Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rocky Road to Self-Rule

Needless to say, the recent vote in Scotland was watched with much interest in Ireland. And, in viewing and listening to the Irish media, one got the definite impression that many people here would have been happy to have a fellow independent Gaelic republic in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t to be. At least not in the near term.

In discussions of the issue in our own house, my 14-year-old seemed perplexed to find herself asking the following question: when did Ireland get its independence? Was it on Easter 1916?

If she was perplexed, it was because she has gone through nine years (so far) of the Irish educational system, so one would think this is something she would just know by now. After all, by comparison, is there any American high school student who couldn’t immediately reply “July 4, 1776” when asked the same question about U.S. independence? But the U.S. has made it easy for its citizens since the national holiday is actually called “the Fourth of July.” Ireland’s national holiday has no obvious connection to its independence but is instead a day assigned by a religion to the country’s patron saint, a fellow called Padraig, or Patrick.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find that a sizeable portion of the Irish population—or at least members of the worldwide Irish diaspora—believe that the country threw off the yoke of British tyranny on Easter Sunday 1916. That event is certainly the one that looms largest in commemorations of modern Irish history and invoking of national unity.

In fact, as popular revolts go, the Easter Rising was pretty much a failure. From what I read, it didn’t have much broad support among the populace. But things quickly changed when people saw how harshly the British reacted. Fifteen of the Rising’s leaders and others were executed by firing squad. (One who escaped was future Taoiseach [prime minister] and president Éamon de Valera, who was spared by virtue of his U.S. citizenship owed to his birth in New York.) If the Brits hadn’t come down so hard and brutally, it’s easy to imagine that Irish independence might have eventually been achieved with a lot less bloodshed all around.

So when did Ireland get its independence? Was it on December 6, 1922, after the two-year War of Independence, when a treaty went into effect making the entire island of Ireland a self-governing British dominion called the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann)? Two days later six of the counties in Ulster province exercised their right under the treaty to opt back into the United Kingdom, and a bloody civil war ensued between forces supporting and opposing the treaty negotiated with Britain.

Was independent Ireland born on April 30, 1923, when anti-treaty forces grudgingly declared a ceasefire, thereby ending the civil war? Or was it created on December 29, 1937, when a new constitution came into force and replaced the governor-general (representative of the British monarchy) with a president as head of state? Or did Ireland only become truly independent on April 18, 1949, with the passage of an act declaring Ireland a republic, thereby automatically terminating its membership in the British Commonwealth? (Ten days later Britain changed the rules to allow republics to belong to the Commonwealth, but Ireland has never opted to rejoin.)

Or did Ireland become fully independent in 1962 with the belated repeal of the Crown of Ireland Act? Or is it correct to say that the date of Ireland’s true independence is still in the future, since six counties on the island continue to be administered by the UK?

The very posing of a simple question like “when did Ireland become independent” goes to show just how complex Irish history is.

So how come my child, a product of the Irish educational system, had to ask her American father when Ireland got its independence? After all, I never went to school in Ireland. All I know is what I have learned from watching movies like Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Actually, one could do worse than to watch those two movies to get an understanding of modern Ireland and how the country got to where it is today. Both films cover roughly the same historical events but from different political perspectives. Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins pretty much takes the Free State point of view, whereas Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley aligns with the republican anti-treaty perspective.

In terms of history, those events are still pretty recent. If there is a hesitation to get into too much detail in teaching youngsters about the country’s independence, it probably represents a fear of stirring not-quite-dormant ashes. After all, didn’t the civil war flare up again in Ulster in the 1960s and not quiet down again until the 1990s? And there are still periodic eruptions of violence to this day. The death of Ian Paisley two weeks ago reminds us just how recent the Troubles still are.

It also reminds us that it is much better to settle these issues at the ballot box, as Scotland has done, rather than by taking to the gun.

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