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1916: Remembering the Rising

A number of Jesuit responses to this year’s commemoration of the 1916 Rising have emerged in recent days. One of them, that of Seamus Murphy SJ, currently professor in Loyola University, Chicago, has been decidedly critical of the insurgents – and just as critical of the current government for its “fearful desire to placate the ghosts of 1916”.

In an opinion piece in the Irish Times (26 January) he claims that the Rising failed badly to meet the criteria for a just war. Most seriously, he says, one can’t make light of “the attempt of the Rising’s leaders, without authority from the living Irish people (as opposed to the imaginary authority of the dead generations), to establish a new state and themselves as its government with power to start a war and execute citizens”. He acknowledges that there were achievements worth commemorating, but he insists on the need to own and learn from the wrongdoing.

What makes it imperative that we get the commemoration right, Fr Murphy stresses, is that the Rising is not merely a remote event purely of historical interest. Instead it remains the inspiration and the template for men of violence, particularly in the Real and Continuity IRAs. The Rising cannot be reclaimed from the men of violence, he insists. “One cannot have the Rising without having its meaning,” he writes, “and that meaning empowers Provo-land.” He quotes President McAleese to the effect that we should “visit our history not to find what divides and scapegoats but what unites and reconciles”. Sadly, he thinks, “today’s Government elevates an event violently anti-British and intensely anti-unionist.” His parting summation is to declare that “not the Rising, but the Good Friday Agreement is the defining event of contemporary Irish identity”.

Seamus Murphy’s article was picked up by Irish Central, and both there and in the Irish Times comment box, as well as in the Letters to the Editor, he garnered a substantial number of responses, some positive, some negative, but almost all of them strong.

Professor Oliver Rafferty SJ, historian and Director of Irish Programs at Boston College, also wrote on this year’s commemorations. He begins by asserting much the same as Seamus Murphy, viz. that the Rising failed to meet the criteria for a just war, but the rest of his piece is more purely historical, charting usefully the curious development of the attitude of Catholic authorities to the Irish Rising and to the war of independence which followed. Apart from the help which individual priests extended to the wounded and the dying, the Church came across in 1916 as deeply antipathetic to the insurgency. Rafferty follows the shifts in attitude over the following two years and concludes that the bishops had learned their lesson by 1918. By siding with the revolutionaries in opposing conscription they were able “to regain the confidence of Catholic Ireland, something they had endangered in 1916”.

A more positive commemoration of the Rising is planned by Clongowes on 31 January. At 2.30pm in Glasnevin Cemetery they will hold a Remembrance event, marking the deaths of Old Clongownians who died in the Rising.