An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 25th 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descet, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.

By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’

Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.

According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:

the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.

What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he issued the following order:

1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take all their grain away from them.
4. Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out your instructions.
Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the “tougher people” he unleashed would prove highly problematic.

Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:

there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under-ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth-village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.

Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced Capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.

According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that Capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.

The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.

Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’, who, ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed’, according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents’, a few recording Stalin’s direction connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances and playing one faction off against another, as he awaited a chance to strike for power, which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.

Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:

All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.

This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:

I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: “Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!

He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that’.

During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed’. He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.

Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most shocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act’. Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.

Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

Communists reacted to these events like devout Catholics to revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be’. He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile’. Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.

History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world

Imagining Ireland

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1827) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and sometimes frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland stands accused.

Scientific reasoning for all its astounding capacity is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. Thus Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course.

The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the medieval. In his autobiography Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by C. G. Jung ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. To do so we must move beyond the wisdom of Ireland’s leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The utility of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own;’

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls ‘moral imagination’; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who: ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

Further, he distinguishes between poetry which ‘in the restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’; and poetry located in other forms such as the story or novel: ‘The parts of the a composition may be poetical without the composition as a whole being poetical’. He adds that ‘all the great historians were poets’ and that ‘poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man’.
Seen in this light poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland in 1812 where he wrote a pamphlet An Address to the Irish People urging non-violent resistance: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’ He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs.

But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark arts. Audiences were mesmerized by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This is quite urgent considering Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this the Anthropocene. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as addressing hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

It is assumed that we in Ireland are of little relevance to the wider world. But that is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of fields from artists of the Book of Kells, to Swift’s satire and Joyce’s iconoclasm that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising for all its flaws was the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for ‘no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland.’ Instead: ‘Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech.’

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to Ulysses in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from by saying: ‘Ireland … I was born here, Ireland.’

That ‘Ireland of the imagination’ awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas after independence its animating spirit W.B. Yeat retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion.

But before then Joyce anticipated that: ‘The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop.’ And was sure that: ‘No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.’
Eireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence. Leaving in Joyce’s words: ‘The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites.’

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: ‘I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul.’

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power remains suspect. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century who bemoaned the apocryphal ‘gift of Constantine’ which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!’

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his Dreamtime: ‘In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect.’ A stateless Christianity, rejecting the papacy with clear water between itself and state institutions, that identifies human beings as living among a wider natural constellation needs poets such as John Moriarty to sing into being.

Since independence most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.
Only in music which at times rivals, but really compliments the animating effect of poetry, has great expression been preserved. But even here, with notable exceptions, the originality of the lyric has declined: the absence of poetry is felt. Just as words without music do not create the greatest poetry, similarly music without words fall short of the highest artistic expression. Recall that Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony, widely regarded as the greatest composition in history culminates in a choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

We have seen a grubby culture grow up in Ireland, leaving its mark on a landscape of one-off incongruous bungalows and groves of clear-felled Sitka spruce; in lurid sports apparel that serves as fashion and the sordid drunkenness that haunts every city and town. Worse: gangland murders fuelled by middle class recreational drug habits and nonsensical laws; approaching the highest rate of obesity in Europe; and a cruel and self-centred agricultural industry. All this alongside a bewildering level of homelessness.

The wounds of the “double yoke” run deep, and are compounded by a collision with the zombie-culture of our smart-phone post-modernity. Ever extreme in virtue as in vice: the Irish are the biggest phone-internet users in the world.

We seem to be lurching from the Celtic Twilight towards Flann O’Brien’s Celtic Toilet. And each of us bears responsibility in the sense understood by Dostoyevsky in his novel Devils. In this Stavrogin reveals his appalling crime to the elder Tikhon, who responds by asking the forgiveness of Stavrogin: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin. I’m a great sinner, perhaps greater than you.’

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review: ‘For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fail.’

But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to anticipate that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book Ship of Fools: ‘skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro.’

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place predicting
‘a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’; that ‘reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff’.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s limitations: ‘In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.’
The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fail methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Fein waits in the wings alongside a raft of parish-pump Independents. His own flirtation with seeking political office as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

It is revealing that O’Toole’s strident left-wing voice is used to sell a paper such as the Irish Times which nurtures a consumer society through the contagion of a Saturday magazine that has spilled into the rest of the paper. Increasingly scant space is devoted to writing unconnected to selling one thing or another be it property, food, sport or increasingly the arts.
Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

It is also apparent that there is a serious gap in O’Toole’s coverage of the environment: he has never had a raised ecological awareness. Of course no columnist can cover every issue but occupying such an influential position as an almost weekly op-ed contributor it is surely incumbent on him to pay more attention to the most pressing concern for a wider humanity.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present.” Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books, and it is to an example of this coverage that we turn.

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet W.B. Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic views. But distilling O’Toole’s criticism to its essence we are left with him honouring the poet as ‘magical, strange and transcendent’; ‘with vestiges of the marvellous’. Without elucidation these encomiums are however superfluous.

O’Toole has Dante’s Paradise in sight but we do not taste oblivion from the waters of Lethe, or the river of Eunoe where the memories of good deeds in life are strengthened. These we find in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as ‘the artifice of eternity’ and as the golden bird who sings to ‘lords and ladies of Byzantium’ of ‘what is past or passing or to come’.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is as Robert Durling puts it: ‘a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death’. Yeats developed a similar symbolic system and unless we absorb this we only skim the surface of his vision.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare, Militon through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests this is a two way process: ‘Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth.’

The ‘timeless’, ‘transcendent’ and the ‘remarkable’ that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’s poetry are glimpse at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance,’ but the historical accuracy of that statement in a European context is difficult to counter. In Defending Ancient Sacred Springs she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drinks from these waters.
Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

Poetry has a wide variety of devices. According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) ‘has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators … he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths.’ We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, a muse to the Greeks, faeries for the Irish, but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty.

The poet-philosopher John Moriarty was one such visionary. He imagined ‘another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland.’

That surely female Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practice yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this lady will carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that ‘God and the imagination are one’.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/imagine-2/)

Catholicise-nation

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2016)

Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was the principle ideologue of the pan-Arabist Ba’ath Socialist party still ruling Syria and previously Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Although born Christian he believed Islam to be proof of Arab genius and allegedly converted before his death in Baghdad.
The Arabs were a motley collection of illiterate warring tribes inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula until the Prophet Muhammed (570-632 CE) and his successors built an enduring empire with extraordinary speed. The early Muslims were not only successful warriors conquering territory from Spain to Persia but also projected a ‘soft’ power allowing them to convert subjugated peoples. The era brought great advances in philosophy, art and mathematics and was marked by a tolerance unknown under Christendom.
The Qu’ran itself was the first book written in Arabic, and according to the historian Albert Hourani Muslims believe Arabic is revealed in it; it certainly ushered in a great era of literacy. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary Arabic political movements have expressed themselves in the idiom of Islam however diverse that inheritance is.
Furthermore the failures of Arab nationalism especially under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) appeared to make Political Islam the answer to the project of throwing off the economic and cultural shackles of imperialism, and confronting Israel. The brutalisation of the Middle East through internal repression and outside intervention has shaped the emergence of ISIS, but its unsophisticated ideology has an historical trajectory.
Likewise Christianity has had a lasting influence on the idea of Irishness: first because Christianity’s arrival in Ireland brought with it literacy (ogham script hardly qualifies) that generated a seismic cultural awakening; second, and another source of pride, Irish Christians performed vital missions in restoring Christianity to Britain and other parts of Europe; third, the Reformation in Britain occurred simultaneously with its second wave of colonisation of Ireland creating an effective method of creating a ruling caste; fourth, the decline of the Gaelic language left Catholicism as the only obvious point of cultural differentiation between the Irish and English.
Thus in George Moore’s novel The Lake Father Moran opines: ‘religion in Ireland was another form of love of country, and that, if Catholics were intolerant to every form of heresy, it was because they instinctively felt that the questioning of any dogma would mean some slight subsidence from the idea of nationality that held the people together’ He continues: ‘Like the ancient Jews, the Irish believed that the faith of their forefathers could bring them into their ultimate inheritance’.
Moore himself eventually renounced Catholicism, just like the main character in the novel Father Gogarty who says: ‘my moral ideas were not my own. They were borrowed from others and badly assimilated’. Gogarty bemoans the Church’s attitude to women recalling how ‘at Maynooth the tradition was always to despise women.’
Well before Irish independence in 1922 the Catholic Church held a firm hold over Irish society especially in the crucial sphere of education. Maynooth was established in 1795 and Irish primary education had become increasingly denominational by the end of the nineteenth century. To some extent this suited the British administration as it recognised the Church as a force of conservatism that would protect private property against social revolutionaries.
James Joyce also violently repudiated Catholicism. He wrote to Nora Barnacle in 1904: ‘Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently … Now I make war upon it by what I write and say and do. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond.’ In Portrait he resolves: ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning.’
It took artists of the stature of Joyce and Moore to escape their Catholic upbringings. Unfortunately most of the revolutionary generation rapidly conformed and thereby stamped out the pluralism, feminism and even vegetarianism that animated the more free-thinking period before hostilities began. One of the most powerful ministers in the first government Kevin O’Higgins remarked: ‘we were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a revolution.’
That it should have been an Easter Rising that kicked off the affair is revealing. There was an obtuse connection drawn between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the blood sacrifice and emergence of an Irish nation state. Remarkably, in the wake of the Rising such illustrious revolutionaries as Roger Casement, Countess Marckieviez and James Connolly converted to Catholicism.
The Civil War between two children squabbling over the spoils of a new state had no relevance to the relationship with the Church. Observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms in the early 1920s; and the first Cumann na nGaedheal administration (1922-32) alienated many erstwhile progressive supporters, including W.B. Yeats, by bringing in a ban against divorce in 1925.
We now know that the Catholic Church was virtually untouchable in its position of power in Ireland until the 1990s when the staggering effect of sexual repression and a culture of impunity became apparent. The same sex marriage referendum last year affirmed that the once vice-like grip was no more: only Roscommon voted against the proposal despite the Church’s opposition. It remains firmly entrenched in education but such is the prevailing distrust for priests in particular that this situation is unlikely to endure much longer.
Moreover, Irish people are no longer drawn to the priesthood or convent as they were in droves. The Church simply does not have the personnel to project its message any longer. Of course there are residuals defenders of Catholic Conservatism in the Iona Institute and the broader Pro Life movement. But the abuse scandals seems to have changed the bulk of Irish people’s outlook and the Pro Life movement now looks more like a pale shadow from the US Tea Party. Considering the margin of victory – the vote in favour was 62% – in the same sex marriage referendum it seems likely that even the eight amendment will eventually be repealed.
But we may ask what is left when we throw away the chains? If Irish politics is anything to go by Irish people are quite lost at this point electing parties that oversaw the countries delivery into the hands of the Church, and then the IMF, alongside a raft of vacuous independents. The Far Left is a shrill irrelevance and the nationalist left fatally compromised by direct participation in atrocities during the Northern Troubles.
Could something be recovered from Ireland’s longstanding relationship with Christianity? Might the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Gospels and the lives of the saints rejecting materialism, promoting equality and pacifisms – and even containing seeds of environmentalism in the legacy of St Francis – actually inform a new political consciousness.
The Irish people are increasingly mired in neo-liberal confusion, which could be linked to the spiritual void in most of our lives. Increasingly Eastern thought is turned to for assurance and contemplation; but perhaps we have native idioms more comprehensible to us in our midst.
I do not write this as a spiritual person but as one who wishes to see a change of heart in the country which will allow us to realise a society that it is fairer and more sustainable. It seems to me that the language of religion conjoining poetry and prophesy speaks to people in a more powerful way than empiricism. Even Marx acknowledged the elixir.
One does not have to Believe in order to believe in its effect, though perhaps a measure of faith helps. As the philosopher Bartholomew Ryan puts it in his book Kierkegaard’s Indirect Politics: ‘There is no completion, but for pointing towards the elusive faith, but that faith remains incommensurable and we forever falter when we try to talk about it (otherwise it would not be faith).’
People sometimes grow nostalgic about Pagan Europe. At a musical festival you might be urged to embrace your pagan spirit. But life was often pretty brutish in pre-Christian Europe. Here is an account of human sacrifice by an Arab traveller to Scandinavia in the tenth century:
Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they put her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife.
Undoubtedly worse atrocities even have been committed in the name of organized Christianity from Cortez to the Crusades but those acts were utterly at variance with the ideas expressed in the gospels, rather than a component of ritual or doctrine as in many Pagan practices. In particular by dignifying each life Chrisitianity was crucial to the demise of slavery. Ireland, as a land of saints and scholars helped extend that idea, and early Irish nationalists drew on this as a source of inspiration. We should be loath to dispense with it peremptorily.
There have been many powerful critiques of organised Christianity not least from Edward Gibbons who wrote that: ‘The pure Deism of the first Christians … was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity’.
One of the most savage attacks on the Church of Rome came from Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose omniscient Idiot exclaims: ‘In my opinion Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinate to that idea, beginning with faith. The Pope seized the earth, an earthly throne and took up the sword; and since then everything has gone on in the same way, except they’ve added lies, fraud, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, wickedness. They have trifled with the most sacred, truthful, innocent, ardent feelings of the people, have bartered it all for money, for base temporal power. And isn’t that the teachings of the Antichrist?’ But Dostoyevsky was a deep believer and his novels invariably invoke the redemptive power of a Christian faith removed from temporal power.
Frederick Nietszche went much further opining that: ‘Christianity has been up till now mankind’s greatest misfortune’. In response the Irish poet-philosopher John Moriarty writes: ‘As though the Europe he grew up in was purely idolatrous Mexico and he a Cortez who came ashore. Nietzsche proceeded to smash and roll Christianity down the steps of its own pyramid temples. In its place he set up actuality, recurrence and will to power.’ And ultimately Nietzsche’s vision is associated with madness and Fascism.
Moriarty proposes that: ‘It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow’. In his Dreamtime he paints an ecumenical mythological inheritance out of which this growth in individuals and across a wider society might be realised. The Christian experience is reclaimed and reordered.
It seems that just as the key to defeating the doctrine of ISIS will emerge from within Arab-Islamic idiom rather through sustained bombing campaigns, similarly the key to creating a more compassionate, thoughtful and proactive Irishry may lie in re-engaging with our mythical inheritance, and that includes a re-imagined Christianity.

The Easter Rising 1916

(Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2016)

The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles; a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.

Without the Rising ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf to be worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.

It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.

Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen less pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.

Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.

The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.

In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seventeenth when the population declined from about two million to approximately five hundred thousand was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Albeit if the Crown had risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his officials treating it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.

The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English; a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.

More than James Joyce whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W.B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’

Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmuid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.

For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Padraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens.

More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity seemed applicable.

In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were fired in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.

Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of blood-minded cruelty.

But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach Eamon de Valera escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader the Countess Markievicz was spared due to her gender.

It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by firing squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Padraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Fein, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.

In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.

But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.

Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.

My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Padraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913: ‘Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.’

Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism exposes, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest flowering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.

The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood; and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound with his ideal of the nation.

A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the fight that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew.’ There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.

Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Fein’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.

I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.

Independence was important for Ireland however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.

Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds for each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-looking: a pale reflection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.

One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be profitable. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservativism of Pearse’s ideology?

It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.

The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank that has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/the-easter-rising/)

Grace Gifford and the Abortion Debate

(Unpublished, 2016)

Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985 and sung by the Dubliners among others, listening to Grace for the first time might bring you to tears. It recalls the circumstances of the marriage between 1916 revolutionary and poet Joseph Mary Plunkett and the artist Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail on the eve of his execution.

Plunkett explains to Grace how love of country and comrade compelled him to rise from his sick bed and join the Rising. He reflects on its failure, but consoles himself with the momentary bliss of their romance in a churning chorus: ‘Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger’.

The song changes key in the last verse as Plunkett is left alone with his thoughts. Overwhelmed he closes with the lines: ‘I loved so much that I could see His Blood upon The Rose’, a reference to a religious poem written by Plunkett: ‘I see His Blood upon The Rose’.

Just as the song ends on a religious note similarly the Irish revolution developed a decidedly Catholic hue after 1916, with the leaders soon being hailed as latter-day saints. In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 Roy Foster writes: ‘Very rapidly, the language of mystical Catholicism fused with national purism in a new – or ancient – revolutionary rhetoric.’

Revealingly, inside the GPO rosaries were said communally every night and confessions heard. In the aftermath independent-minded figures such as James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement converted to Catholicism. This had important repercussions for the feminism, secularism and socialism that animated participants in the preceding cultural revival.

Moreover, women who had previously played prominent roles were reduced to subservience during the Rising, an ominous foretaste for their position in the independent state as both Cuman na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail usually acceded to the wishes of the Catholic Church on moral questions.

By the early 1920s observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms. His 1937 Constitution (and ours) commits the state to ensuring ‘that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.

Today the constitutional issue of most concern to many feminists and others is the prohibition against abortion on demand which leads on average to twelve women travelling to Britain every day for the procedure.

The story of Grace Gifford might prove instructive on this issue. After her fleeting marriage Grace seemed to have led a fairly lonely and impoverished existence, illustrating cartoons for fringe Republican publications. Her husband’s family refused to recognise the validity of Joseph’s will, and only in 1932 when de Valera’s government granted her a pension was she able to live in a measure of comfort.

It is possible that the animosity of the family can be traced to Grace being pregnant with a child other than the infirm Joseph’s before her marriage. She may have had an abortion.

In her private papers Joseph’s sister Geraldine reveals that ‘Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America} because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal.’

The Castle had informed her that Grace was pregnant but that Joseph was not the father. She visited Grace and found she was in bed and beside her ‘a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc.’

No words were passed between the two women but Geraldine consulted another visitor who agreed with what she had seen but ‘did not know if Grace had induced or not’. Geraldine also claimed that Grace and her sister had shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend a night with them.

It is plausible that the Castle were attempting to cause a rift between Grace and the Plunkett family but there is no reason to disbelieve the account of the abortion or miscarriage. The shame of illegitimacy might have caused Grace to expose herself to the danger of an abortion.

The sex lives of the participants in the 1916 is not a subject-matter that is commonly exhumed, but the prevailing mores did not preclude extra-marital encounters. As Ireland digs deeper into the revolutionary shrine more unwelcome skeletons might emerge.

In particular there has been debate around the sexuality of the leader of the uprising Padraig Pearse. There is a prevailing view among historians that his orientation was homosexual which was obviously not alluded to for most of the state’s history.

But of grave concern is that he may have used his position as a school headmaster in St Enda’s for exploitative behaviour. There is what Roy Foster describes as ‘a disturbing implication’ in the final verses of his poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ that an encounter with a student perhaps occurred. The poet addresses a ‘child of the soft red mouth’ and found that ‘there is fragrance in your kiss / That have I have not found yet / In the kisses of women.

It is said that you should avoid meeting your heroes. One wonders whether this will be the case as Ireland confronts the human frailties evident in the birth pangs of this state.