For 750 years England had ruled this country by force of arms. In this city on Easter Monday 1916, the Irish Republic was declared on the steps of the GPO. Five years later, and following two years of guerrilla warfare, Britain conceded that Ireland could no longer be coerced, could no longer be subjugated, the croppies would no longer lie down. But our erstwhile colonial masters contrived that if Ireland could not be ruled by the Crown, then Ireland would be ruled for the Crown. It was the sound of artillery around this building a hundred years ago that ominously proclaimed that from that day forth, Ireland would be ruled not by Britain but would be ruled for Britain. The Irish Republic conceived by the United Irishmen on Belfast’s Cave Hill would now be destroyed by divided Irishmen here on Dublin’s quays.
Across these walls one hundred years ago stood two armies. One, the army of the Republic was an army without banners, without uniforms, lightly armed but resolute in their defence of that for which generations had died. Outside these walls stood a hastily assembled army whose oath was to the King, whose uniforms were supplied by the British, who fired British rifles and artillery and who served the policy of Britain in Ireland. England had declared that there would be no republic. It had been decreed that those loyal to that republic must be crushed and this suppression would mercilessly begin where we have assembled. History records that a kilometre to the north of here, while a prisoner of war, died the father of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone – but his cause lived on. A kilometre to the west of here, in 1798, countless soldiers of the Republic were cruelly slaughtered and ignominiously buried in the Croppies acre – their cause did not die with them. A kilometre to the south of here, on Thomas Street, Robert Emmet would be gruesomely executed for this loyalty to the Republic – but his defiant words still echo. A kilometre to the west of here, in O’Connell Street, the Irish Republic would be declared but its enemies expected its brief flame to be extinguished by the firing squads of Kilmainham and in quicklime of Arbour Hill, but the Fools the Fools. And so, in June 1922 by these granite walls, Irishmen would attempt to do that which the British Empire had failed to achieve – they would attempt to obliterate the Republican cause for once and for all.
After the surrender at Easter Week 1916, the defeated republicans were marched up O’Connell Street to captivity. Amongst them were Michael Collins and Seán MacDiarmada. Both had fought for freedom, one would be derided as being overly principled, the other would be praised for putting pragmatism before those principles. Passing the monument to great Parnell, it would have served Collins well to have memorised the lost leader’s inscribed words – ‘No man has the right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country thus far thou shall go and no further’. But six years later Collins did fix a boundary, not only to the march of a nation but through that nation. Two states were formed, each to be ruled not by Britain but for Britain. In the north-east, a sectarian state in which bigotry would be regarded as being beneficial to the descendants of those who shouldered pikes with Henry Joy McCracken and Henry Munro. The southern state would require a new elite to rule it and to control it, in which profit would outweigh principle, political power displace patriotism. Top hats would replace flat caps, judges’ wigs and gowns and bishops’ mitres, internments and firing squads would block that path to the republic declared in 1916. Partition was copper fastened. It would be ‘thus far and no further’. An updated version of the Tudor’s ‘Surrender and Re-grant’. Liberty Equality and Fraternity were consigned to quicklime.
In 1919, Collins ordered the killing of the Irish RIC men who had identified his comrade MacDiarmada in 1916, brave Seán MacDiarmada whose last defiant words were ‘Damn Your Concessions, England, we want our County’. Would that Collins would have uttered these words rather than fixing that boundary that still remains a barrier to the march of our nation. Who was it that really betrayed Seán MacDiarmada?
Whatever his motivation in accepting Pax Britannica, Michael Collins’ had promised ‘stepping-stones’ to achieve national liberty. But all too soon these ‘stepping-stones’ became the headstones of those IRA Volunteers who were killed in action by these granite walls. Collins’ crimson-stained ‘stepping-stones’ became memorial stones at Ballyseedy and Countess Bridge, at Grey Abbey and Drumboe. Soldiers loyal to Ireland, faithful to the nation, became enemies of his new state. His ‘stepping-stones’ became submerged in the blood of those who remained true to the Old Cause down through the last century. The blood of Seán McCaughey and Charlie Kerins, the blood of Sean South and Feargal O’Hanlon, blood spilled in the Creggan, in Long Kesh and at Loughgall.
Michael Collins had promised ‘The freedom to achieve freedom’ – but freedom for whom and freedom to do what. Freedom for new landlords to rack-rent, freedom for big employers to exploit the working man, freedom for banks to extort, freedom for small farmers to emigrate; but it certainly was not the freedom to free Ireland. For a hundred years the policy of London and that of the Irish State towards those who remained loyal to the cause of Tone and Emmet, the cause of Pearse and Connolly, has remained indistinguishable and intertwined.
To quote Seán O’Casey, that friend of those forgotten prisoners of the ‘40’s’ ‘You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea, you cannot put an idea up against a barracks square wall and riddle it with bullets, you cannot confine it in the strongest cell that your slaves could ever build.’ Though Collins, Mulcahy and O’Higgins, and later DeValera and Gerry Boland have attempted all of this, just as their British masters did before them, the Old Cause has refused to die. You commendably gather here, you still remember, you who seditiously refuse to forget. Today we are proud to commemorate those who stood defiantly within these walls. But who today recalls those who were outside these walls on that June morning, those who enthusiastically did England’s bidding, those Irishmen who covered their ears as they sent another shell into this building while those with moral authority covered their eyes? This commemoration gives proof to the fact that it is the defence of the 32 county Irish republic that is remembered, and not the actions of those in the dyed-green British uniforms of the new 26 county state.
We are told that we are nearing the end of the decade of centenaries. The commemoration of what happened here in 1922 would be tricky and divisive, we are cautioned. The government and its well-paid academics have decreed what should be remembered and what should not, what is worth commemorating and what should be forgotten, what aspects of our history satisfy present day political requirements and what events might be embarrassing or inconvenient. But our history is not theirs to define, not theirs to edit, it is our history, our story composed of a myriad of unforgotten acts of resistance and defiance in a centuries’ long struggle to maintain our distinct nationhood. Our national history is your heritage, a narrative not to be controlled by politicians nor confined to academic conferences or media events. It is your history, you who refuse to forget, you who commemorate year after year, you who care for the patriot graves, you who clean the monuments, you who pick the weeds and plant the flowers, you who sing the songs and defiantly prevent our nation’s history from being cast into the national amnesia. By your presence here today, you give testament that we still remember, that we are proud of those who died for our freedom, we celebrate those who fought for our liberty, we care not whether the story of our nation’s suffering and struggles embarrasses the neighbours, the shame should be theirs not ours.
The attack on the Four Courts garrison, the attack on those who had declared for a republic and who would live under no other law, was an important episode our national history. But for many of you gathered here today, it is also an important part in your family history. So, it is with me. Madge Clifford, my grandmother, joined Cumann na mBan in 1913, gathered with her comrades to await the arrival of Casement’s weapons in Tralee in 1916, fought in Dublin in the Black and Tan War and, on the 28 June 1922, she was here in the Four Courts. Madge stood beside General Liam Mellows preparing a proclamation when the first shells landed near them. But, mistakenly not primed, they failed to explode. After the surrender, she was one the few who escaped, carrying the garrison’s documents in Joe McKelvey’s suitcase. She would never again see her friends, Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, as she went to defend the beleaguered republic at the side of Ernie O’Malley and Liam Lynch. The ‘Wise Men have told us their cause was a failure’; they always do. They tell us that was ‘then’ and it is different now. They draw lines through history. They tell us that the Men of 1916 and the soldiers of ‘22 were totally different than those volunteers who fought in the last war of independence in the Six Counties. In 1971 Madge Clifford would write to the son of her dead comrade, General Ernie O’Malley. From this letter, I quote: ‘The fight in the North is very bad. It is tough but a lot of good young lads from the South are up there. I wish I were young again and I would go and so would your father (Ernie O’Malley).’ To her, it was the same cause, the same fight. Her comrade in the Four Courts garrison, Máire Comerford would die in 1982 with her last efforts supporting the H-Block prisoners. The same cause, the same fight. Steadfast women.
Today’s ‘Wise Men’ will patronisingly pronounce that there were two sides to the conflict, one side was as bad as the other. But there was not an equivalence between those defenders within the Four Courts’ walls and those attackers outside. There was a difference between those who fought for a proud unbroken nation and those who fought for a newly established state subservient to the British empire. There was a difference between those who had taken an oath to The Republic and those who had sworn allegiance to a foreign king. There was a difference between those who fought for the Republic and those who fought to destroy it. There was a difference between those prisoners who were tied to a mine at Ballyseedy and those who detonated it. There was a difference between those who faced the firing squad and those who fired the deadly volley. There was a difference between those teenage prisoners found dumped in Dublin’s ditches and those who put British supplied bullets in the heads. There was difference between those who were tortured and their tormentors. There was a difference between the laws of God and edicts of the bishops. There was a right side and a wrong side in the Civil War. A right side and a wrong side. You gather here today because you are proud to declare which was the right side and which was the wrong side, proud to remember what others would forget, what other would have you forget.
To the easily persuaded Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and those who followed them into the Empire, Fr Michael O’Flanagan would address the immortal words, ‘They have fooled you again’. They were indeed fooled by Britain, they were mesmerised by the trappings of power, seduced by their newly found status, they found it easy to sleep on other men’s wounds. Indeed, the prophetic words of Patrick Pearse could be slightly modified to refer to these Irishmen, those men who started the Civil War here at The Four Courts at 4.20am on Wednesday 28th June 1922.
The fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us (more) of our Fenian dead.
While Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace.