Paul Foot

Come all you young rebels

(January 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.248, January 2001, p.26.
Copyright © 2001 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

History is a battleground says Paul Foot – especially in Ireland

Get out your diaries for January and, if you find a lot of meetings there already, prepare your video recorders. A four part series, each part one hour long, is coming up on BBC1 and must not be missed by any socialist or Republican on either side of the Irish Sea. Called Rebel Heart and written by Ronan Bennett, its absorbing subject is the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and its aftermath all the way up to the partition of Ireland in 1922 and the civil war that followed.

The series doesn’t need a recommendation from me or from Socialist Review. An irresistible accolade has already been showered on it by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, and his acolyte the editor of the Daily Telegraph in London, Charles Moore. David Trimble officially complained to the BBC about the series before he had even seen it. On the day of its press showing the Daily Telegraph, still masquerading as the ‘paper you can trust’, published a whole page of strident propaganda against the series and its author. In order to distinguish between what it regards as ‘fact’ (sacred) and ‘comment’ (free), Mr Moore added a leading article in which he lambasted the BBC for even contemplating a series based on what he regards as biased history. Nowhere in either piece was it disclosed that Mr Moore is himself a dedicated Ulster Unionist and a consistent campaigner for Unionist candidates in Northern Ireland. His position is absolutely clear. He is for free speech for Ulster Unionists, but utterly opposed to free speech for Republicans or indeed anyone who dares expose the ghastly history of Ulster Unionism over the whole of the 20th century.

Moore and his dwindling band of supporters can’t abide any record of what happened in Ireland in the years immediately following the Easter Rising. They like to imagine that the flame lit by Connolly, Pearse and the other leaders of that doomed but heroic revolt was extinguished forever with the British soldiers’ bullets that murdered most of them in the prison yards. Moore, Trimble and Co still go pale with fury at any mention of what happened next – the spread, like wildfire, of the spirit of revolt across the whole of Ireland culminating in 1918 in the election of Sinn Fein candidates in 73 of the 105 constituencies in all Ireland.

Ronan Bennett’s story, based on a young and fictional middle class participant in the rising, his love affair with a young sharpshooter whom he met on the Dublin barricades, and his subsequent heroics in the awakening of the west of Ireland, brings to the story a new and vital dimension: the impact of these events on Republicans in the six counties of the North. The hero’s girlfriend lives in Belfast, which at the time was still an integral part of Ireland. So the story moves between the open revolution in the south and west to the North, where Michael Collins came to be seen by most of his instinctive supporters as more of a renegade than a hero.

The series does not deal in detail with the London negotiations in which Collins and the other Irish delegates were easily persuaded by the British prime minister, Lloyd George, and his advisers to divide the island and leave the Northern six counties in the hands of the British and the Orange Order. When Collins returned from London, he ordered his best recruits in the North back to the South to help him fight for the treaty against its furious Republican opponents. The result was a civil war in which the best and toughest fighters against the British turned their guns on each other, with frightful consequences. Rebel Heart ends ironically in a fatal shootout between the hero and a Collins supporter he had recently sprung from a death sentence in a British jail. As the two comrades lie dying from their wounds, they can’t help giggling. ‘At least’, says one, ‘we died for Ireland.’

As in all the great moments of revolutionary history there is a persuasive argument on both sides, and in the personal tragedy of Ronan Bennett’s series it is hard not to sympathise with both. On the one hand are the 26 counties, two thirds of all Ireland, free at last from imperialist rule, with their own army and their own parliament. On the other hand is the beleaguered minority in the North, defenceless against the sectarian savagery of legitimised Orange rule. The horror of the latter is revealed in a dramatisation of the murders in their home of the adult male members of a Belfast Republican family by a deranged and detested police chief. These murders, despite the hysterical protests of the Daily Telegraph, are not invented by Ronan Bennett. They really happened in the way the film describes.

The argument is left in some doubt, though the script’s sympathy with the rebels against the treaty is pretty clear. It’s a pity no space could be found for the definitive answer to the problem of the North as set out in a series of scorching articles by the executed hero of the rising, James Connolly. Two years before the rising, as nationalist leaders started to flirt with partition,

Connolly wrote a series of articles in whatever paper would publish him. In the Irish Worker of 14 March 1914 he denounced partition as ‘the depth of betrayal’. His famous conclusion was that partition ‘would mean a carnival of reaction North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured’.

James Connolly could reach such devastatingly prophetic conclusions because, unlike Collins, Pearse, de Valera and all the other leaders of the rising, he was a socialist who directed his attention first and foremost to the working class. He was driven into a paroxysm of fury by the mere suggestion that the future of industrial Ulster would be handed over to the likes of David Trimble and Charles Moore.

Rebel Heart is on BBC1 Sundays 9 p.m. from 14 January


Last updated on 27.11.2004