Tuesday, July 13, 2004

From the Normans to Michael Collins (1170-1922): a Quick Guide

Ireland survived the Normans; it survived King John who pulled the beards of the chieftains. It survived all the raging French-speaking men in armour, the men who settled down with Irish wives and whose children spoke no French at all. It survived Fat Henry and that was a bad time, a raging bloody-minded monarch with more wives than children who came over here after turning his own country upside down. And then there was his daughter Lizzie, the Faerie Queen, a frightful woman, enemy of Spain and France and that's when our troubles with the neighbours really began. I shall have me no back door, she said, and it took her armies forty years to get it half-closed. And it was a close-run thing with The O Neill, blood brother before him to Collins. God, how they poured in after, under protection of the Crown, the colonists, the source of all the modern tragedy.

Massacre and War for two generations with Cromwell to show us how (1650-52), followed by King Billy to knock down the survivors (1689-91). Mercenary adventurers paid off with land, broken Treaties and martial law; stolen farmlands, destruction, violence, brutality. Three further generations of suppression and shame and then the beacon of America - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL men are created equal ...' and we watched as they fought for those beliefs over there and won (1776-83). The people took note. And then came the political earthquake in France ...Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1789-93): Kings no longer required. The people of Ireland took note again. The United Irishmen. Lord Edward. Wolfe Tone. The Croppies. Enniscorthy, Dunlavin, Arklow, New Ross, Vinegar Hill -- 1798.

Savage retributions and the Pike in the Thatch ... hidden for the next time. The hateful Act of Union (1801), war with Bonaparte, Martello Towers. Robert Emmet (1803), the Darling of Erin: 'When Ireland takes Her rightful place among the Nations of the World, then, and only then, let my Epitaph be written'. Brave words: he was hung, drawn and quartered and the people dipped handkerchiefs in his blood and even licked it with reverence from the cobbles of the road.

We are a Nation, said the Irish, and along came a lawyer to prove it, Daniel O'Connell. Give us representation, he cried, and in the end we got representation (1829)and Himself was installed beyond in Westminster. Give us a country, Repeal the Union, he cried, and they said 'Look. Dan, that's about far enough, so shut up and be quiet or we'll stick you in jail.' So they did (1844-45). Then we had the Famine (1846-49). The young, the old, the weak and the poor of all ages died. There went the Irish language: the poets and singers and storytellers were basically wiped out.

The tough poor went overseas and became the great-great grandfathers of the American-Irish (Irish-Americans). At home, the English, the landowners, clucked their tongues, collected their rents or evicted people and tore down the roofs of their cabins and left them to starve on the roads.

That's when the Church got its leg in the door and preyed on the guilt of the survivors. They had never been very strong before because Ireland was easygoing and full of half-pagan customs. Now, by God, they squatted on the country like a heavy-arsed elephant - a spiritual elephant - and squashed the joy out of the people for the next hundred years. It's all your fault, ye sinners. What fault? Everything. Let us pray. But we still had men, thank God, no thanks to the Black Crows.

Parnell was a Protestant and they were afraid of him, sky pilots and Brits alike. He ran a wedge into the British Parliament with a solid chunk of Irish Party votes and pushed through Home Rule for Ireland. Almost. They came after him with a divorce case and the clergy in Ireland came down on him like a ton of bricks along with the Tories (who hated him already) and the Liberal Dissenters of England. Exit Parnell. Ivy Day in the Committee Room. Anger, confusion.Tim Healy. Enter the IRB. Re-enter the Irish Republican Brotherhood with roots trailing back to the United Irishmen (1794-98) and the Fenians (1857-ongoing), still fired and inspired by the republican ideals introduced by way of the American and French revolutions. Who needs kings and aristocrats, especially if they're a gang of foreigners to begin with?

A lot of activity starts happening on the cultural,social side around this time: a revival of the Irish language, a revival of Gaelic sports, the Abbey Theatre, and above all the poetry of Yeats who becomes the voice of the nation. Along comes the First World War (1914), we're fighting to protect Poor Little Belgium. What about Poor Little Ireland? No takers, so in 1916 the IRB takes over Central Dublin and we have the 6-Day Easter Rising. That's where modern Ireland begins.

The IRB lose, the leaders get executed (consider the symbolic meaning of Easter in an overwhelmingly Catholic society), and then the people become thoughtful and annoyed. Come the next General Election (1918) they vote overwhelmingly --70% -- for the Republicans of Sinn Fein which then proceeds to establish its own Dublin-based parliament -- Dáil Eireann.

The Brits ignore the election results and send in troops but they are met by Michael Collins, the most effective war leader since Hugh O Neill in the 1590s. More troops and mercenaries (Black and Tans) pour in from Britain and hang about making a nuisance of themselves on every street corner, same as they do in Northern Ireland to this very day. Lots of people get shot and beaten up for no reason and there's firefights and ambushes going on all over the country but mainly it's an Intelligence war.

Collins is always one step ahead because the guy is a 29-year-old walking computer with informants and agents everywhere. He's got filing cabinets in safe houses all over the city. Mostly the war takes place in his brain since he takes on the British counterintelligence (they all get shot) and arranges arms imports -- thank you, America --and distributes guns and ammunition all over the country. He took a very business-like approach to war: he was always taking notes, keeping files, remembering things, cycling through roadblocks to appointments, (the Brits didn't have his photograph), sending out orders, arranging arms shipments, distributing them through the railroad system, checking up on people, visiting the families of friends in prison, bringing them food and money, playing with their kids, and carrying on a wild heavy romance with Kitty Kiernan through it all.

This is the man we are taught to hate because he signed the Treaty that divided Ireland. I don't buy that. In fact, I reject this nonsense out of hand. Without Mick Collins we'd all still be travelling under British passports to this very minute. Brugha, Stack, Childers, plus a whole load of word-driven, intoxicated fanatics -- including deValera himself, the mathematician -- were all hardline believers in the Republic but demonstrably incompetent when it came to waging war. They would have lost it for us (gloriously, of course) had it been left to them alone. Thank God reason intervened and thwarted them, in spite of the bitter civil war they instigated against the newly created State. It wasn't exactly what we had fought for but it was a huge step forward -- it gave us the freedom to achieve freedom as Michael pointed out. Look at Ireland today and you can see he was right. So I say a very sincere Go Raibh Maith Agat to Michael. Thanks.

(Michael Collins was killed -- ambushed and shot to death in his own county, Cork, by people who had probably known him in the war against England --a tragic victim of the idiotic civil war that followed the refusal of the hardliners to accept the Treaty.)