Beware the fetish of 1916.

The Times ScreenshotPreviously published on the 20th March 2016 in The Times Ireland Edition.

As an event, the Easter Rising and the mythos that has gathered around the events of 1916 are a bit like an impressionistic painting. From a distance it’s a striking story. A band of courageous patriots took their lives in their hands in a blow for national independence, and many of them paid the final price. Their sacrifice ignited a flame in a nation which resulted, six years later, in the withdrawal of the British from Dublin. Many who participated knew the odds and the likelihood of defeat and indeed death, yet still stepped forward into a story of simple human courage that is hard to beat.

Looking back from 2016, it has transformed from an impressionistic event to a piece of modern art which is open to interpretation from all. How many times this year will we be subjected to the use of the centenary to justify a call for more taxpayer spending for one interest group or another? As if the Easter Rising somehow suspended the laws of mathematics and made the issue of revenue versus expenditure a question which should no longer apply here?

Let’s confront a few awkward realities about 1916 and its aftermath.

Firstly, the country we are living in is pretty much the country the men of 1916 envisaged. You know how we know? Because a huge number of them ended up in the Dail, running the country. Throwing the King out and then twisting in one smooth pivot and falling down to kiss the Archbishop’s foot? That was the men of 1916, that was. Not all of them, but enough to matter. WT Cosgrave, Eamon De Valera, Sean Lemass, from 1921 to 1966, with the exception of John A Costello, this country was led by 1916 veterans.

As for the women of 1916, here’s the really awkward bit. It’s arguable they’d have gotten more rights if we’d stayed in the UK, and yes, I appreciate how mortifying it is to admit that. See Constance Markiwicz? The fabled first female cabinet minister? Her successor came in 1979. The Brits were appointing female ministers in every decade from the 1920s. The first birth control clinic opened in Britain in 1921. They had access to legal abortion from 1968. Britain elected its first female prime minister in the same year we appointed only our second female cabinet minister.

Did we build a republic more progressive than the kingdom we left? That’s where the impressionistic images of Easter get all ragged. Yes, we got rid of the monarchy, and good for us. But we replaced the monarchy with the hierarchy. On nearly every social justice issue we were behind the Brits for most of our history, not ahead of them.

So much so that it led to the awkward reality that hundreds of thousands of Irish chose to flee a sovereign government elected by their own votes in Ireland to live voluntarily under British rule. In Britain. From our first days of independence Irish people continued to take the boat to England. You didn’t see many East Germans hopping back over the wall to do some overtime.

The Ireland we built from 1922 wasn’t a betrayal of the men of 1916. That was an active choice by Irish electors in free elections. If 1916 stood for anything it stood for the right to national self-determination, and we as a people determined to remain economically and socially backward as the rest of Europe moved ahead. Indeed, economic progress only began in earnest when we started to once again share sovereignty, this time with the rest of Europe.

You cannot dismiss the sheer physical courage of those who raised rifles on that crisp, clear morning. But we are doing them a disservice by using their sacrifice as a lazy bookmark for highlighting modern day grievances and our reluctance to actually confront our problems with a sense of rationality. It’s just not good enough to utter the stock “Was it for this?” and then saunter away in indignation.

To put it in context: imagine the sneering any Irish politician would get if he raised taxes for a specific social purpose under the banner of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.”

The men and women of 1916 asked what they could do for their country. The men and women of 2016 seem to always have an excuse why someone else should be making a greater sacrifice.

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