100 years since 1916: Time for England to apologize to Ireland

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
© Andrew Cowie
For centuries, England did most bitter wrong to Ireland. Today, most Brits are completely oblivious to the pain their country wrought. That needs to change.

“For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;”
                              - WB Yeats, Easter 1916

On Easter Monday 1916, around 1,200 rebels fanned out across Dublin in a brave, if obviously doomed, attempt to strike for freedom. Disorganized and without a clear leader and proper munitions, they faced the most powerful empire the world had ever known. The fact that they held out for almost a week was a miracle.

Conflicting orders didn't help. Preparations were so haphazard that the Irish Volunteers’ Chief of Staff, Eoin McNeill, published an order the previous day for his troops to stay at home. Nevertheless, after seizing Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO), the insurgents hoisted two republican flags over the building and Patrick Pearse read a proclamation of Irish Independence. With that, modern Ireland was born.

The roots of the insurrection lay in the Act Of Union, 116 years earlier, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish puppet parliament, which sanctioned the legislation, was completely unrepresentative of the country. Only Protestants could sit in the chamber and only land-owning men could vote. The vast majority of the Irish people were Catholics of no property.

Thus, began a tumultuous 19th century which featured genocide through forced starvation, numerous attempts at violent rebellion and mass political movements led by Daniel O’Connell and Charles Parnell. While Ireland endured terrible poverty and massive depopulation Britain thrived. By 1912, London controlled about a quarter of the world’s land area and around a fifth of the globe’s total population. King George’s realm was known as "the empire on which the sun never sets.” In Ireland, it rarely shined.

Exhausting the System

In 1886, Parnell’s efforts saw a Home Rule Bill introduced, but it was defeated at Westminster. Seven years later another attempt was passed by parliament, but vetoed by the unelected House of Lords, an institution that exists, proud as a peacock, to this day. After this outrage, a new generation of Irish nationalists were radicalized to advocate more extreme methods to end English domination. Until 1912, constitutional politicians marginally held sway and that year they succeeded in forcing another Home Rule act.

Protestant Unionists, led by Edward Carson, fearing Catholic control of a semi-autonomous Ireland, established the Ulster Volunteers in Belfast to resist Dublin governance. In response, the Irish Volunteers were formed in Dublin. Ireland was heading for Civil War, with the Crown obviously biased in favor of Belfast loyalists. Then, the First World War intervened.

London announced that Home Rule would be postponed until the cessation of hostilities, placating Belfast. Yet, Dublin was less enthusiastic. Republicans began to solicit assistance from Germany, Britain’s opponent in the conflict. After Westminster began talk of introducing mandatory army conscription in Ireland, attitudes hardened and the rising was launched.

The rebellion was a military disaster.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the Republicans had no chance. They also lacked popular support in Dublin, the most British city in Ireland. Instead of rallying to the flag, more Dubliners - many who had family members serving in the British army - engaged in looting than supporting the rebels.

In the aftermath, the British, through sheer arrogance and stupidity, shot themselves in the foot. If they’d left the rising’s leaders to rot in prison camps, it’s likely the whole affair would have fizzled out. Despite warnings from prominent thinkers, like the Irish writer Bernard Shaw, that they risked making martyrs, the authorities sentenced 90 people to death. Fifteen of them had their penalties confirmed and were shot between the 3rd and 12th of May. They included the seven signatories of the proclamation.

“I write it out in a verse -
McDonagh and Bride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
                    - WB Yeats, 1916

Fighting For Freedom

From that moment, relations between Ireland and Britain were doomed. Three years later, a violent War of Independence commenced. This time, it had huge support across Irish society. In 1922, the Irish Free State was formed and in 1949, it became a Republic, severing all links with the British Commonwealth. In practice, it behaved like a completely independent nation from the outset. During the Second World War, Ireland remained neutral and successive Irish governments were openly belligerent to British interests.

Approximately a sixth of Irish territory remained in the UK. For almost a century, the Northern Ireland statelet has been stricken with sectarianism and economic stagnation. A vicious civil war raged there from 1968 to 1998, occasionally spilling over to England and the Irish Republic. One hundred years ago, Belfast was almost the same size as Dublin, and significantly wealthier. Today, greater Dublin has over three times the population and is substantially more prosperous.

Since the Belfast agreement, enacted in 1999, Irish attitudes to England have softened. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2011 that Queen Elizabeth finally made it to southern Ireland. Even then, her protection was guaranteed by the biggest security operation in the history of the state.
To a great extent, the British public remains blissfully unaware of Irish history and their own nation’s role in it. Irish people living there often express exasperation at English ignorance of Ireland’s treatment.

This silently divides us. Frustratingly, Germans have successfully dealt with the ghosts of their past. Americans are reasonably well educated about their crimes against the continent’s native population. Even Russians have an appreciation of Stalin and Lenin’s monstrous deeds.

Ignorance is Bliss?

Meanwhile, the English just don’t get it. Winston Churchill celebrated the murder of 28,000 Boers in South African concentration camps. After that, he demanded more conquests, based on his belief that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph". In the 1920’s, he unleashed the Black and Tans, a notorious group of criminal thugs, on Ireland’s civilians. After Ghandi began his campaign of non-violent resistance to British occupation, Churchill commented: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” When, in 1943, a famine began in Bengal, three million people starved to death while Churchill refused to send food supplies there. He announced that it was their own fault for "breeding like rabbits”.

Despite this, in 2002, over a million BBC viewers voted for Winston Churchill as the greatest Briton of all time. Guess who came in tenth? One Oliver Cromwell.

While September 11 has been sacred to Americans for fifteen years, its been notorious in Ireland for centuries. On that day in 1649, Cromwell’s forces butchered around 4,000 civilians in the north-eastern town of Drogheda. Contemporary reports denounced the crime as "unparalleled savagery and treachery beyond any slaughterhouse”. In total, Cromwell killed about 41 percent of the Irish population during his ethnic cleansing campaign in Ireland. On top of that, it’s alleged that he sold about 300,000 Irish as slaves to the new world.
How do British people think their Irish neighbors feel when they see such barbarians lionized as national heroes in the United Kingdom?

The Great Hunger

Then there’s the famine genocide of the 19th century. From 1845 to 1852, under English rule, approximately one million people died from starvation in Ireland. Another million emigrated, largely to the United States. The island’s population dropped by around 25 percent in less than a decade. All this while Ireland was a constituent part of the United Kingdom. London’s reaction was to essentially do nothing. Nothing, that is, except export vast quantities of grain, which could have fed the hungry.

The sad thing is that Irish people know that the British are broadly decent. They have given the world much of its high culture and great literature. They’ve created a generally inclusive modern country, which is the envy of much of the world. The problem is that they are largely blind to how they got there.

They are proud of their empire, a barbarous and cruel entity which caused misery across the world. Today, they worship mass murders like Cromwell and Churchill. This Easter 1916, wouldn't it make sense for the London government to finally apologize to Ireland? Maybe the Queen could be dispatched to solemnly visit the Irish embassy in London and express her remorse for the brutality of her ancestors? However, it's more likely they'll sit quietly and gape at the play. Undisturbed, indifferent and without disquiet.

“They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave”
                              - WB Yeats, September 1913

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.