I have David Cameron to thank for this post. No, really – I have.
This morning I awoke at 4.44am after a dream whereby I was serving David Cameron at a Westminster function. My attitude to him was servile, obsequious; he was, as I imagine him to be, loud, bombastic, patronising. Every fibre of my being in the dream hated having to smile and bow and scrape; but smile and bow and scrape I did, in survival instinct mode. And then I woke up.
My first thoughts, in the early morning hours, was that must have been the feeling that, prior to 1916, many Irish people felt towards their English lords and masters. That unsettled feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen – and in one’s own land. The many slings and arrows of imperialist patronising remarks about the ‘savage Irish’. People who are happy with their lot do not lead rebellions, and the bravery of those men and women who cleaved themselves to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation is but something which this generation can only imagine. Or is it?
Based in London, I’ve been following with interest the various and varied opinions on the commemorations for 1916. Clearly, there’s a section of society that sees it as something to celebrate unreservedly. And in a way, they are right. There’s another section who sees all the failures: the side-lining of women, the subsequent subservience of the Free State to another imperialist power, the Church and its Holy Empire, the enslavement and abuse of women and children, the gombeen politics – the list could go on. And in a way, they are also right. Here’s where I stand.
I grew up in the Ireland of the late 70s/80s. Being of Russian/Ukrainian/American/Irish and God knows what else parentage, I’ve felt connected to Ireland, though not of her. My presiding memories of those days is darkness and gloom. There always felt there was something not quite humane, not quite ‘Irish’ about the stranglehold the Church had over every aspect of society. People’s absolute, unerring, unwavering belief in the teachings of the Church both fascinated and frightened me simultaneously. In retrospect, and to a certain felt extent at the time, it was clear that Ireland had simply exchanged one imperial master for another – and one that was arguably more far-reaching and cruel. It’s one thing to impose oppressive laws of the realm over people; it’s far more insidious when oppressive laws are imposed on the human spirit.
Probably the biggest betrayal of the ideals of 1916 is the way that women have been treated in Ireland, like another second-class caste altogether. The sidelining of women in the life politic not long after the Civil War. The Magdalen Laundries. The fear that every Irish woman of a certain generation must have lived with of being incarcerated in one of these laundries, from any or all crimes ranging from being too pretty and a ‘temptation’ to unmarried pregnancies. Unequal pay and working rights up to the 1970s. The dominion that the State still holds over women’s bodies via the, quite frankly, archaic laws on abortion.
But maybe the biggest lesson that is most obvious to me is that, over the last 100 years – where the State has failed, it has been a failure of our own making. We can claim, to a certain extent, post-colonial trauma; but ultimately, our failures have been our own. We voted in the corrupt politicians, election after election, which led to an unsustainable Tiger economy and its inevitable crash. There are many in Ireland who gave into the venality of that period, based on the shakiest of foundations, and over-invested in property, like characters out of a John B Keane play. There was fear, the type of fear that a post-colonial economy exudes, the grasping for affirmation that we were as good as the rest of the world and could stand as equals. We learned that we couldn’t compete in that way or at that level.
But the good news that I see for Ireland is that we don’t have to. As someone who emigrated to the UK in the late 1990s, I hated coming back to Celtic Tiger Ireland where it seemed as if all people talked about was the latest property they’d invested in, their flash cars, the latest designer label they’d acquired. What has happened to many people since the crash is terrible, and they must be helped, and issues like poverty and homelessness must be addressed.
However, it seems to me that since the crash that the real riches of Irish society are returning. The creativity that has always been a hallmark. That ability to connect with each other on a more profound level. The ability to express ourselves through words, ideas that have not only shaped us, but the world. The spirit of rebellion in many of the protest groups that have sprung up: the water protests, the #WakingtheFeminists movement, Speaking of Imelda. What better way to celebrate rebellion than to engage with and support protest?
The biggest turning point for me however, and a key indicator of something quite unprecedented happening in Irish society was the ‘Yes Equality’ vote. I came home that weekend for my niece’s communion. I was struck equally by the joyousness and change that came about not only through the LGBT community, but also through the recently departed emigrants who returned en masse, with all they had seen and learned abroad, wanting, by their presence, to be part of a more equal and pluralistic Ireland; and by the greatly reduced numbers at the Mass the next day where the Church we attended was only a fifth full. I remember the packed Masses of Ireland of 30 years ago. This was something quite new, the passing of the old, the embracing of a brave new world with brave new ideals.
So on this very special Easter weekend, my stand on the 1916 commemorations is this: Let’s acknowledge the mistakes of the past, learn from them, and let them go. Let’s use our failures as stepping stones to achieve the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation: to ensure the “guarantee of religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens…”, and renew our “…resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. These are lofty and noble ambitions. Like most ideals, they are difficult to attain, and, given our history, it’s also entirely possible that we did our best with the behaviours learned at the time, and it’s entirely possible that we can achieve these ideals, if there is but the will. In the words of one of our great scribes, Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh go léir.