Reflections on reading the Irish Times editorial of January 1st, 2016
Newspaper editorials, or ‘leaders’ as we call them, are probably the form of journalism held in least esteem by journalists themselves, and possibly least read by newspaper readers. Even a journalist like myself - a writer of far too many leaders over almost twenty years in the Irish Times – rarely turns to the leader column for enlightenment or entertainment.
But still one has to make allowances and feel sympathy for editors and, as is the rule rather than the exception, for the leader-writers or other correspondents press-ganged into the job of commenting on the news of the day. Time and space are limited, prior notice of a topic is rarely given, but some degree of erudition, originality and eloquence is expected.
Special sympathy goes out to those required to conjure up a ‘state of the nation’ or even of the world message on a day when news is light, but the date is significant. Which brings us to the Irish Times editorial of January 1st 2016.
A New Year editorial, whatever new year it is, has to offer some hope, some prospect of good things to come, and also to salvage some crumbs of comfort from the year gone. When the new year is 2016, something has to be said about 1916, about how things are panning out half way through Ireland’s decade of centenaries, and about how Ireland stands a century on from what the Taoiseach has called the birth of the Irish sovereign nation.
A quotation from a famous poet is always a safe starting point. If you can’t find an apt verse from Seamus Heaney, then WB Yeats will not let you down. So we begin with the distinction between national vanity and national pride. Writing in the 1920s Yeats had no doubt that Ireland was still in the vanity league, far from reaching the ‘intellectual maturity’ needed to allow a state have some pride in itself while at the same time not fearing to tell the truth about itself.
Would Yeats, if he were alive today having lived through the Celtic Tiger years, having seen the President of Ireland reverently laying a wreath to the deranged bomber O’Donovan Rossa as the first public remembrance of 1916, regard Ireland as having ‘reached intellectual maturity’ ?
Can we take heart from the centenary commemorations so far? We are told that in the past attitudes towards the Easter Rising have tended to swing between veneration and execration. Have they? Since 1966 it would be truer to say they have swung between veneration and canonisation. Today the sharp questioning of 1916 is restricted to a small number of academics, some journalists and John Bruton almost alone among politicians. Official Ireland continues to worship at the martyrs’ shrine.
Where is the proof that Irish people can now engage with 1916 without resorting to crude simplifications? Certainly not in the letters page of the Irish Times. Does remembering both the tragedy and triumph of 1916 relieve of us of any need to assess the rightness or wrongness of such events, or their lasting harmful legacy? Should we commemorate with equal solemnity the Rising and the Somme? One was a deliberate act of armed rebellion in the name of ‘Ireland’, the other a tragic episode in a world war.
Was the 1916 rising, as the leader writer pontificates, designed, in part, to change Ireland’s relationship with Europe, to escape the (British) Empire in order to be fully European? Hardly, in allying itself with Germany it was siding with an Empire that had crushed Belgium, invaded France and was effectively at war with most of Europe.
It is true that the 1916 rebels had courage and imagination, but courage in itself is not a virtue, and imagination can be the enemy of truth. Dwelling on these qualities in assessing the rebels of 1916 has been a major factor in their canonisation in the public mind. The best way to honour those qualities is to ask to what ends they were put and what means were used to pursue those ends.
The 1916 Proclamation does include promises of liberty and equality, but they constitute one paragraph only. The rest of the document is a call to arms, a hymn to violence, and the elevation of nationalism to the level of religion. The Irish state which was called into existence by 1916, and indeed the island of Ireland, has suffered from overdoses of both ever since.
The final task of the leader-writer is to think of a snappy title which might ensnare the casual reader. As no comment on the leader of January 1st has yet been published, I may well have been the only person to read it. Given its unbelievably pompous title ‘A republic of collective dignity’ I could believe that.
Submitted to the Irish Times on January 5th. Not published.
(Dennis Kennedy was a Deputy Editor of the Irish Times and pleads guilty to the authorship of innumerable leaders between 1968 and 1985.)