Friday 22 April 2016

Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada - Ultimate Winners

   The 1916 Uprising in Dublin was not particularly popular at the time. This should come as little surprise since 200,000 Irish served in the British Army during World War 1 and many families were dependent on the “separation” money. 

   Since Ireland was doing relatively well economically, with wartime exports booming, it should raise few eyebrows that the surrendering rebel forces were spat at by angry Dubliners.

   Indeed the spark plug of the rebellion, Sean MacDiarmada was gloomy when escorted to his prison cell, feeling that the endeavor had been a failure; while the young Michael Collins was furious at the poor military strategy employed and felt the leadership, with the exception of James Connolly, was amateurish.

   Help came - as it often does - from British over-reaction. Had the leaders not been executed it’s unlikely we’d be celebrating a 1916 centenary this month.

   These leaders came from many walks of life but they shared two traits – courage and a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

   They roughly fit into three broad groups: poets and academics, professional revolutionaries, and militant socialists. Let us, for argument’s sake, choose one from each group.  

   Padraig Pearse, son of an Englishman, was a well-regarded poet, a Gaelic scholar, and an educationalist. Reserved, often self-conscious, but ambitious, he longed for a free, Gaelic speaking republic.

   Sean MacDiarmada, though only 33, was a long-time leader and chief recruiter of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). It was said that he had men and women in every parish and townsland in Ireland ready to rise at his command.

   We can hardly pass over James Connolly as the militant socialist. Born to Irish parents in an Edinburg slum, he left school at 11 to shovel manure from the streets; he did a stint in the British Army before deserting, and eventually became a union organizer on both sides of the Atlantic.

   One hundred years later Padraig Pearse is still an enigma. Ill at ease in many Dublin social settings you get a much better grasp of the man when you visit his cottage in Rosmuc, Connemara. 

   His one regret about the failure of the rebellion was that his brother, Willie, would also be executed. He appears to have felt that only a blood sacrifice would awaken the patriotism of the Irish people and is said to have whistled contentedly on his way to the firing squad. 

   Would the dashing, athletic Sean MacDiarmada have shared the same death wish had he not been struck down by polio four years previously? It’s hard to say.  His left side largely paralyzed, after his release from hospital he was forced to use a cane to tap his impatient way around Dublin.  

   MacDiarmada knew it was only a matter of time until he succumbed to his affliction and there’s little doubt he was the prime force that kept the uprising roughly on schedule despite its cancellation by Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers.

   Connolly’s decision to go ahead with the rebellion seems the least logical for he had a wife and young family and feared for their financial and emotional wellbeing. Despite his love of books and learning, he was a very practical man, and having served in the British Army he had no illusions about his fate should the rising fail.

   By Easter Monday Connolly knew there would be no supportive German invasion, so, why didn’t he wait for a more auspicious time? Perhaps he was tired of failure and was willing to risk all in one roll of the dice, for he had suffered major defeats in the recent Dublin and Wexford labor lockouts. 

   Or did he feel that the British authorities would soon move against the IRB and his own Irish Citizen Army thus condemning another generation of Irish workers to poverty and economic slavery.

   It’s a fine line between brilliant tactical decision and death wish, but our three leaders were ultimately proved right. They did not live to see the terrible beauty they had conceived; but in the end, Irish patriotism was rekindled. 

   History is indeed written by the ultimate winners and that is why we celebrate Pearse, MacDiarmada, and Connolly wherever green is worn in this their glorious centenary.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

From de Valera to Trump

            So many of Donald Trump’s aspirations for the US are un-American it’s hard to know where to begin. The reintroduction of torture, the banning of Muslims from entry into the country, the erection of the Great Wall of Mexico spring immediately to mind; yet each is so unconstitutional or impractical as to be unlikely.

            However, a trade war with China or Mexico could be distinctly on the cards should Mr. Trump be elected. We Irish learned all too well the consequences of trade disputes.

            In 1932 the Fianna Fail party came into government in the Irish Free State. Whereupon, its leader, Eamon de Valera refused to pay land annuities to the British Government for loans that had been granted to Irish tenant farmers in the 19th Century.  
This did not sit well with Whitehall and a trade war broke out that did serious damage to the Irish economy.

            Both my grandfathers – although from opposite ends of the political spectrum – opposed this war, though for different reasons.

            Even 30 years later one could not mention Mr. de Valera in my Fine Gael grandfather’s house as it could have driven this reserved cattle dealer to apoplexy; for in retaliation the British government put a tariff on the importation of Irish beef that wreaked havoc with his business.

            My maternal grandfather already had little time for “Dev” because of his internment of former Republican comrades. The fact that the Irish stopped buying his headstones during the economic collapse only added salt to his wounds.

            Both grandfathers, however, weathered the storm and lived relatively affluent lives. Not so the many who were forced to emigrate because of the lack of employment opportunities.

            Eventually the land annuities issue was settled but Mr. de Valera continued to maintain his economic wall around Ireland. He did so for the best of motives: many Irish industries were inefficient and could not compete with their British counterparts.

            And so Ireland struggled along, hemorrhaging its citizenry as hundreds of thousands emigrated until 1959 when Dev was kicked upstairs and his protégé, Sean Lemass, finally threw open the economic and sanctimonious curtain that had long suffocated the country.

            Free trade is hardly the answer to all US economic problems. Jobs are inevitably lost – often the best paying; unfortunately this is a cyclical reaction that began in the 1970’s and the US will not become a major manufacturing power again until wages rise appreciably in China, Mexico, and the Asian rim countries.

            But if Apple and the other corporate titans, whose products are manufactured overseas, were obligated to pay US taxes on their foreign profits then this lost revenue could help retrain US workers and rebuild a crumbling infrastructure that would in turn lead to more jobs.

            Still, the last thing we need right now is a trade war. Much as we might quibble about the prevalence of Chinese imports, we would be truly outraged were we forced to pay 20 to 30% more for them.

            Blowing off Trumpian steam is one thing but imagine what a trade war would do to our already jittery financial markets. The average American’s retirement savings are invested in stocks that are already trading up and down like well-oiled yo-yos. 

            Mr. Trump’s working class supporters should think twice before voting for this uber-wealthy man. His celebrity brand will continue to flourish no matter what bombastic miscalculations he makes; his deluded supporters, however, will be left to pick up the pieces. 

            Instead of venting their anger on Muslims and Mexicans they should urge their leader to demand a fair tax on financial transactions and a livable national minimum wage.

            These innovations would bring meaningful change to their lives but are hardly likely to resonate with Mr. Trump for they would impact on his profits and lack the sound bite appeal of erecting imaginary walls.

            Both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders are correct. The US is in need of change and hopefully a substantive debate will take place in the run up to November’s elections.

            We’re more likely to get a screaming match. But we, as citizens, have a right to demand a real debate of ideas and practicalities.  A trade war with any other country is the last thing we deserve.

Sunday 10 April 2016

Spring Unleashes Memories

            Isn’t it odd how spring unleashes memories? 

            The other morning while looking out the window at the concrete fields of Manhattan I was transported back to a farm on the South East tip of Ireland where the South Atlantic crashes headlong into the Irish Sea.

            It was a wild, salt-sprayed place where shipwrecks were often left to rust on gravelly beaches. On summer days, however, there was nothing like it – no people, just seagulls diving against a backdrop of the moody Saltee Islands. The beach was ever treacherous for the gravel moved under the pounding surf; we children were forbidden to swim there.

            My father, a merchant marine, didn’t give a damn. If the mood was on him, he’d hop in and swim outwards, folly in itself, for the currents and eddies could sweep you out to sea.

            We watched fearfully but he never stayed in long. “Just coolin’ off,” as he put it, “nothin’ like the sting of the salt on your skin!” 

            Perhaps he needed it, for he was the eldest son and had a tense relationship with my grandfather who owned the big farm, and another of equal size on the outskirts of Wexford Town some 12 miles away. They clashed often for both were strong-willed, with the result that my father would storm off to sea leaving my grandfather to brood in his absence.

            The old man was beginning to lose it but was unwilling to give up the reins - a common enough situation on the farms of Ireland back then, probably still is today.

            But that’s just the background, the memory is of an early summer’s morning when my father, my brother and I drove fifty or more prime bullocks from the windswept farm to the rich pastures outside Wexford, where they would fatten until the fall before being shipped to Birkenhead for slaughter.

            I was probably eleven years of age, my brother, Jimmy, ten. Strange how huge livestock could be afraid of such tiny drovers, but we wielded our sticks with authority and weren’t shy about whacking an errant bullock on the behind.

            We set off at dawn for it was imperative to get as much of the twelve miles covered while traffic was light. My father drove a grey Volkswagen ahead of the herd while Jimmy and I brought up the rear. Bullocks are stupid but they can be curious too and often wished to make the acquaintance of their peers who watched them pass from behind ditch and fence.

            My father knew all the broken gates and loose palings, and lined up the car beside them; then when the herd had passed, he’d rev up that bug and inch forward to lead the way again.

            The morning was glorious - thrush and lark serenaded us as we passed through land that had been fought over by every invader who ever set foot in Ireland. The roads were narrow and we moved uneventfully with many the wave from laborer’s cottage and farmhouse.

            But our trial came at the village of Killinick on the main road from Rosslare Harbor where we hit traffic arriving off the boat from Le Havre. Many the speeding German and French automobile was stopped in its tracks and forced to fall into convoy behind the ambling herd. A number of motorists jumped out to take pictures of the pint-size herders, but Jimmy and I paid them no heed, though secretly we were chuffed.

            We crossed over Killinick railway bridge then up the steep hill, thirty or more cars straggling in our wake, until we made it to the winding back roads that led to the farm outside Wexford.

            I still retain a sense of the power of the land that struck me on that dewy morning. Politicians and priests may think they control it, but they’re just transient possessors. The land endures - or does it?

            Some years later, after another row, my father stormed back to sea, my grandfather died soon thereafter, and the beautiful farm outside Wexford Town was swallowed up in a miasma of housing estates.

            The other farm still stands; I occasionally stroll its salty beaches and look for two worried boys watching a father swim out to sea - when spring unleashes memories.