home from World War II, one section of Irish soldiers who fought in Europe faced a much graver situation – not just the hatred of a nationalist populace, but imprisonment and reprisals on both themselves and their families, for the crime of deserting the Irish Defence forces.

Recently, Alan Shatter has announced a proposed piece of legislation which will provide an official amnesty for those Irish citizens who left their posts in the Free State army to fight for the Allies in mainland Europe. “The government apologises for the manner in which those men of the Defence Forces were treated after the war by the state,” Shatter declared. Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, Éamon de Valera immediately declared that the Irish Free State would remain neutral for several reasons – in view of the continued partition of Ireland, neutrality as the ultimate declaration of Ireland’s independence as well as the more practical matter of Ireland being a small nation and vulnerable to attack should she choose sides. Throughout the war, Dev maintained the Free State’s position. Strong pressure came from London over the use of Irish ports by the British navy, supported by the American representative in Dublin, David Gray. Dev continually refused any such requests, arguing that any moves in favour of one side would threaten the Free State’s safety, a stance which served to enhance his support from the populace. But really, Ireland wasn’t all that neutral, and certainly showed sympathetic leanings towards the Allies and their cause. For one thing, the Irish army passed on information to the British, while British soldiers who found themselves landing in the Free State were quietly slipped over the border into Northern Ireland; their German counterparts were instead arrested and interned. So, one might think, it wouldn’t be a step too far for some Irishmen to aid the Allies in their fight against Germany.

In the Irish Defence Forces were a large number of highly trained men, ready and itching to go into action which wouldn’t happen for them, barring an invasion of Ireland. A good portion of these men saw what was happening in Europe, and were unhappy with the country’s position of neutrality, men who wanted to fight – against evil, for more money and even food (which was distinctly lacking in Ireland’s army) or just for the hell of it. Around 4,500 to 5,000 are believed to have deserted their positions in the Irish Defence forces (alongside those who had legitimately joined the British army) and left Ireland to fight on the battlefields of Europe, though not all for the same sides. They joined different regiments and fought in many countries and during some of the most important episodes of the war which would eventually swing the Allies way. But if they expected to return home to a hero’s reception, they were sorely mistaken. While the Irish government was ostensibly neutral, the citizens were certainly not. And it’s not hard to understand why. These were a generation of people who had lived through the execution of the rebels of 1916, the War of Independence and the infliction of the Black and Tans, the Civil War and the toll that took on the populace, not to mention the partition of Ireland and the continued troubles across the country. Anti-British sentiment was still very fresh, and here were people, Irish people no less, who had deserted their country to go and fight in the army of the old enemy. And so came, from Dáil Éireann (despite their unofficial assistance to the Allied forces), the starvation order, officially known as the Emergency Powers Order No. 362, passed under the Irish Emergency Powers Act of 1939. The severity of the deserter’s punishment shows that the government of the time wanted to inflict as much physical and psychological pain on those 5,000 returning soldiers as possible. Under the legislation, they were to be punished in four ways – they forfeited all pay during the period of desertion, all pensions were lost to them, any employment benefits they might have been eligible for were revoked and for a period of seven years they were not allowed to hold any job paid for from public money. This, the government maintained, was to ensure that those who had faithfully fulfilled their oaths to the Free State army were the first to get the available jobs following demobilisation, to deter any future desertion and as a cost-effective way of dealing en masse with those who deserted, rather than incurring the cost of dealing with each individual through court-martial. In October of 1945, TD Thomas O’Higgins made moves to annul the legislation; while condoning desertion he felt the punishment laid on those who left for the Allied armies was far too harsh. However, the Dáil voted in favour of the order.

The resultant effect on those soldiers and their families is still felt even to this day. Speaking in recent years, those who still lived recalled the ever-present fear of being brought to task because of their choices. Work was hard to come by, as employers didn’t look too kindly on membership of the British army, forgetting the desertion aspect. Paddy Reid, who fought against the Japanese with the Royal Artillery in the jungles of Burma, resorted to scouring the countryside, finding odd jobs like picking turnips for farmers to survive. For families, home was often to be found in the slums and never in the one place for too long, nor was there ever the assurance of food on the table. Others were thrown directly into jail. Phil Farrington was put in a Cork military prison at the age of nineteen, caught while returning home on leave, where starvation rations were given to the prisoners who often resorted to eating egg shells. The guards showed nothing but contempt for the inmates, who were often beaten if they didn’t work hard enough. Suicides, somewhat unsurprisingly, were not uncommon. And perhaps more disturbing was the fate of the children of these men. Many were taken away from their destitute parents, whether their fathers had returned alive from the war or not, and were placed into industrial schools at the mercy of daily beatings with rubber truncheons and faced with malnourishment and horrifically unhygienic environments. And according to some reports, those children of British soldiers bore the worst of it all. An ‘SS’ beside their names signified the crimes of their fathers, and marked them out for the most cruel of punishments. Whether this occurred or not, the fact of the matter was that physical and sexual abuse was only the norm, for all children unfortunate enough to be cast into these places. “It’s so ironic that their fathers had fought so hard to enter in one of the most atrocious wars in the history of the human race and had freed all those poor people from the concentration camps in Belsen and yet their own children were subjected to a similar type of concentration camp back at home in Ireland, just because their fathers had ‘deserted’ the Irish Army,” said Irish politician, Mary Ann O’Brien.

“A simple pardon, yeah, we’ve had the Queen over, we’ve had people of the North, the peace,” said the grandson of Phil Farrington, deserter and veteran of D-Day, “and yet we still can’t get the Irish lads that fought for the war, we can’t get them a thank you or a pardon, it’s shocking, shocking that someone comes back from the war, could have given their life, I know many did, that are still blacklisted and then to be treated the way he was. They didn’t run away for a holiday, they weren’t making fortunes and gallivanting around Europe they were running towards guns.” Feelings are still quiet deep on a subject which is only coming back to the surface of discussion in recent years, and it’s not as straightforward an issue as one might think. For starters, those men had, at the base of it all, deserted, and any army in the world which doesn’t punish deserters is simply asking for trouble. If they do nothing, even when those who left went for a good reason (in most cases), what message does that send to those left behind, or those who might join in future years? These were men who had sworn an oath to their country and they effectively abandoned that oath. Some have argued that they probably, in fact, got off lightly. Desertion in other countries at the time would have brought a severe sentence on your head – the Soviet army in particular was infamous for punishing its deserters with execution. Having said that, less than ten years after the war ended, an amnesty for all British deserters was announced by Winston Churchill in 1953, so a precedent for forgiveness was indeed there, whereas in Ireland, the same move has taken 59 years more thus far. And whereas those who deserted from the British army surely did so to save their own skins, those 5,000 Irishmen who deserted the Irish army did so to join another, and to face far greater dangers than they would have confronted in Ireland. Their punishment was indeed severe but again at the base of it all, they had committed a crime against the country they had sworn to defend, breaking the law is breaking the law.

People will argue that their reasons were just and the ends justify the means. But we have no idea how many fought on the side of the Germans rather than the Allies, or what reasons other than fighting against evil persuaded them to abandon their comrades, their oaths and their country. Again, the explanation is the same as to why they were so hated in the first place – the residual effect of the protracted fight against the British, the legacy of their rule in this country and the continued partition of North from South. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the move by both the Irish government and the Catholic Church to create a national identity to go along with our new state following independence – an identity which was nationalist and Catholic in its outlook, an identity which didn’t allow for deviations such as fighting for those who oppressed us for so long. Even today many aren’t aware of this part of our past and in schools our history books are either shamefully short or completely empty concerning those men, their actions and their fate, which, despite the complicated nature of their actions, do not deserve to be confined to the footnotes of history..

John Stout, who served with the Irish Guards and fought at Arnhem and the Battle of the Bulge, is unrepentant. “I know in my heart,” he maintains “that we done the right thing. We fought for small nations and we liberated camps where people had been slaughtered. I would never regret…I would do it all over again.” Perhaps they were right in doing what they did. From the comfort of the 21st century, it’s hard to decide.

Draw a Lego Art Exhibition Starts This Thursday…

Who said Art had to be boring? There’s an art event coming up which will please the young at heart.

Draw a Lego art exhibition is an art exhibition dedicated to Lego featuring art from emerging artists around Dublin and Ireland. The exhibition will run from this Friday 22nd of June to next Saturday 30th June 2012 at Exchange Dublin gallery in Temple Bar.

Exchange Dublin is a collective arts center run entirely by young people. They hold discussions, gigs, visual arts and performance and anything else you can think of. Most projects originate from the autonomous “Exchange Groups” that use the space as a hub for their activity. All work is voluntary.

The Opening day for the Draw a Lego Art exhibition will be this Thursday at 6 pm.  The Art of The Brick has captivated millions of creative minds since its creation in 1949 and the artists hope the fan base of the legendary colourful construction toy will be equally captivated by this exhibition.

Where:  Exchange Dublin, Unit 1, Exchange Street Upper, Temple Bar, Dublin

When: All Week- Opening times – 11am-11pm

Free entrance.

Poster exhibition drawn by Aurelie Montfrond.

Women’s fiction “When you Dance” available for FREE on Smashwords from this author. More free short stories coming up soon.

Lessons from History – the Eucharistic Congress

It has been 80 years of tumultuous change since the last Eucharistic Congress was held on these shores, way back in 1932. Ireland has a different visage, a new one with which to face the 21st century. The hegemonic power of the Catholic Church has been broken in Ireland, as has that of its bedfellow, Fianna Fáil. Secularism rather than religiosity is beginning to determine our course, as people look to themselves and others to guide their lives rather than to a higher power.

The Eucharistic Congress is a week-long event, organised by the Vatican every four years, sort of like an Olympics for the Catholic Church and its people, a gathering of clergy and the religious laity to celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. 12,000 devotees gathered at the opening ceremony at the RDS last Sunday, where events have been held over the course of the week, around 80,000 attending the conclusion at Croke Park. Of course this Congress has been somewhat tainted by the allegations and revelations concerning the priesthood and child sex abuse over the past number of years and amidst a general decline in faith among its once devoted members. Attendants come from all over the world to participate in the air of unity that the Congress brings to those who join; old and young, male and female, come to renew and strengthen their faith. The week-long celebration is over for another four years, and already the talk concerns the legacy of this year’s Congress; whether it is a new beginning for the Church in Ireland, moving towards the inclusion of a young population who feel alienated by the ceremony and rigour of Catholicism, and the disillusion over the scandals which have rocked the Church and its people.

Today, in the 21st century, outside of the Catholic Church at least, the proceedings are met with (outside of interested Catholics) either a polite interest of complete indifference. But roll back the clock 80 years and you would find a country practically quivering with anticipation, and for many different reasons. For in the life of the infant Free State and in particular the newly ruling Fianna Fáil party, the Eucharistic Congress had an indelible effect. Before Ireland’s independence came in 1922, the Catholic Church had grown quite powerful throughout Ireland. And, when the power and influence of the landlord class finally began to wane, the local priests took up the mantle of community leadership. Ordinary people were far less educated when compared to our time, and people would often look to their clerics for advice and guidance. And while the Catholic hierarchy had often been associated throughout Europe with the rich and the powerful, in Ireland the opposite was true; a priest was one of the ordinary people. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Church often supported the nationalist movements, barring the more violent ones, while their control over the education system ensured a generation of Irish who viewed Catholicism as more than simply their religion, but an innate part of their Irish identity. With independence came the support from the Church of the Free State, and they condemned the rebellion of the anti-Treatyites, and excommunicated them from the Church. As the years passed, Catholicism cemented its position in the new nation. A narrow vision of the events of the previous decades was propagated with citizens celebrated the freeing of a Catholic people from an oppressive Protestant state, ignoring the fact of the involvement of many Protestants in the nationalist movements. In 1929, elaborate centenary commemorations were organised to celebrate Daniel O’Connell and the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, and in the same year, the Pope finally agreed to send a papal nuncio to Dublin, and to receive in turn an Irish ambassador to the Vatican. Following the establishment of the Free State W.T. Cosgrave presided over the Irish helm, alongside a relatively neutral Cumann na nGaedhael government. Protestants were by no means discriminated against, and indeed many were promoted to positions to ensure the views of the Protestant minority were well represented. In 1932, Catholic bishops received a cause for apprehension with the succession to power of Éamon de Valera, one of those who had been condemned for his part in the Civil War a decade previous. However, they need not have worried as ‘Dev’, as he became known, and his Fianna Fáil government were strongly influenced by the Church and their teachings. Fortunately for the man from Clare, one of the perennial Catholic events of his time would be held only three months following his election, cementing his and his party’s place in Irish political history.

Overall, around one million attended the ceremonies that took place during the week in June of 1932. Following the concluding procession through the streets of Dublin, the papal legate, Cardinal Lauri, sent a telegram to the Pope, Pius XI, declaring that the Irish people were uttering the “cry which sums up the tradition, the faith, the very life of the whole nation: God Bless the Pope.” Dublin’s Congress and its success were very clearly appreciated at the Vatican and the official state newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano featured a favourable account of the week’s events. “Everyone is at his post from the Bishop to the clerical student, from the President of the State to the policeman on the street…It is really nothing short of miraculous – for here we see, after a century and a half of attempted laicisation, an entire people proud of its name, but prouder still of its Roman religion.” Triumphalism has been the word used by historians to describe the display of power on the part of the Catholic Church during the Congress and here was clear evidence that the Irish Free State was a Catholic state, and proud of it. Even at the local level, ordinary people were as much a part as the clerics and politicians at the top. Masses of bunting were strung up across the country, and groups and choirs practised and rehearsed for a year to ensure perfection, culminating in the enormous attendance at the week’s events. One can only imagine how the exclusionary feeling of anyone who had the misfortune to belong to another religion, or to none at all. It is hardly surprising that between this power and their already close-knit relationship with the Irish people, the Catholic Church ensured its hegemonic position in the country for decades to come.

But the good news wasn’t solely for the Catholic Church; in the political arena too were the benefits felt. Despite having been excommunicated for his anti-Treaty Republican activities during the Civil War, de Valera had remained a good Catholic, and had retained friendships with various figures throughout the Catholic hierarchy in the country. An impressive speech given in English, Irish and Latin during the state reception for the papal legate at Dublin Castle benefitted his image favourably, and he kept a high-profile throughout the week’s events. Eventually this helped to win him political appeal and when he called an election six months following the Congress, he was able to transform his minority government into a majority, and he remained in office until 1948 while his party was the largest at each general election from that of 1932 until 2011.

On the more negative spectrum, partition between North and South was further entrenched, and it is easy to see why, contrasting the Catholic Free State with the more traditional Protestant Northern Ireland who had fought for so long to ensure the Papists never gained a foothold in their own country. Some Catholics travelling from North to South were the victims of sectarian attacks, perpetrated by loyalist mobs. For Protestant Ulster, the lavish celebrations commemorated an alien religion; they who elevated individual choice and a personal relationship with God above all. The events in Dublin showed a radically different outlook in the Free State, with a high value placed on community and access to God through the clerical hierarchy. While reports from 1932 suggested that Ireland had never been more unified than during those six days, the reality is that the split between North and South was possibly starker than ever before.

Some 300 people who witnessed the events of 1932 gathered this week in a hotel outside Dublin to reminisce over archive footage of the events which helped to define a generation. Now 92 Liam Cosgrave, son of de Valera’s predecessor W.T. Cosgrave, recalled the celebrations with pride. “It was important for the State that we could do it and do it well,” he said. “It meant an awful lot to the country,” he said. “Remember we were only 10 years with self-government. There was a great turnout of Army and Garda and helpers. It was very well organised.” The effects of the 2012 Congress will unlikely be as far-reaching, considering we live in a nation attempting, to an extent, to shrug off its Catholic past. Machiavelli wrote “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.” In 2012, we are only now shaking off the legacy of the Catholic Church and the power Fianna Fáil held onto for so long. Hopefully, we don’t make the same mistake twice.

A Lost History Pieced Together

Records destroyed in a fire at the Four Courts nearly a century ago, and believed to be lost to the world have been reconstructed, the result of almost four decades of work by historians at Trinity College Dublin. The documents, from the medieval Chancery of Ireland have been made available to the public through a web project – CIRCLE: a Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters c. 1244-1509. A paper database of all references to known Chancery letters was established early on and using substitute sources from around the world, in combination with a keystone, the 1828 Latin Calender published by the record commissioners and containing a guide to the contents of original chancery rolls. The Chancery in Ireland was established soon after the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169 and issued letters in the King’s name, bearing the seal of Ireland. Copies of these letters were transcribed onto parchment known as chancery rolls and stored away. However in 1922, a blaze whose cause is still unknown destroyed the records, which were thought to be lost forever.

Between the 28th of June and July 5th, a week of street fighting raged throughout the Irish capital. Furious at the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, recently ratified by Dáil Éireann, around 200 anti-Treaty IRA members occupied the Four Courts in Dublin on the 14th of April, led by Rory O’Connor. Thousands of British troops remained in the city, awaiting evacuation under the terms of the Treaty. O’Connor and his Irregular (as they were also known) followers wished to reignite the conflict with the British thereby reuniting both factions of the IRA (which had split over the Treaty), going on to fight for a 32 county Republic.

However, those who occupied the Four Courts had miscalculated. If those leaders at the helm were to transform the Free State into a true and self-governing state, then it was they who had to shoulder the responsibility of putting down the rebellion. The death of Sir Henry Wilson in London at the hands of two IRA men on the 22nd of June brought British pressure to bear on the provisional Irish government to take action against the garrison in the Four Courts. Four days later, Free State General J.J. O’Connell was kidnapped by the anti-Treaty troops at the Four Courts and it was decided to move against the agitators. An offer of weapons support by Winston Churchill was accepted by Michael Collins and two 18 pounder field guns were placed across the Liffey from the Four Courts. After one final ultimatum, the bombardment began on the 28th. Between Free State troops attacks and the incessant shelling, the Irregulars began losing men to injury, death and arrest. Early on the 30th, Ernie O’Malley had taken command of the Four Courts following Paddy O’Brien’s shrapnel injury. Word filtered through from Oscar Traynor, the anti-Treaty IRA commander in Dublin, that he couldn’t reach their position to assist, and ordered the garrison there to surrender. At 3.30pm, O’Malley officially surrendered to Brigadier General Paddy Daly of the Free State Dublin Guard.

By this stage, the Four Courts was ablaze. Several hours prior to the surrender, between 11am and 3pm, the Irish Public Records Office, located in the western block of the Four Courts, was destroyed. The office, which had been in use by the Irregulars as an ammunitions store was part of a huge explosion and a thousand years of Irish history was turned to ash, scattered by the wind across the Dublin skyline. Accusations have flown around regarding the cause of the explosion and the subsequent destruction. In fortifying the Four Courts before the bombardment began, the anti-Treaty forces mined the complex. It has been alleged by some that the Public Records Office was also deliberately booby-trapped, causing the explosion. Seán Lemass, future Taoiseach, among other anti-Treaty supporters, vehemently denied this. The insurgents maintained it was Free State shelling which ultimately destroyed the priceless archive.

Following the clearing of O’Connell Street, victory in Dublin meant that the Free State army could move out around the country, and crushed resistance by anti-Treaty forces. Major towns were taken and even the use of guerrilla warfare, so effective when presided over by Michael Collins, could not save the Republican side. By early 1923, the anti-Treaty IRA’s capability to launch offensive operations was seriously damaged. Republican Liam Deasy called on his compatriots to lay down their arms and when Liam Lynch, the IRA leader, was killed in action and replaced by the more realist Frank Aiken, the 30th of April saw a ceasefire and the ending of Civil War.

The effects of the Irish Civil War have resonated through the decades in Ireland and not just in terms of our records and history. The death of Michael Collins not only cost Ireland an invaluable and promising leader, but it also ensured hostilities between both sides sharpened, and bitterly. With all of the damage caused by the Civil War, the fledgling state ended 1923 with a budget deficit of £4 million. Being unable to pay their share of Imperial debt as per the Treaty led to an adverse effect on the Boundary Commission of 1924, which left the border unchanged, instead of reducing its size as promised, weakening the North and making a union with the South inevitable. And a bitterness has resided in Ireland since the early 1920s. Families and localities during the Civil War were often divided by their loyalties to the Free State or the Irregulars, and those decisions were carried for decades. Up until last year, the two biggest parties in the country were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, direct descendants of the two warring forces during the Civil War. Politicians during the following four or five decades were more often than not veterans of the conflict. And when their children entered the political arena, a second and third generation of bitterness continued to permeate the Irish political landscape. While in the North, no one can deny the impact of the IRA up there, who could claim ancestry to the breakaway anti-Treaty IRA of the 1920s and who dedicated themselves to ridding Northern Ireland of British rule in 1948.

Political fighting, deep and bitter, has been a hallmark of Ireland since we won our independence all those decades ago. And the years that have passed by since then have seen little change. Had the country seen a unified stance on the Treaty, in recognition of the bigger picture, things might be very different today. Some lessons, it seems, are never learned.