EURO SEPTICS

Like many who participated at the time, I can’t honestly say the European Union loomed very large in my life (if at all) before the Referendum of June 2016. Yes, I occasionally wrote about it on here because it was a topical story, just as I was aware it had been a running sore on the Conservative Party for the best part of forty years, something that provoked intense – and what seemed to me, disproportionate – passions in separate Tory factions; but the EU was not something I personally lost sleep over or frothed at the mouth about. Like ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘Bake Off’, it was largely irrelevant to me; I didn’t really care one way or the other, and the fact I voted Remain reflected my ‘oh, well – better the devil you know’ attitude rather than revealing any deeply-held opinions. I only really took notice of the EU whenever the Tories returned to power and it proved to be the one factor that threatened to split the ranks and damage the brand. For them, it just wouldn’t go away.

Most looked on at this peculiar obsession and couldn’t really understand why it was an issue that got so many Tories so hot under the collar. When David Cameron announced there was to be a referendum on our membership of the Union, it appeared to be a move designed in response to two pressing factors, neither of which meant much to those without an investment in either. For one thing, the Tories were haemorrhaging votes to UKIP and their more traditional base was as opposed to Dave’s pro-Europe stance as it was to his socially liberal policies; secondly, the PM was evidently determined this issue would not bring him down as it had brought down previous Tory tenants of No.10, so here was an opportunity to finally lance the Brussels boil festering on the Conservative body politic once and for all with a (to quote Nicola Sturgeon) ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vote. Thank God for that. It had become a very boring ongoing saga for far too long and was not a subject that would register much beyond Tory circles the moment it was done and dusted.

Imagine my surprise the day after the Referendum, then, when so many of my Facebook friends suddenly supplanted their regular profile pictures with the EU flag as though the EU were some über-cool band they’d just discovered; indeed, imagine my surprise when so many of them, who had previously never aired any political opinions on the forum, had transformed overnight into Great Political Thinkers, little Edmund Burkes, one and all. Grand pronouncements on the issue replaced enjoyably frivolous trivia, as if Facebook had abruptly changed channels from ‘The Generation Game’ to ‘The World at War’ with the flick of a switch. The unexpected rush of love for the EU on social media reminded me a little of the way in which the imminent closure of Woolies provoked a rash of sentimental shoppers to flood through doors they’d summarily ignored for decades. Yes, the usual suspects had been vocal in their support before the Referendum result, but now it seemed the majority of apolitical folk I followed had become possessed by this newfound passion that evoked unwelcome memories of the vicious tribal splits that characterised opposing camps during the Miners’ Strike of 1984; and their fury has multiplied as the rest of us who voted Remain have gradually realised just what a rotten shower the EU really is.

Since that moment, the approach to every issue has been cast in the black & white Brexit mould, whereby all is politicised in the most aggressive and divisive Us and Them ideology. We, the good people are virtuous, unsullied and pure; our enemies are the worst people who ever lived – like, literally Nazis. Brexit has narrowed, shaped and defined political and social discourse for five years now, and it appears there’s no letting up; even the pro-lockdown/anti-lockdown debate languishes in its toxic shadow. For many of us whose natural home had always been leaning towards the left, this atmosphere opened the floodgates for the lunatic fringe to seize control of the argument and edge the rest of us towards the no-man’s land of the middle ground, branded ‘far-right’ for not submitting to the propaganda, and painfully severed from friendships that had been fine before battle lines were drawn by the malignant hands of others. The instinctive response to BLM being put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize should be to wonder why the KKK haven’t received the same accolade, for there is no discernible difference between the ultimate aims of the two other than the former have successfully exploited the fear of being labelled racist by duping every conceivable institution and corporation in the West into supine compliance with their odious dogma. Yet whether through ignorance, reluctance to risk cancellation, or simple cowardice to reject the mantra of the herd because the herd offers an illusion of safety and security that social exclusion doesn’t, many continue to be blinded to the uncomfortable truth – and this is part of the 2016 fallout.

However, the past week has offered a sliver of hope that threatens to shatter the narrative. Unlike many Brits post-2016, I had never regarded ‘Europe’ as a single entity, which is what it suddenly became the day after the Referendum result – a myth the EU has always been keen to propagate in order to validate its existence. Personally, I like different European countries for their differences, just as I like the four constituent countries of the UK for the same reason. A huge landmass viewed as a de facto ‘One Nation’ that rides roughshod over independent sovereignty doesn’t work; it didn’t for Europe in the long run when much of it fell under the sprawling bureaucracy of the Holy Roman Empire, and history shows us how rarely it has successfully worked for the USA. The European Union has repeatedly tried to sell itself using the ‘one-size-fits-all’ idea, but it was always a sham. The way in which the institution has treated Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal in recent years whilst simultaneously favouring Germany and France has made this blatantly obvious. Continents are not countries and the EU is not a democratically-elected government.

Attempts to apply its official principles to the issue of the coronavirus vaccine have exposed the unattractive reality of the EU to many of those who proclaimed their love for it five years ago. The leading cheerleaders of the EU project dragged their heels when it came to a vaccine rollout, forbidding member states to import vaccines without EU permission, and resulting in the European Commission pointing the finger at Oxford-AstraZeneca to obscure the fact that EU officials hadn’t moved with the same swiftness as the UK when it came to ordering the antidote. Both Germany and France have tried to cover Brussels backs by badmouthing the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab at a time when their respective populations sorely needed it; and then the EU badly misjudged the global mood by falling back on emotional blackmail and trying to use the vaccine as a weapon in Brexit trade wars, making it look petty and vindictive, prioritising trivial grievances over the lives of the European citizens in whose interests it has claimed to be acting.

The below-the-belt attempt to threaten the Northern Ireland Protocol, the survival of which has been central to disputes over Brexit, made it look like a hard border on the island of Ireland was something the EU was prepared to invoke whenever it suited them and brought the authentic EU attitude to Ireland into the open. For the last few years we’ve been repeatedly warned by Brussels how Brexit would be the harbinger for the Troubles Part II, yet the EU throwing its toys out of the pram by sanctioning vaccine for Eire and refusing it for Ulster, theoretically erecting the very hard border it has repeatedly claimed Brexit would disastrously lead to, managed the impressive feat of uniting the DUP and Sinn Féin in condemnation. The vaccine issue has been a PR disaster for the EU all across its fiefdoms, yet none more so than in the very ex-member state it has been determined to punish for having the nerve to expose its sales technique as bullshit. Five years on from Brexit, perhaps now is finally the moment when Leave voters can say ‘told you so’ without fear of a spontaneous backlash of the kind we’ve become accustomed to. Silver linings and all that…

© The Editor

ONE FOOT IN THE FUTURE

The seemingly forced resignation of Sajid Javid as Chancellor, substituting one casino capitalist for another, has understandably owned the front pages when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle; but perhaps the removal of Julian Smith as Northern Ireland Secretary should warrant a little more attention than it has so far received. Having played his part in the restoration of the Executive at Stormont after three years of suspended animation, Smith’s stated Remain stance and conviction that a no-deal Brexit would have an especially disastrous impact on Ulster probably didn’t help, regardless of the key role he appears to have played in helping repair an apparently intractable situation.

However, this Downing Street regime isn’t merely engaged in the traditional power struggle between No.10 and the Treasury (see ‘Yes, Prime Minister’); as the PM demonstrated when expelling 21 rebel MPs from the Conservative Party last year, any divergence from the Cummings script that can be perceived as disloyalty is swiftly dealt with. Julian Smith’s dismissal highlights how a minster’s better-than-expected performance cannot even save them if they express an opinion contrary to the consensus. Indeed, following the favouritism extended to the DUP as a means of shoring up Theresa May’s decimated numbers in 2017, it’s a miracle anyone has managed to bring the opposing factions together again. But perhaps the scant coverage given to this particular dismissal also reflects what a busy, transitional time it’s been on the island of Ireland lately; maybe the appointment of the third Northern Ireland Secretary since 2018 was bound to be overshadowed by other events.

A week which saw Northern Ireland’s first same-sex wedding ceremony take place also saw 52-year-old Paul McIntyre charged with the murder of Lyra McKee, who was shot dead as she observed a riot on the infamous Creggan estate in Derry last April. The province was united in its outrage at the death of the 29-year-old journalist, with the priest conducting her funeral earning a standing ovation as he angrily noted the assembling of Northern Ireland’s political class in its Sunday best at the service; Nationalist and Unionist politicians could be brought together to virtue signal their disgust at a senseless murder, yet couldn’t overcome their differences to revive Stormont, mothballed since the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017.

As a rising star of political journalism and a prominent gay rights campaigner, Lyra McKee had seemed to embody the changing climate in Ulster, highlighting the coming of age of a socially-liberal generation too young to have experienced The Troubles and too focused on the future to be weighed down by inherited sectarian baggage. That Lyra McKee should be cut down by a gunman representing a diminishing number of ideological antiquarians was a cruel blow, yet not without its significance; the overwhelming revulsion at the backward-looking violence of her killer underlined just how much the gun and the bomb have been comprehensively rejected by the Nationalist community bar a tiny handful of dead-end dissident Republicans.

Just as recent social legislation in the Republic has now been belatedly echoed in Ulster, the post-Brexit political frontrunners of the North are finding shared aims in the South. Sinn Féin, for so long tarred by the toxic brush of its terrorism associations, has successfully shed its past reputation and repositioned itself on the political spectrum to the point where it has now become established as the dominant party on the island. The result of last weekend’s General Election in the Republic, hot on the heels of more Nationalist than Unionist MPs being elected to Westminster for the first time ever, saw neither of the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since partition – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – gain a majority. The former won 38 seats whilst the latter managed 35. Yet, sandwiched between them with a staggering 37 seats, is Sinn Féin. The party that was traditionally accompanied by the suffix ‘The political wing of the IRA’ has smashed the mould in the Republic after a century, mirroring aspirations and ambitions on both sides of the border.

Although many hinted the new, broader appeal of Sinn Féin – binning the old romantic Republicanism in favour of focusing on left-of-centre social issues (particularly housing) – might secure the party a record showing, the pitiful placing it had suffered during last year’s European elections hardly suggested it would ascend to the position it now holds in Eire with such rapidity. As things stand, neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael can contemplate a formal coalition administration with each other, but one of them will have no choice but to enter into such a partnership with a party that won almost a quarter of the vote, a party that was seen as something of a pariah in the Republic not so long ago.

Over the border, Sinn Féin’s detachment from the party’s old allegiances on home soil was further emphasised by the news that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and her Sinn Féin colleague Gerry Kelly have received death threats for their appearance at a recruitment event for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. O’Neill’s response to dissident dinosaurs still associating the province’s police force with the RUC or even (more accurately for those spending their days living in the past) the Black and Tans, was succinct. ‘These people have no politics, no strategy and nothing to offer,’ she said. ‘They are at war with the community and are now threatening political representatives…These groups have nothing to offer.’

Those who had directed the armed struggle brought it to an end with the Good Friday Agreement, though this was a bitter pill to swallow for some lower down the pecking order who’d had a good war. Obstinate opponents continuing to cling to ye olde Republican mythology have been very much in a minority ever since; and as the country moves further away from 1998, let alone the savage carnage that typified the three decades before it, dissidents will find little support in their retrogressive attempts to preserve the spirit of 1916 in amber. Even the old-habits-die-hard singing of ‘rebel songs’ has been severely admonished by Sinn Féin’s leaders in Dublin and Belfast, recognising the negative connotations such dirges have and how contradictory they are to the aims of a party with its eyes fixed on the road ahead rather than behind.

The question of Irish Unification is in the air again as a result of all these events, something that was undoubtedly kick-started by Brexit. Standing still and maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. However, Boris Johnson’s fanciful idea to revitalise the province – i.e. building a literal bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland – has been scuppered by the realisation that the proposed route of the 28-mile site would risk disturbing a WWII munitions dump in the middle of the Irish Sea. A more realistic proposition would be a plebiscite on unification, something that – regardless of Sinn Féin’s strong foothold in both North and South – is bound up with the Good Friday Agreement and would still require the British Government playing a substantial part in proceedings. After all, we remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But for how much longer?

© The Editor

THE LIBERAL PARTY

I suspect there may be a few pats on the collective back in the land of our nearest neighbours today. There’s about to be a new PM at the helm and not only is he half-Indian; he’s also openly gay. Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach will no doubt he heralded as representative of the Irish Republic in its new incarnation as a modern, inclusive, forward-looking state no longer bogged down by the rigid old codes of strict Catholic morality that once governed the Emerald Isle. It’s certainly a far cry from when Éamon de Valera, a survivor of the Easter Rising and former Prime Minister, was elected Irish President at the age of 84 in 1966, a move which seemed to embody the stasis the country had slipped into. De Valera’s shift from the militant Republicanism of his youth to a far more conservative outlook as he entered old age implied Eire itself was similarly culturally and socially stagnant.

The year de Valera finally retired at the age of 90, Ireland became a member of the EEC; the positive effect of this membership was the boom ‘Celtic Tiger’ era of the 90s and 2000s, though the spectacular crash that brought about its ending resulted in exposure to the less benign aspects of the EU. Ireland conceded fiscal sovereignty to the Brussels big-guns whilst being forced to accept a high-interest loan of €85 billion; another element of Ireland’s recent economic woes has been the resumption of emigration, something that fell during the boom years, as Ireland’s youth are again leaving the country to seek their fortune elsewhere.

If economic issues have been a story of peaks and troughs from the 1990s onwards, social liberalism has slowly gathered pace during the same timeline. Restrictions on purchasing contraceptives were finally lifted in 1993, the year homosexual sex was also belatedly decriminalised; divorce was legalised two years later. For many, however, the greatest socially liberal achievement in recent Irish history was the legalisation of same-sex marriage following a highly-publicised referendum in 2015.

Many of these great leaps forward were aided by the diminishing power of the church. Any society in which religion has too great a say is usually marked by the strict imposition of an intolerant moral code on the population, and Ireland was no exception, at times competing with the likes of hardcore Islamic Iran in the effective suppression of its citizens. However, the scandals (particularly involving child sexual abuse) that have plagued the Catholic Church over the last decade or so have not only severely impacted upon church attendance; they have served to weaken the stranglehold it once had upon the people of Ireland and have in turn relaxed attitudes towards any form of diversity where sexuality is concerned.

The election of a gay man as Taoiseach in this context appears a natural progression, even though it still comes as something of a surprise, especially when Leo Varadkar has few (if any) peers in such a prominent position outside of Ireland. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a half-Indian gay man leading the British Government, regardless of Jeremy Corbyn’s intentions to ‘release potential’. However much Varadkar might wish the media attention he’ll undoubtedly receive following his elevation to power will focus on his political message, his sexual status is bound to attract the most interest.

In the grand scheme of things, for a nation that only decriminalised homosexual sex less than twenty-five years ago to shortly have a gay Prime Minister is indeed a positive reflection of Ireland’s changing attitudes; even the fact that the Taoiseach-elect’s religious leanings haven’t figured in the coverage of his promotion to PM – something that would certainly have been raised for an equivalent figure holding the same office on this side of the Irish Sea – is encouraging.

However, amidst an event destined to be held up as a sign of the great distance Ireland has travelled in socially progressive terms, we really shouldn’t forget this is a country where a woman can still not receive a legal abortion unless in exceptional circumstances. The act remains an offence enshrined in the nation’s constitution.

Despite abortion never having been legal in Ireland, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 was essentially a constitutional ban on abortion, and though the law was rendered a little more flexible with the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution 1992 – enabling surgeons to perform an abortion to save a mother’s life and no longer making it an offence to travel abroad for a termination – abortion remains illegal in a country where two women or two men can now marry each other. This glaring omission from Ireland’s liberal agenda rightly remains a blot on its copybook and a curious situation for a country to find itself in when something once viewed as beyond the pale as homosexuality is no longer a barrier to high office.

Perhaps, as when capital punishment remained on the UK statute books throughout the peak years of the Swinging Sixties, the abortion ban will eventually come to be seen as an embarrassing anachronism in the face of Ireland’s liberal rebirth. Over to you, Mr Varadkar.

© The Editor

DERE’S MORE TE OIRLAND DAN DIS

Those in the know will rightly credit Alan Partridge with the title of this post, a suggested tagline for the doomed TV comeback of Norwich’s premier broadcaster, which he intended to come ‘live from the Blarney Stone’. To be honest, though, there’s a veritable Partridge-esque upsurge of ‘Oirish’ clichés in England today – you can’t pass a pub or a supermarket without being bombarded by images of shamrocks or leprechauns; were I Irish myself (and there’s probably a bit in me somewhere, belonging as I do to these islands’ mongrel breed) I think I’d be a tad annoyed; at what point did an Irish festival become one more marketing opportunity for the British retail sector ala Christmas, Easter and Halloween? Somehow, I can’t imagine the streets of Dublin on St George’s Day are crammed with stout yeoman clad in Union Jack waistcoats, yet the plotlines of English soap operas from Walford to Weatherfield will no doubt be marking St Patrick’s Day.

I’m not planning to jump on the emerald bandwagon today, but as it’s been a long week with a lot of posts, I figured it was the easiest/laziest option to issue a list. As an alternative to the glut of stereotypical tat decorating your local neighbourhood O’Neill’s, I thought I’d recite some Irish names that I’d rather figured on a day such as today than the aforementioned clichés. In the interests of harmony, I include both sides of the island, and to avoid any accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’, you might be relieved to hear I don’t particularly care for Guinness.

When it comes to the Arts, Ireland has produced an impressive roster of writers, playwrights, poets and musicians over the years. Many had their artistic fingers in more than one pie, though if we stick to dramatists for the moment, we could name the likes of Oliver Goldsmith in the eighteenth century, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who had a foot in both the eighteenth and nineteenth), Oscar Wilde in the nineteenth, and two cultural giants who crossed over into the twentieth – George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. Like his illustrious predecessors, a notable twentieth century name such as Samuel Beckett was a dramatist who didn’t reserve his entire oeuvre for the theatre. What is especially fascinating about so many Irish artists is how their artistry covers so many different fields, and Ireland has unleashed a remarkable number of genuine Renaissance Men.

That colossus of seventeenth and eighteenth century satire, Jonathan Swift, was a true polymath – still chiefly remembered by the wider public for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Swift was also an essayist, political pamphleteer and a poet. Beckett was also a poet, as well as a novelist; Yeats probably had ‘poet’ stamped on his passport, though he dabbled with drama as well; Joyce’s major artistic contribution was to the novel and short story, though he was also a poet; Wilde’s reputation was built on his plays, yet he produced the iconic novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the celebrated children’s stories published as ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, the poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and the lengthy letter, ‘De Profundis’.

Poetry seems particularly suited to the way Irish artists can paint pictures with words, with just a small few of the most celebrated poets being the obligatory WB Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Cecil Day-Lewis, and far too many others to mention. But there is a poetic rhythm to much of the prose that has illuminated Irish literature, and novelists have served to put Ireland on the literary map as much as its poets. I mean, where does one start? The aforementioned Swift, Laurence Stern, Bram Stoker, Liam O’Flaherty, CS Lewis (born in Belfast), Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle…the list often seems bloody endless, to be honest – so we’d best move on.

Music has always mattered either as an artistic pursuit or simple entertainment in Ireland, though if we put ‘traditional’ Irish music to one side and glance back over the last fifty years of popular music’s ascendancy, Irish names figure quite highly. The first true Irish rock band to make an impact were Belfast’s Them during the Beat Boom of the early 60s, and they were led, of course, by Van Morrison, whose subsequent solo career eclipsed anything he achieved with his original bandmates. Many Irish musicians struggled to emerge from the shadow of the ‘Show Bands’, but in the early 70s Rory Gallagher was certainly a top live draw on the rock circuit and a critically acclaimed recording artist, though in terms of Irish exports he was usurped by the mighty Thin Lizzy and their roguish romantic leader, the late great Phil Lynott.

While singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan was the mainstream face of Irish pop in the early-to-mid-70s, the Punk era certainly produced its fair share of significant bands, from The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers to the far bigger commercial monster that was The Boomtown Rats. The late 70s also saw the arrival of a band that would go onto become not just the most successful Irish rock band of all time, but one of rock’s greatest successes full stop, U2. And after U2 came The Pogues, Sinead O’Connor, Enya, My Bloody Valentine, The Divine Comedy and all those bloody boy-bands. But having skimmed across the surface of Irish music, let’s move on to the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ireland have won the Eurovision on seven separate occasions, beginning with Dana’s ode to ‘All Kinds of Everything’ in 1970 and including two triumphs for Johnny Logan and three successive victories in the 90s. The financial strain of staging the Eurovision in Ireland year-after-year inspired the classic episode of ‘Father Ted’ in which Ted and Dougall’s terrible entry is picked to represent the nation because there’s no way it can win. For many in the UK, ‘Father Ted’ is not just the greatest work of comedy genius (other than Dave Allen) that Ireland has ever produced, but it is up there with the best sitcoms of all time. Let’s not mention ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’.

And what (I hear you ask) of actors and directors, of great inventors, of politicians and sportsmen and women? How can you not mention George Best or Alex Higgins? There, I just did. Well, I’ve only got so much space, after all – though I won’t go without honourable mention of two people you’ve never heard of called John and Noeleen Doyle; they were a couple who knocked about with my grandparents when I was a child, whose house I sometimes stopped at and whose children I sometimes played with; and because of them I still can’t hear an Ulster accent without slipping into a warm bath of aural nostalgia. Anyway, considering I’m an Englishman, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer volume of greats that have emanated from that little landmass, and long may it continue.

© The Editor

THE GREEN GODDESS

001Amidst the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, one name hasn’t been mentioned as much as one might expect, though her absence from the siege at the Dublin Post Office and the fact she evaded execution perhaps excludes her from the roll-call of Republican martyrs. Countess Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman in more than one respect, however. The fact that she was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons should be enough to ensure her place in history, even though she didn’t take her seat on account of refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, representing Sinn Fein in the 1918 Parliament when it was the third largest party with a tally of 73 seats.

She was an unlikely rebel, emanating from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and yet bearing the distinction of being the only uniformed woman officer of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 and being posthumously honoured with a statue in Dublin, the sole female participant in the Easter Rising to receive such recognition. When Sinn Fein MPs formed the first Dali Eireann rather than head for Westminster, she was awarded the post of Minister for Labour, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position.

Although I had delved into Irish history for many years, perhaps inspired by lingering childhood confusion at the reasons behind the Troubles and IRA mainland activity, the name of Constance Markievicz was totally unknown to me until I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a 1934 biography of her in a second-hand book shop around a decade ago. The book, written by an acquaintance of hers, Sean O’Faolain, opened a window onto a world when born beneficiaries of the British Empire questioned the right of Britain to rule over its nearest neighbour and were sufficiently enamoured with the rise of anti-imperialist socialist nationalism as a political force to sacrifice their social standing for the romanticism of rebellion. Markievicz could count the likes of poet WB Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey amongst her closest friends and was prepared to take up arms when many of her class and upbringing would have run a mile.

Eventually labelled ‘The Red Countess’, Constance Markievicz entered the world as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in the capital city of the Empire, London, in 1868. Her father, though an Anglo-Irish Baronet, had an independent streak that manifested itself as adventures exploring the Arctic; though a prominent landowner in Ireland, he had an unusual (for the time) sympathy with the workers on his County Sligo estate and distributed free food to them during one of Ireland’s periodical famines in 1879-80. His altruism made a deep impression on his two daughters Constance and Eva, both of whom developed an affinity with the perennial struggle of the poor and oppressed that was unconventional for their privileged status.

Whilst studying painting at London’s Slade School of Art, Constance joined the nascent battle for women’s suffrage; she was clearly a woman in need of a cause and the women’s movement seemed tailor-made for her. However, relocating to Paris removed her from the Suffragette frontline and it was in the French capital where she met her future husband, artist and Polish exile Casimir Markievicz, who styled himself ‘Count’ even though there was no concrete evidence he possessed such a title. Nevertheless, Constance Gore-Booth was known as Countess Markievicz from the moment of their London wedding in 1900.

The newlyweds set up home in Dublin and ingratiated themselves with the Irish artistic intelligentsia, picking up on the then current fad for reviving traditional Gaelic culture, which quickly morphed into nationalistic passion opposed to British rule; Constance found the circles she was mixing in revitalised her rebellious streak and she returned to the Suffragette cause. Her most notable contribution to the cause during this period was publicly opposing the re-election of Winston Churchill to Parliament during a Manchester by-election in 1908; that Churchill failed to be re-elected was attributed to the Suffragettes hounding his hustings campaign. By now a member of Sinn Fein, Constance’s political activities were growing increasingly radical and she suffered imprisonment for the first time in 1911 after speaking at a meeting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood opposing the Royal visit of George V.

Seeing the native poor as the most evident casualties of British imperialism on home soil, Constance joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was initially set up to aid striking workers combat the actions of police brutality in 1913. Her involvement with the paramilitary elements of the Nationalist movement meant that when the Easter Rising erupted she was at the forefront of the action. She held the rank of lieutenant during the six-day siege at St Stephen’s Green, which ended when news of the surrender of the Post Office reached the 200-plus insurgents holding out in the Dublin park. Evading execution purely on account of her sex, a sentence of life imprisonment ended at Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire the following year when the British Government granted an amnesty for survivors of the Rising.

Her historic election to Parliament in 1918 tends to be overshadowed by Nancy Astor, the second woman MP (elected in 1919), largely because Astor took her seat at Westminster; ironically, Constance was more eligible to be there in that Astor had been born in the US and she had been born in London, but the new Irish Republican Government was her political destination. She was a member of that Government until 1922, when she left as a protest over the Anglo-Irish treaty that created the Irish Free State, and also left Sinn Fein for the newly-formed Fianna Fail party in 1926. Despite further spells behind bars during this period, she also played a part in the Irish Civil War and seemed set to remain a distinctive fixture on the Irish political scene until her untimely death as a result of complications arising from appendicitis at the age of 59 in 1927.

Constance Markievicz may well be revered by Irish historians, but she really deserves wider recognition as a key figure belonging to a generation of brave and groundbreaking women who broke down barriers that presented a far more imposing obstacle to female emancipation than the trivial concerns that so preoccupy certain sections of feminist thinking today.

© The Editor

BAD MOON RISING

1916After more than fifty years of technological advancements and increasing industrialisation, Britain experienced a series of defiantly backward-looking backlashes at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, though these new Luddites were a good deal more creative than their machine-smashing, albeit pioneering, technophobe ancestors. Most devoted their energies to recreating an ideal of Britain that had supposedly been lost in the white heat of industrial revolution. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement had already delved into medieval mysticism, but they were followed by the likes of musicologist Cecil Sharp roaming the countryside collecting folk songs and the formation of various pseudo-Masonic societies harking back to an imagined idyll of Albion in which druids held the key to the ancient spiritual soul of the nation.

Parallel events across the Irish Sea celebrated a romantic notion of a pure Gaelic Ireland unsullied by its absorption into the British Empire, though the perpetrators of this thinking were viewed by many as a fringe element on the periphery of the long-running saga of Home Rule. However, with a Liberal Government at Westminster, the concept of an Ireland running itself within the secure Imperial embrace was revived, something that struck fear in the heart of Ulstermen who valued their place at the table of the planet’s greatest superpower. At Belfast City Hall in 1912, the opening salvo of something that would eventually climax with the partition of the nation was fired by leading Northern Irish politician and barrister Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant. This call-to-arms document sent a message to Downing Street that handing control of the country to the Catholic stronghold of Dublin would threaten not only Protestant dominance in the North, but Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

With clandestine Conservative support on the mainland, the signing of the Covenant by 237,368 Ulstermen was followed by the establishment of a Unionist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, who armed themselves courtesy of 25,000 smuggled rifles. Catholic Nationalists who feared Home Rule would be defeated by paramilitary means responded in kind as the various disparate Rebel factions such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood came together as the Irish Volunteers, an organisation that morphed into the Irish Republican Army. Although the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 focused attention elsewhere, those who didn’t sign-up to the British war effort remained determined to declare an Irish Republic rather than merely oppose the aims of the UVF; and in April 1916, this small group severed their links with Home Rule moderates and went for it.

Led by Patrick Pearse, a scholastic Anglo-Irish member of the IRB Military Council, a coordinated attack on various strategic positions in Dublin by over a thousand volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army began on Easter Monday 1916 while most of Britain was distracted by events on the Western Front. As news of the insurrection spread, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland declared martial law and regiments of the British Army that weren’t already engaged on the continent were deployed to end the rebellion, many of them being Irish regiments, including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. One-by-one, the locations seized by the Rebels were recaptured over several days and the last stand took place at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. A fierce siege developed that saw the prominent Dublin civic landmark bombarded by shells as Irishman killed Irishman.

Most of the lives lost during the Easter Rising were civilian, and when the Rebels finally surrendered on Saturday 29 April the prisoners led from the GPO were jeered by bystanders, particularly the wives of men who were away fighting the Great War. Outside of the more fanatical elements of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Rebels were not regarded as heroes by the vast majority of the Catholic community, and the ruin of Sackville Street was something for which they, and not the British Army, were held responsible. Had the Rebels simply been handed long prison sentences by the authorities, chances are Irish history could have taken a radically different turn. Would Church and State have been so fatally incestuous in the South? Would the Troubles have even broken out in the North, let alone spanned thirty bloody years? But, at a moment when Britain was involved in a serious military conflict, clemency was in short supply and the guilty men were all sentenced to death.

Considering the bigger picture, the decision to execute the ringleaders of the Easter Rising was an unsurprising response to an act of treason at a time of war; but what happened next was predicted by the poet WB Yeats when he wrote ‘a terrible beauty is born’. Public opinion was not on the side of the Rebels as they surrendered, but when fourteen men faced a firing squad in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol, opinion turned in their favour and all Irish Nationalists suddenly saw them as that most potent symbol of Nationalism, the martyr, something they have remained in romantic Republican mythology ever since.

Oral history is always tailored to suit the agenda of the storyteller, and the Easter Rising of 1916 is no different. The compromise of the Irish Free State, the assassination of Michael Collins, the War of Independence and Partition are all viewed as direct consequences of the crushing of the Easter Rising. In retrospect, the executions of the ringleaders and subsequent round-up and imprisonment of other suspects can be regarded as a cataclysmic blunder by the British, even if it all happened a hundred years ago now. Lest we forget, the fact that events that took place as far back as 1690 are still celebrated by Protestant Northern Ireland serves as a reminder of how the Irish have extremely long memories indeed. The passing of a mere century between 1916 and 2016 is therefore no time at all, as resurgent dissidents eager to mark the occasion with renewed bloodshed will testify. The Celtic Tiger has not lost all its teeth yet.

© The Editor