Fine Gael’s commemoration folly


Patrick Donohoe

IT IS often said that an elephant never forgets. Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but the Irish no doubt would give them a run for their money. I remember an English political commentator stating that when an Irishman was killed by the British there was a ballad written about him before his body could get cold. He was jesting, of course, but on reflection he wasn’t really far wrong. I doubt there is a nation with as many patriotic ballads about past martyrs and deeds as our little island. We have a history littered with heroes and a song—or sometimes songs—for everyone and this has played a big part in younger generations learning about them and keeping their memory alive. And in a time when Fine Gael are attacking the history curriculum in our schools it serves as a vital educational tool now more than ever.

While the state’s hierarchy appear to be looking to get rid of history and the history we’re taught, and it being less and less our own, one thing they cannot affect is the word of mouth from one generation to the next. Across the island, there are small plaques and monuments to those killed by British forces. They serve as permanent reminders of the brutality of colonial rule and the indelible scar that was left on the Irish psyche as a result. It split the nation into two groups: those who rebel against colonialism and those with a colonial mindset—an underlying inferiority complex that the cultural values of the coloniser are inherently superior to their own. Fine Gael and company seem to have settled into that latter bracket.

A dilution of history?
Many will remember the hoo-ha surrounding the memorial wall erected in Glasnevin Cemetery around the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Rather controversially the names of all killed were placed on it with equal footing given to all. Shamefully, names of the South Staffordshire Regiment, those responsible for the infamous North King Street massacre—which saw the bayoneting of 15 innocent civilians during Easter Week—were placed alongside Rising leaders and patriots, Seán MacDiarmada and James Connolly. This is seen as ‘maturity.’ Some others, and rightly in my opinion, would call it a dilution of our revolutionary past by those who, deep down, are opposed to its very nature.

Charlie Flanagan could be seen as having let the Fine Gael mask slip in 2013 when, around Easter time, he went out of his way, unprompted by anyone, to comment on the wearing of Easter Lilies by two Sinn Féin TDs in Leinster House.

“Before my colleague begins, is it in order for members, particularly Deputy Stanley, to wear emblems of the type that he is now sporting in the chamber?” he said. “It’s not only himself but his colleague, Deputy Colreavy, too. Some members of this House may find the wearing of such emblems offensive.”

One would beg to ask whom would find the Easter Lily ‘offensive,’ bearing in mind it’s a symbol to commemorate all those who died for the cause of Irish freedom. Some may not like it—for whatever reason—but what kind of Irishman finds it so enraging to take offense to the mere sight of it? It’s probably not too surprising that the Flanagan has no problem with wearing the British Poppy himself, which incorporates the RIC and their Special Reserves, the forever loathed Black and Tans. And not just the Shamrock Poppy as sported by some as a means to commemorate just the Irish who died in the two World Wars. No, he wears the actual Poppy and in Leinster House where he went out of his way to be offended by a symbol for those who fought for this country, not the coloniser.

It’s no surprise it was he who led the charge recently to commemorate the RIC and the Black and Tans at the old seat of British rule in Ireland—Dublin Castle.

Commemorating colonisation?
It has to be said every country that has been the victim of colonialism and imperialism has always had a large cohort of local-born collaborators working against the national drive for freedom—that isn’t something unique to Ireland. And it has to be noted victims of colonialism were usually poor nations where joining the local imperial police force or auxiliary guaranteed a wage and food on the table for someone’s family.

That said, it cannot be forgotten that a pro-Republican agenda, inclusive of the establishment of Dáil Eireann, was mandated by a landslide general election in 1918, which invoked the terror campaign of the RIC and the Black and Tans by London to this rebellious act of self-determination by the Irish people. Is it wise to honour the uniform while ignoring the deeds committed by the individuals wearing the uniform? I’m sure the citizens of Cork City and Balbriggan would give a resoundingly negative response to that question.

As the plans had been finalised for a commemorative event for the RIC and their reserve force—the Tans—came into the public domain, it seemed to spark something deep inside those not of a colonial mindset in Ireland. It was something I’ve not seen since the days of the now infamous Love Ulster parade in 2006 that saw widespread violence across Dublin city centre as a planned Loyalist parade through Dublin was abandoned just before it was due to take off.

All across social media, there was outrage at the plans, most notably on the comment sections of the Irish Independent and the Irish Times’ pages. There were protests quickly planned for the day outside Dublin Castle and even a music concert outside to break the world record for the biggest rendition of the song Come Out Ye Black and Tans—made famous by the Wolfe Tones—to make a clear statement that the Irish people were against what was going on inside. People, who I would describe as apolitical, were texting me the week before saying they had taken the day off work for the protest and asking was I going myself. I was beginning to think we were going to see a repeat of the Love Ulster scenes if this thing went ahead.

It would seem that the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Deputy Flanagan read the tea leaves also and ‘postponed’ the event citing their disappointment at the natives who took umbrage at their attempt to sanitise murderers, arsonists and terrorists.

With general election results being counted as The Irish Voice went to press, a cryptic clue in the feelings of ordinary people towards the event came in the poll in the immediate aftermath of its postponement. Fine Gael saw themselves with a 12-point deficit in the polls, with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin receiving what some coined as the ‘Tan bounce.’ There has also been widespread vandalism against Fine Gael election posters from Dublin to the midlands and as far away as Kerry, with posters being sprayed painted simply with ‘RIC’ and ‘Tan’ across them, making their point rather bluntly. So maybe it’s true, maybe an elephant never does forget. Fine Gael would do well to remember another old cliché too—let sleeping dogs lie, even those more than a century old, especially just before an election…

Patrick Donohoe is the secretary of the United Ireland Society