A Terrible Beauty

For some years, I have made a point of wearing green on March 17th. That’s not because I have any Irish blood but because of a swathe of positive influences that Ireland and the Irish have made on my life. Starting with a colleen displaced to darkest Hampshire, I reckon I hitch-hiked a distance equivalent to global circumnavigation to see her over a three-year period. More recently, a riotous week a decade ago was ostensibly researching campaigns using STV voting, but actually savouring the fleshpots of Temple Bar and learning what criac really means.

Scots are fond of citing the far-reaching influence of their diaspora but—truth be told— the Irish probably have us licked as measured by global reach by a smallish country. Combined with the fact that they are stylised as sweet-talking hard drinkers while Scots are stylised as dour-faced hard drinkers, we could do worse that learn from our cousins.

St Paddy’s Day drifted by with very little fanfare in Scotland and any fraternal feeling evaporated in their decisive 35-25 6-Nations win over us in Dublin two days later. So there is little appetite to disinter a history forever wrapped with Easter 100 years ago. We like to call Culloden the “last battle on British soil”, but it wasn’t. Foolhardy bravery by barely 1,000 rebelsis was a pivotal historic event that is still debated in Eire, seminal as it was to that country, as it brought ‘physical force republicanism’ to the fore in Irish politics.

That the anniversary will be ignored in London and by the British establishment is perhaps understandable; it was not the Empire’s finest hour. The brutal lessons our Celtic cousins learned on their rocky road to independence should stand as indelible reminders of the cost to all involved of armed insurrection and decades of bitterness that follows.

The parallels between Scotland and Ireland cannot be taken far. Whereas the Scots (parcel of rogues notwithstanding) voluntarily joined to England and was a full partner in sending gunboats to the pink-painted fifth of the globe the Empire once covered, the Irish came by a different path. Since before Edward I subdued the Welsh in the late 13th century, England had colonial designs on Ireland. They had colonial designs on Scotland and France too but the latter both managed to fight them off.

But in the half millennium between then and the Irish being officially given partner status in 1801, there were a series of land grabs, skirmishes, pitched battles, resentment and religious standoffs that make John Knox look like a soft-spoken moderate. Present republican leaders descend from a romantic heritage stretching back to the High Kings and the legends around who we Scots would call Fingal. Hard-headed, hard-spoken unionists of the Ian Paisley mould descend from carpetbagging Scots who were shipped over by James VI to try to balance recalcitrant Catholics with dour Scots Protestants.

To this ancient powder keg, the otherwise triumphant government of the world’s most successful empire that had overcome warlike Zulu and wily Pathan, added gasoline. It seems they didn’t ‘get’ how they could be thwarted by a couple of million recalcitrant bog-dwellers. Since the destruction of the clan system and associated Clearances worked had so well in bringing a Tacitan peace to the Highlands—so much so that George IV could prance about in a kilt and Victoria visit the Cairngorms less than a century post-Culloden—well, the same medicine as pacified Jock jolly well ought to work on Paddy, what?

For the (largely English) colonists sent over to exploit the Pale and beyond treated the Irish pretty much the same as they did Bantu or Brahmin—local resources to be exploited in pursuit of profit. They practiced feudal overlordship long after bonded peasants had been freed into something more enlightened in England. Little wonder Irish resentment blossomed. Incidents were common as sullenness ran as undercurrents to daily life.

Catholics—80% of the population—lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity, despite emancipation in 1829. At the top of the social pyramid was the “ascendancy class”—English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, exercising unchecked power over their tenants. This land question became the root cause of disaffection, so the British Government established a Royal Commission in 1843 to review laws regarding the occupation of land. In predictable fashion, they formed it entirely of landlords. But even such a lopsided group could not:

forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.

Such was not always the case. Many Irish—like their Scots cousins—saw the opportunity that the burgeoning empire offered and created an early diaspora as they took up various callings from Saskatchewan to Singapore.

What undercut this co-operative, if not directly harmonious, element was an Gorta Mór—the Potato Famine. By the 1840s, Ireland was heavily dependent on potatoes for food. An outbreak of blight between 1845 and 1852 ravaged the crop. That in itself was bad enough. But the reaction of the British state was callous. Despite Prime Minister Peel making a start by importing American maize, he was replaced by a Whig administration that took a laissez-faire attitude: the market could rectify the famine situation. The result was 1m people died and another 1m emigrated in a desperate effort to survive.

From then on, Ireland was a rumbling volcano, the only question being when it would erupt, rather than whether. In post-famine Ireland, anti-English hostility was woven into the philosophy and foundation of the Irish nationalist movement. Parnell’s nationalists dominated the hundred Irish MPs returned to Westminster. Up to the turn of the 20th century, the Celtic Revival movement associated the search for a cultural and national identity with an increasing anti-colonial—and by extension anti-English—sentiment.

A feeling of anti-English sentiment intensified within Irish nationalism during the Boer War leading to real Anglophobia. To assuage this, bills were proposed in Parliament for Irish Home Rule but these were shelved at the outbreak of war in 1914. Though many Irish fought in that conflict (three divisions were formed—the 10th, 16th and 38th), the level of frustration and resentment after centuries of despair provide a background for a rising. Though organised across Ireland, effectively it happened only in Dublin. That it came to this was because the man in charge, Irish Secretary Birrell (hitherto seen as an enlightened chief secretary for Ireland) seems to have grown complacent.

A hundred years ago on April 24th, in a hopeless optimism that the British were so preoccupied in France they would let Ireland go its way, Pearse and Connolly led a few hundred in occupying several buildings. But they signally failed to take ports, railway stations or Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule, so reinforcement could be organised.

Despite being caught on the hop, the British response was devastating, including artillery being used on the streets. The 1,200 troops in the city were swiftly reinforced to 16,000 and all points seized by the rebels quelled in 5 days. 132 soldiers and 254 civilians were killed, along with 64 rebels. The 16 ringleaders were arrested, courts martial convened and all were executed within two weeks.

Which pretty much sealed the deal on Irish independence. Many former unionists were outraged at the peremptory and brutal treatment of their countrymen. Unrest flared up after conclusion of WWI. Churchill’s Irish Constabulary Reserve (better known as the Black and Tans and recruited largely from unsympathetic demobbed soldiers) employed a brutality that only made things worse.

So the British government threw in the towel and declared the Irish Free State in 1922. But not before they welshed on a deal struck with de Valera, unilaterally keeping the six counties of Ulster as part of Britain as a sop to the Protestant majority there, largely descended from those dour Scots shipped there three hundred years before. And we all know how well that turned out.

There are, as hinted above, lessons here for Scotland: for a start that armed resistance—even when apparently justified by heinous acts—costs both sides dear and leaves scars that heal only slowly, if ever. But the larger lesson is that even small, poor countries can make a go of it, increasing prosperity for their citizens. Fifty years ago, Eire was a backwater that sent its brightest elsewhere to find careers. Even with tough times, they rode out the 2008 crash. At no time did you hear no Irish voices raised asking to return to the Union fold. Better Together made no kind of sense to the Irish.

One of the more enlightened Tories Michael Portillo has now made a timely documentary about the Easter Rising called The Enemy Files. It is being broadcast on Monday. March 21st on both RTÉ One and BBC NI. But, perhaps significantly, it will not appear on any channel in either Scotland or England. So it remains a lesson our two countries still need to learn.

Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Easter 1916, W.B.Yeats

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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