A look to historical revisionism, commemorations and 1916 Ireland.

As the Irish centenary of the 1916 rising has been happening here over the past few months, I decided to review a paper I wrote for my Leaving Certificate history class in 2014. A lot of work went into it and it makes you think about the correct approach to marking or commemorating a national historical event.

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I have compiled my findings on the topic of historical revisionism and the revisionist article by Father Francis Shaw which focuses on revising the 1916 Rising and the beliefs of Patrick Pearse. Written at a time of the late 1960s when the 50th anniversary of the rising was being commemorated, this essay sparked the revisionist movement in Ireland. I will discover who the revisionist writer was, in my own study of his writing in extraction. Thereafter I will explain how this sparked other revisionists to analyse the events of 1916 coming to my final conclusion. Now must begin where the whole process of revisionism started.

April 1966 saw the 50th anniversary of the 1916 rising. Sean Lemass was Taoiseach and Eamonn de Valera was President of Ireland. Both political figures had been involved in the rising and plans were made to correctly commemorate the anniversary in ‘contemporary Ireland’, focus set on looking backwards as much as forwards.

In February 1965, a committee formed to oversee the organisation of the commemorations. The centrepiece of the week-long commemoration was a military parade display with gunshots fired from the roof of the G.P.O with 200,000 people viewers. Having seen footage on the Seven Ages of Ireland DVD, I was shocked and intrigued as veterans took pride in this commemorative display. De Valera was said to be metaphorically blind, not recognising the changes that had occurred in Ireland saying ‘we cannot adequately honour the men of 1916 if we do not work and strive to bring about an Ireland of their desire’.

At this time a Jesuit reverend and academic, Father Francis Shaw was asked to write a commemorative article. From my research I found that this article, a forty-page essay, was not published until 1972, two years after Shaw’s death and the commemorations were over. My interest grabbed, I asked why it wasn’t published at the time it was written. The essay itself was deemed to be controversial, untimely and inappropriate. To understand the nature of the essay, I reviewed it in detail and decided to analyse its content.

I found that within the essay Shaw critically analyses the rising and the beliefs held by Patrick Pearse. The writings were particularly interesting although gritty I found. Pearse’s ‘blood sacrifice’ belief featured as Shaw claims Pearse was linking his own death for the cause of Ireland to Christ dying for a cause. ‘Blood sacrifice’ is derived from a mixture of Pagan mythology, Christianity and militaristic notions popular in World War 1. Pearses’ belief stood that Ireland would only win her freedom by the death and bloodshed in battle of her patriots, creating martyrdom.

From my research I found that this process by Shaw is known as ‘revisionism’ (the theory/practise of revising ones attitude to a previously accepted situation/point of view. When revising history, one critiques or analyses ‘neglected or under-rated issues’ to offer modern conclusions.  Claiming to be value-free and objective, the process varies in degrees of time, intensity, agenda and values.

Shaw was a revisionist. Born in 1907, he dedicated his life to study the teachings of Jesus as a Jesuit reverend also being an academic being professor of Early and Medieval Irish at University College Dublin. He engaged in some lively controversial writing in his field but none were as significant as his long essay in influencing other revisionist writers to begin critically analyse and challenge/question the legacy, which was the foundation of revisionism in Ireland. For Ireland, revisionism meant revising, dismantling and destroying traditional nationalist views of history. Shaw points out that no mature, comprehensive, objective study of the political philosophy of 1916 had been done and maybe it was too near to the historic event for this type of study. He also stated it may surprise readers but hopefully offend none.

In the essay he describes 1916 as ‘the beginning and the end of Irelands struggle for freedom’ explaining Ireland suffered from 1916 with partition, civil war and an end to any possibility of National unity. He tells that the legacy honours a group of men who decided what the nation should want in taking part in a minority rising. Shaw says the people of Ireland were approaching independence at their own pace/way but this forceful military act (which ultimately failed) changed this path. The Irish Republican Brotherhood and The Volunteers pledged to avoid any action that might result in disunity, Parnell having said ‘no man had the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation’. It appeared to Shaw that the legacy holds only these rebels and the Fenians had patriotism in mind, which he deems as false.

Shaw captures Pearses’ ‘complex character’ saying he was a clear/incisive thinker, writer and spokesman but writings often coloured with his unusual cast of thought. He entertained a slight rather than profound visionary image of early Ireland with romantic ideas often exaggerated from reality. His two heroes were Cú Chulainn, the patriot solider martyr and Colum Cille, the Christian patriot who’s stories Pearse held like a sacred book says Shaw. Shaw describes Pearses obsession with physical force and bloodshed taking precedence as he fell to a state of single-mindedness from 1913 onwards. Pearse made the transition from moderate nationalist to extremist republican separatist quickly. ‘God spoke to Ireland through Wolftone’ said Pearse who held a separatist hatred of England calling it ‘the never ending source of all political evils’.

Pearses speeches began linking patriotism to holiness, his mythology Shaw describes as ‘solemn and alarming’ saying the notion of expressing political-national ideas in terms of the Christian Faith became an obsession. Pearses professes blood sacrifice in terms of the gospel ‘I will stand before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on a tree’. Pearse holds the messianic view of nationalism connected to the unqualified glorification of bloodshed. Shaw claims Pearse was very bloody-minded as he said ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying this’ and would not have been satisfied to attain independence by peaceful means as bloodshed was necessary.

In the aftermath Pearse said the rising had ‘saved Irelands honour’ and Pearse romantically talked about the ‘exhilaration of war’.  But Shaw claims never has Ireland seen such rapid transformation in human thought as this idealistic view is lost and change since shows how superficial Irelands flirtation with extremism was as it didn’t have the peoples’ support from the start. Shaw states 1916 was the rise of extreme nationalism in time when war and triumph were in favour. The world is disregarding extreme nationalism as a negative force. His final message is one of reflection as he says 1916 and onwards closed a chapter of a long history of strife but as a people we should forget the past and he states finally ‘There can be no more criminal disservice to Ireland than to keep the fire of hatred burning’.

This writing sparked other revisionists to begin examination. I found it interesting how each dealt with re-occurring themes/issues. Shaw explored Pearses’ character as did revisionist Ruth Dudley-Edwards. I found her points similar to Shaw although she assessed his background, life works and St.Enda’s further.  The works of revisionists D.George Boyce and Alan O’Day dealt with how the Rising affected Irish politics, partition and unity with a focus also on the proclamation. They all referred back to Shaw but also to W.B Yeats, the point made by Charles Townshend that Yeats was a revisionist writer, particularly the poem ‘Easter 1916’.

In a letter to Lady Gregory, Yeats said he wanted to focus the poem on the key message of the rising as a ‘terrible beauty’. Here he captures his own representation of the rising from his key position of esteem in society, months after it had happened. This reflection was revisionism and he later asked ‘did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot’? The fact he wrote/thought this provokes new thinking, such is the aim of revisionism.

From my study I have learned to define revisionism and how it came to life in the late 1960s. I have studied the essay by Shaw and have come to the new knowledge of the patriotic martyr Patrick Pearse and the Rising itself, with Shaw setting a revisionist tone. From reading the commemorative articles and watching the Seven Ages DVD I now realise the general feeling of society in 1966. Also I understand what it means to be a revisionist and how these revisionist writers raise similar issues. The entire process was interesting and eye-opening and I have discovered much from my reading.

To arrive at the title I decided to focus on two main aims of interest in the area of study. I researched and developed my thoughts to arrive at the title I felt captured this. My first source I found by cross-reference and I was lucky to locate the complete essay. From my library I found the books which dealt with issues raised within my topic. On the official website of the historical journal I discovered the commemorations article. I used these sources as foundations for my study with Shaw’s essay being my main source. The sources allowed me to reference my main point and gain further understanding. To put the data in order I planned a structured agenda to use the information found and this centred my focus. I achieved the aims of my outline plan by following it in citing sources and remaining focused always looking for more information. In hindsight I would have looked at the anti-revisionist side further, and I found difficulty in referencing other revisionists as they were all wrote at different times.

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