"MY GRANDFATHER Tommy, grásta Dé ar a anam dílis, once told me that Ireland will only get its peculiar genius back when it finally stops apologising to everyone for being so independent."
With those words Paul Larkin ends his book A Very British Jihad: Collusion, Conspiracy and Cover Up in Northern Ireland (Beyond the Pale Publications).
Paul is an award-winning investigative journalist who made documentaries on the murder of Pat Finucane, investigated the Dublin/Monaghan bombings and has turned out many studies on Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Ireland.
Paul Larkin is one of those honest journalists, whom I admire, who dares investigate the shocking and repugnant relationships between the British government, the intelligence agencies, police and army and the so–called ‘loyalists’.
The sentence caught my eye because it struck a resonance with me with regard to the continuing efforts by that strange breed of Irish historians and writers who seem so ashamed of their country and its efforts to become reunited and independent. When thinking of them, I am reminded of the lines of Sir Walter Scott (not that I am overly enamoured of the man’s political attitudes):
Breathes there the man with soul so dead Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!
And Scott continues:
If such there breathe, go mark him well; For him no minstrel raptures swell; High though his titles, proud his name. Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,
Despite those titles, power, and pelf, The wretch, concentrated all in self, Living, shall forfeit fair renown, And double dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung, Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.
The role of the ‘revisionist’ (and readers will know how much I dislike the word because I feel that it is a misnomer and that ‘apology for imperialism’ fit their role more accurately) is to justify English colonialism in Ireland. Critical history is one thing but what is being produced by them is an attack on the very concept of the Irish having the right to political, economic and self determination. That they have been successful is shown by the tendency among many Irish people to do exactly what Paul Larkin’s father has identified — to apologise for Ireland’s independence and for the wish of the vast majority of the Irish people for the reunification of their country.
I was surprised to read in a recent edition of the Irish Post one of its columnists, Malcolm Rogers, hoping for the final disappearance of the Irish language and testifying about "the corrosive effect of nationalism, and its first cousin sectarianism".
Now here is someone, and I am sure he is not simply indulging in pro–Anglophone propaganda, who obviously cannot tell the difference between the two forms of nationalism. He does not speak of the corrosive effect of imperialism and its first cousin sectarianism but speaks of Irish nationalism, which is the fight against imperialism for national self–determination.
James Connolly was having similar problems of communication with these sort people a hundred years ago. Nationalism is the advocacy of the freedom of a nation from the cultural, political and economic exploitation by another nation. Such freedoms are inseparable from the achievement of a true socialist society. National and social freedom are not two separate and unrelated issues. They are two sides of one great democratic principle, each being incomplete without the other.
Once the nation is free to determine its path, then and only then can it proceed to form alliances and co–equal unions as an expression of its people’s democratic wishes.
Democracy has been withheld from the Irish people ever since their aggressive neighbours decided that they wanted to control Ireland.
Malcolm Rogers cheers on the loss of the Irish language and if he has his wish he would cut off the Irish people from their roots, from their very basis for being. Language is a product of countless centuries of human thought, a vehicle of all the wisdom, poetry, legend and history which is bequeathed to the people by their forebears. It is a beautiful work of art, the greatest art form in the world and the noblest monument of man’s genius.
This cultural and historical inheritance would be destroyed.
Thomas Johnston, in his History of the Scottish Working Classes (1920), pointed out:
“It is an abiding and indisputable truth, that a people who does not understand the past will never comprehend the present nor mould the future.”
He was neither the first nor the last to utter that truism. The key to a real understanding of the Irish past lies in that cultural inheritance. What better proof of the necessity for that knowledge when Malcolm Rogers applauded the Irish writers in English but did not appear to know about the wealth of Irish literature in Irish. “Had Ireland remained Irish–speaking”, he declared, “we can’t be sure that the works of Sheridan and Shaw would have existed.”
Perhaps not, but we can be sure that the works of Máirtin Ó Cadhain, Pádraig Ó Conaire, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Brían Ó Corcrán and countless others would have been better known.
There is a curious imperial arrogance, aided and abetted by those apologists who applaud the destruction of the Irish language, shown by those who attempt to point out the lack of a widespread early Irish literature compared to English. The implication is that this lack is because the Irish did not have the same literary capability until they started speaking English.
It never occurs to these 'critics' that the English conquests stifled the literary output in Ireland, prevented it from being printed because of the control of the printed media, but also enacted a policy whose aim was to totally destroy the language. Countless works in Irish were destroyed.
There is overwhelming evidence of the wealth of early Irish literature. One could point to what is arguable the first great ‘historical novel’, commissioned by Cormac III MacCarthy (1127–38), entitled Caithreim Cheallachain Chaisil. It is a novel–length saga of the conflict between Ceallachain, the King of Cashel, and the Vikings, the earliest surviving copy of which, dating from the 12th Century, can be found in the Royal Irish Academy. It reads as well as any piece of fiction but written a century or more after the events, and thus has the quality of a novel.
And of course, Aisling Tnugdal Chaisil (Vision of Tnugdal, Warrior of Cashel) was written by an Irish monk called Marcus at Regensburg in 1149 — Regensburg had been established by the brother of a Cashel King — became one of most copied ‘fantasy tales’ of medieval Europe. Tnugdal is dining with a friend in Cork, falls into a sleep, and has a vision of a voyage to the Otherworld. It was translated into most European languages at the time.
Much surviving Irish literature has come down to us because it was taken out of Ireland to the Irish monastic establishments and colleges in Europe set up prior to the English conquests.
Many other important works were taken out of Ireland when the Irish ruling class, together with their bards, fled into exile in the aftermath of the Tudor conquests. Many European repositories are full of uncatalogued Irish manuscripts which, sadly, the Irish government seems to have steadfastly ignored. Finds are made entirely by accident, such as the rediscovery of the famous Irish Calendar, quoted by Columbanus when he argued the dating of Easter in the 7th century. That fortuitous discovery was made accidentally in the Biblioteca Antoniana, in Padua, Northern Italy, in the mid–1980s. I have long argued that scholars should be given funding for a systematic search of the literary treasures in these repositories.
However, ‘revisionists’ would, of course, see nothing of worth in such an exercise. If such valuable finds continued to be made, they would inevitably result in the destruction of the credibility of the pronouncements of the 'worthlessness' of the Irish language and its literature.
And, without an understanding of its cultural past and inheritance, Ireland would be like an orphan, cast adrift in a foreign world without understanding who its parents were nor how it became an orphan.
James Connolly, on the choice between reasserting the national language or meekly accepting the language of the conqueror, wrote (The Harp, April, 1908):
“I cannot conceive of a socialist hesitating in his choice between a policy resulting in such self abasement and a policy of defiant self reliance and confident trust in a people’s own power of self emancipation by a people.”
The one heartening sign this year is that there does seem to be a counter attack to the 'revisionist' historians and their pro–imperial outpourings. I have already mentioned Larkin’s A Very British Jihad. Indeed, if you buy no other book this year, buy this one. When last year the Stevens Report came out it confirmed what we all have known for many years — the fact of the collusion between the 'loyalist terrorists' and the British 'security forces' — and finally provided the first official acknowledgement of that collusion.
Paul Larkin’s book argues that the British war in Ireland amounts to a 'Holy War' or 'Jihad' in the name of the monarchy and establishment, swathed in secrecy and denial.
Yet A Very British Jihad is now only one of many books that make embarrassing reading for the establishment. We have another English intelligence officer 'spilling the beans'. Just out is Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland, written by Martin Ingram (pseudonym of an agent) together with Belfast journalist, Greg Harkin (O’Brien Press, Dublin).
The book is an explosive exposé of how the British military intelligence worked in Ireland. Not just the aid given to the loyalist terror squads whose murderous campaigns are, of course, never acknowledged by Paisley, Trimble and their supporters, but how two particular agents were prepared to kill their own for British ‘gold’.
Meda Ryan’s Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Mercier Press), which I reviewed in the last issue, is another answer to our ‘revisionist’ friends and an answer to the Peter Hart’s appalling The IRA and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916–23 (Oxford) which managed to consign the burning of Cork City by British troops to one throwaway sentence.
The discovery and publication of Seán Moylan’s Memoir of the Irish War of Independence, published last year by the Aubane Historical Society, was another blow for truth about the war in Cork. It is another essential book.
Also look out for Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution by Professor David Fitzpatrick of TCD (Cork University Press). At least this is a corrective to the Michael Collins film that has Boland shot dead while trying to escape from Free Staters by swimming the Liffey in the middle of the night after his one time friend, Michael Collins, allowed his getaway. All very cinematically dramatic.
Boland was actually shot in a bedroom of the Grand Hotel, Skerries when Free Staters burst in at 1 a.m. He was sharing a room with Dublin IRA Intelligence Officer, Joe Griffin. Boland was not dead. He survived in agony for forty–three hours and was attended by the curate in Skerries, who happened to be Father Michael Ellis.
This, in fact, is the first in–depth biography of Harry Boland. It is lengthy and makes good use of Boland’s diaries, family papers and other archive materials. Boland is hailed as a forerunner, by the author, for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
Is that a compliment? The author says Boland “practised the ambiguities associated with Sinn Féin in today’s Northern Ireland. Doctrine was subordinated to the twin quests for republican unity and political supremacy, entailing reiterated compromise, systematic duplicity, and mastery of propagandist techniques.” Well, in that case, I suppose Harry Boland was a good politician.
My understanding is, Harry Boland was probably the one man who might have been able avert the disaster visited on Ireland by successfully bringing the two factions back together. He had become the chief intermediary between de Valéra and Collins. Could this be the very reason why he was assassinated? While the author does not seem to think so, I believe it is a question that needs to be addressed. The circumstances pose the very question.
But, at least, we are dealing here with matters worthy of discussion and not the trivia and distortion that pass among many Irish historians of the 'revisionist school' for 'serious history'.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2004 Peter Berresford Ellis