Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

My Guide to the Top Five Irish Rebellion Sites

Michael Collins (1996) Can you see me?
Easter 1916 marks one hundred years since the uprising in Ireland that led, via a very torturous route, to the creation of an independent Irish state. It also marked the start of the disintegration of the British Empire. Nationalism and modern weapons would make the great European empires untenable, although it would be a while before most people realised this.

My own connection to these events is to have been an uncredited (and unpaid) extra in Neil Jordan's 1996 film Michael Collins. Twenty years ago I stood with four thousand other people to cheer Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, the late Alan Rickman as Eamon De Valera and Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan as they arrived at a replica of Dublin Castle and gave a victory speech in front of the ruins of a fake GPO. It was almost like being there.

Michael Collins is a film that managed to annoy just about everyone, crediting British forces with atrocities they didn't commit and omitting ones they really did, whilst sanitising the very messy business of the Civil War that followed semi-independence. Still, if it had been a Mel Gibson movie it would have been a lot worse. 

During my time living in the Emerald Isle I also got to march behind The Plough and the Stars, which was the flag that James Connolly's Citizen's Militia flew over the GPO in 1916, and which the Irish TUC brings out every year for its May Day march. I also lived in the former house of Joe Murphy, the Republican Mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike, which must look good on my police file.

I also got a chance to visit some of the other places around and about associated with the bloody struggle for Irish freedom.

Here are my top five.

1. The General Post Office, O'Connell Street, Dublin

It all started at Easter 1916. Or was that when it all ended?

W.B. Yeats wrote that "a terrible beauty is born", but a few years earlier though he'd written "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave". Yeats jumped the gun by three years, but in essence he was right. The last stand at the GPO, in it's magnificent futility, represented the old tradition of previous failed uprisings. It was the moonlight charge of half-pike's that was a traditional subject of republican myth and song recreated with modern weaponry.

The real Michael Collins was there. But as he was led away into captivity he was not thinking about romantic poetry but of the futility of defending a vulnerable fixed position. On the prison ship that took him away he was already making plans for a very different kind of war next time.

There was fighting elsewhere in the city in 1916 including trench warfare in St Stephens Green, a spot well worth a vist, where the park warden still fed the ducks during lulls in the fighting.

The GPO building has been rebuilt and is still a post office. The only hint of its role in the fighting
one hundred years ago is the magnificent statue of the dying mythological hero Cuchulainn in the window, a wonderful symbol of courage and sacrifice.

O'Connell Street itself has changed in the last century. In 1916 it would have been dominated by a pillar with a statue of Nelson on top, the twin of the one in Trafalgar Square. That was removed in 1966, as IRA's contribution to the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, with a rather nifty bit of dynamiting that left the rest of the street untouched. Just to prove who the real professionals were in this regard, when the Irish Army came to blow up the remaining stump they took out every window on the street in the process.

The pillar was replaced first with a piece of modern art known to the Irish as "the floozy in the jacuzzi" and then by the Spire of Dublin, which was considered to be rather more in line with the new look of the street.

2. Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

The battle at the GPO ended with the Republican prisoners being led from the building through jeering crowds. That was not the start of the uprising, but what happened next was. They were taken across the city to Kilmainham Gaol, and for fifteen of them it would be a one way trip.

The gaol was closed in the 1920s and is now a museum. It doesn't appear in many tourist guides to Dublin, but it's worth a visit. As well as being able to see where the Easter rebels were imprisoned, and where those fifteen were shot. You can also see the Asgard, the yacht that Eskine Childers used to bring the guns over for the uprising. Childers had made himself a British hero by writing a story about a different boat, the Dulcibella, which his square jawed hero uses to thwart a German invasion in his 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands. Eleven years later it was from Germany that the Asgard brought the weapons.

Another former British hero who died in 1916, and who is often forgotten, is Roger Casement. He was hung for treason at the Pentonville Prison, three months after the executions in Dublin, for his part in trying to secure more German rifles. Casement had been instrumental in exposing the abuses in the Belgian Congo, and was the inspiration for the hero of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lord Roxton in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

Another gaol associated with the War of Independence is Cork. Here Countess Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, and others were interred. However the museum there focuses on the less famous inmates who passed through. It is worth seeing if only to remind us that for ever person locked up for being Irish and a rebel, a hundred were imprisoned for being Irish and poor.

3. Kilmichael Ambush site, County Cork

The events of 1916 were the spark that lit the fires of which broke out in rebellion in 1919. The war started with attacks on isolated Royal Irish Constabulary barracks. Once these had been abandoned the authorities were blind as to what was happening in most of the country.

The film has Michael Collins leading these attacks. In reality he certainly helped organise them, but volunteers in County Tipperary carried out the first attack on their own initiative. Soon though roving guerrilla bands controlled most of the Irish countryside.

The most effective leader of these units was Tom Barry from County Kerry. An unlikely rebel, he was the son of an RIC constable, and Easter 1916 saw him fighting the Turks with the British Army in Iraq. When he did eventually join the IRA he ended up in command of the West Cork Brigade, and on 28 November 1920 they fought one of the most significant, and controversial, battles of the war.

The British authorities had tried to regain control of the countryside using units of Auxiliaries made up of veterans of the Great War. These 'Black and Tans' ended up being responsible for most of the war crimes committed by British troops.

Barry decided to do something about this. His unit of 36 men ambushed a Black and Tan patrol of 18 soldiers near their base in Macroom. The IRA lost three dead, whilst all but one of the Auxiliaries died, several after trying to surrender, or pretending to surrender, with others allegedly being dispatched after being wounded. Whatever the exact circumstances, most Irish thought they deserved what they got. The loss of a decent sized force of veteran soldiers was deeply shocking to the authorities and Cork and the surrounding areas were placed under martial law, and a fair part of the City burnt in retaliation.

The Irish being the Irish there is a song about the battle. A (very) slightly fictionalised version also appears in Ken Loach's film The Wind That Shakes The Barley. There is a memorial by the side of the road at the scene of the ambush, whilst Cork Museum has a detailed map and plan of the battle, as well as some memorabilia. 

The spot itself is pleasant enough, but more the sort of place you pass through after fishing in Macroom, or on the way to Gougane Barra. West Cork though is wonderful, and as well as the Irish it is now home to a population of formerly English Travellers, who relocated to Ireland after their own ambush at the Battle of the Beanfield.

4. Michael Collin's Cork, County Cork

Meanwhile in Dublin, and other cities, a different kind of war was being fought, one were the victims were usually killed in their beds. As director of Intelligence for the IRA, Collins was responsible for the creation of a special execution squad that killed British spies and informers, shooting no less than twenty MI5 officers in one night exactly a week before the Kilmichael Ambush.

Despite Neil Jordan's film, Michael Collins' legacy in Ireland is still mixed. On the one hand is the revolutionary urban guerrilla leader who won the War of Independence, and on the other he's the man who signed the Treaty and settled for a divided Free State, rather than a whole independent one. He's the founder of the unarmed police force that replaced the hated Royal Irish Constabulary, but a person who, unlike the heroes of 1916, killed his enemies in their beds rather than in pitched battle.

Michael Collins armoured car, Curragh
The controversy stems from one simple fact, unlike almost every other Irish revolutionary, he was successful.

A Michael Collins tour of Ireland would start in Dublin. It would include the Stag's Head pub in Dublin where he used to drink, which was round the corner from his intelligence office at no. 3 Crow Street. It would take in the Imperial Hotel in Cork where he spent his last night, but it would end at the obscure village of  Béal na Bláth in his native County Cork.

Here he died after a confused ambush by anti-Treaty forces. His convoy included an armoured car, but its machine gun had jammed. Collins was the only fatality in the battle. The film plays fast and lose with the facts of this, but you can't get over the poignancy of the version of She Moved Through The Fair by Sinead O'Connor and The Chieftains that Jordan commissioned for the movie.

Béal na Bláth is not the sort of place that usually gets mentioned in tourist guides. There is a small monument there to the Big Fella, but little else.

In his home town of Clonakilty though there is now the Michael Collins Centre, where you can learn some more about his life.There is also more about Collins in the barracks that bears his name in the City of Cork, whilst the armoured car that failed to save him is at the main Irish Army Museum at Curragh.

Collins himself lies in the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, where there is a visitors centre and memorial to other Republicans. The cemetery is also home to another legacy of Ireland's past, one that isn't remembered as well as Easter 1916, but which has also had its own film made about it. This is the site of the mass grave of the 'fallen women' of the Magdalene laundries.

5. The Falls and Shankill Roads, Belfast

So when did Ireland's struggle for independence finally end? That is a difficult question.

One answer is 1921, when the British Empire threw in the towel and the Free State was formed. Another answer is 1923 when the Free Staters won the civil war, or 1932 when the bulk of the anti-Treaty people gave up the gun and adopted democratic politics.

Another answer is that it never did.

Twenty years ago a walk down the two main streets of West Belfast would have endorsed that view. Soldiers in armoured Land Rovers, helicopters, fortified pubs, paramilitary murals and the occasional gun or bomb attack, or bus being petrol bombed, were the sights in offer to the rare tourist. It was like walking round a slow motion civil war.

You can still experience some of that side of Belfast, especially if you can find a black taxi driver
Women for Peace, Belfast 1976
prepared to give you an unofficial tour. Brits are certainly tolerated, unless (like me) they ask to view the Official IRA graveyard. However for the most part that Ireland has gone thanks to events of another Easter weekend, but this one only eighteen years ago.

The Good Friday Agreement is a good place to end the chain of events that started at Easter 1916. Tony Blair, David Trimble and Gerry Adams certainly deserve the praise they received for the agreement, but this was a peace created from the bottom as much as one imposed from the top. Countless community groups and peace campaigners of both communities had worked for twenty years to end the fighting. 

Unlike the rebels of Easter 1916, the heroes of the War of Independence and the fighters of The Troubles, these people have no memorials to their name, no museums about them and are not remembered in film or song or mural. But that Ireland today, north and south of the border, is at peace with both itself and it's former imperial master across the Irish Sea is thanks more to them than to the people with guns.

Lets remember that this weekend.

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