Sunday, August 05, 2012

Ireland, religion and the Troubles
It’s not what you think. From Gareth Russell via Tea at Trianon.

Some things that recently came up under my Anglosphere post:
As I’ve learned and blogged before, the Irish were an integral part of the British Empire, like their Scottish cousins serving in the army exporting and enforcing it around the world (the British Army still has its Irish Guards), proudly building that empire; before 1916 many Irish in spite of everything were loyal British subjects (like I said, still, many Irish don’t hate the Brits; many settle in Britain; many served in the British forces in WWII and some still do; I once met one who had been in the RAF in the ’50s, after complete Irish independence); the early Irish nationalist leaders often were Protestants (Wolfe Tone, Yeats); the church has long held the Irish cause at arm’s length (you’ll never hear that on American St Patrick’s Day; that said, early Irish leader Eamon de Valera was a sincere Catholic who explicitly identified the country with the church; the Irish constitution reflects that); and the IRA were really Communists, not Catholics except by birth.

Bill Tighe taught me here one of history’s ironies: the ethnic English living around Dublin (in the Pale – of English rule? – whence we get the expression ‘beyond the pale’) were the first to put up a fight in Ireland against Protestantism when the king imposed it. So much for hating the Brits. They, not the Irish themselves, started the centuries-long identification of ‘Irish’ with ‘Catholic’. I dare you to say that in a crowded bar on American St Patrick’s Day. I understand religion in Ireland is cyclical. Around 1800 sure, most Irish were Catholic but indifferent, then emancipation jump-started the church, building a great institution from scratch, so you had the pious Irish of popular culture, the last generation of whom are barely still around on both sides of the Atlantic. Now religion’s waning again. Today’s virulent secularism’s a threat but still. Wait; just ride it out?

The actual Independence leaders 1916-1922 were a confused hodgepodge of different ideological stripes, which is exactly why the Irish Civil War claimed arguably more lives than the actual War of Independence itself (lesson to revolutionaries – don’t start a revolt until everyone on your side is in agreement on what you want, what you are willing to settle for, and what you plan to do if you win). There were sincere Catholics like De Valera, hardboiled church-avoiding socialists like James Connolly, moderately anti-clerical practicing Catholics like Michael Collins, and even a few certified religious zealots like Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Pearse. Later, in the ’60s, when the IRA became a fully Marxist organization long on pompous rhetoric and short on action, the Provos split off into a similar hodgepodge outfit, with anti-clerical socialist leadership and a mix of practicing and nonpracticing Catholics at the rank-and-file level. The Church was probably right to keep the whole business at arm’s length from the beginning, but the hierarchy burned a lot of credibility by sanctioning or at least refusing to criticize WWI.

Pre-1916, most Irish Catholics were in favor of restoring Home Rule under the crown through constitutional and peaceful means, not full separation from Britain by violence. As it did elsewhere, WWI radicalized Irish politics and made violence more attractive. Even so, most of the IRB outside of Dublin didn’t want to launch the Easter Rising in 1916, thinking it premature and likely to fail. The ’16 rebels were at first widely hated by most people (especially in bullet-ridden Dublin). Public opinion only changed later with the execution of the rebel leaders (judged to be excessively harsh, for various reasons), and the eventual extension of conscription to Ireland.

Getting most Irish-Americans to follow this complex and nuanced story, though, is about as difficult as getting Americans to realize that the Tories during the Revolution were more than just traitorous boot-lickers. Neither of these things is a great tragedy, I suppose – people need heroes, and unless we restrict ourselves to choosing only canonized saints as heroes, few of them can stand being put on their pedestals without a little polishing first.

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