Written by Tom Abernethy
Originally published in the New York 1916 Societies
As Irish Republican activists here in America we have long espoused certain principles and ideals in pursuit of our goal of justice and freedom in Ireland. As Irish Republicans in this country we should be clear that we remain consistent in these values that are at the heart of Irish Republicanism.
Irish Republicanism, of course, was founded on the Enlightenment ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity originally espoused by the United Irishmen. They believed that the Irish Nation included all; Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter. Non-sectarianism, bridging the religious gulf, was at the heart of ethos of the United Irishmen. They faced huge challenges in advancing this position, as there was a large degree of mistrust and antagonism between the different religious groups. Protestants could point to the Massacres of 1641, Catholics to the Penal Laws, as grounds to keep apart from one another. Wolfe Tone, the key figure in Irish Republicanism, was a Protestant who advocated for Catholic Emancipation when it was a very radical idea. Many at the time thought that the native Catholic population, with their “backward” religion, was too wild and violent to ever trust to be near a position of power in Ireland. It took courage and vision for those leaders of the republican movement in the 1790s to espouse religious tolerance and to preach against religious bigotry and sectarianism. The British government, of course, used religious bigotry to divide the people of Ireland from each other and to promote their own interests in Ireland. The British ruling class assumed that the native Irish population was incapable of self government and it was this belief that lay at the core of the British decision to impose partition of Ireland against the democratic will of the Irish people.
This belief in native Irish inferiority was not, of course limited to Britain. Here in the U.S., the belief that the Irish, and especially Irish Catholics were violent, rash and superstitious and therefore impossible to assimilate into American society was common throughout the nineteenth century. Those who promoted negative images of the Irish, such as the cartoonist Thomas Nash, of course, did not think of themselves as mean bigots. They thought they were simply reacting to what they saw as a danger arriving on the shores of this country.
Of course, later immigrants to America were met with similar attitudes from those already here. And by the time that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe began to arrive in massive numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some of the descendants of those earlier Irish immigrants were among those looking down at these newer arrivals. To some in Irish America, these new immigrants from Italy, Poland and Greece were now the dirty, violent and “uncivilized” ones.
Of course, later immigrants to America were met with similar attitudes from those already here.
For these Nativists, there was nothing positive about the people or culture of these new arrivals. There was no interest or appreciation of their language, music, literature, food, etc. Now, of course, there are countless celebrations of Irish America, Italian Americans and other ethnic groups. The contributions of these earlier ethnic groups to American culture and society are widely acknowledged. There are countless books and documentaries and much nostalgia about our immigrant fore parents and many politicians are quick to tout their ethnic identity when searching for votes. Many of these same politicians are, at the same time, warning of the claimed threat posed by new immigrants and refugees. Of course, the United States, like any other country has the right to control its borders and make a determination as to how many new arrivals it desires and to insist that people arrive in the country through legal channels. But when the argument turns to the alleged dangerous nature of certain immigrants it is important to remember what was said of the older immigrants, including the earlier wave of Irish immigrants. The Irish were considered alien, a violent, savage lot who practiced a religion that was incompatible with American values and which would, if allowed to spread here, destroy religious freedom in the United States. These anti-Irish Nativists, like today’s advocates of travel bans, would point to some example that allegedly made their point. In the case of the earlier immigrants, there were of course some individual members of these white ethnic communities that were in fact dangerous. Some were involved in street crime or organized crime and some individuals were certainly involved in the deaths of Americans after they were admitted to this country. The Gangs of New York gives some indication of how violent these early immigrant neighborhoods could be in fact. These white ethnic immigrants of earlier generations, moreover, went through nothing like the severe vetting that current immigrants to this country have to endure. Using current standards that advocates of “extreme vetting” are seeking to impose, these earlier immigrant would certainly qualify as a threat to the American homeland and would never have become part of the American nation.
If we were to hear an American political leader talk of Irish America only in terms of violence or drunkenness, of the gangs of the Five Points, ignoring the contributions of Irish America has made to the political, military and cultural heritage of this country, we would have no hesitation to object. We would also not be favorably disposed to those showed no sympathy for the thousands of refugees from the Irish Famine and from British misrule in Ireland, who failed to recognize the humanity of the Irish refugees, and instead saw them only as an undifferentiated mass of ignorant and dangerous foreigners.
How then, should the experiences of Irish immigrant impact how we think and talk about immigrants and refuges from Syria or Iraq or other countries currently suffering from war and hardship? Like the early Irish immigrants, they are certainly often spoken of in unflattering one dimensional terms, simply as threats, devoid of any appreciation of their humanity. If we make the same mistake that the Nativists made with the Irish and fail to see that these people have a culture: food, music, storytelling, humor, just as the Irish have, then we have not learned from our own history. The importance of hospitality and generosity in Arab culture is indeed quite similar to Irish culture. As with the Irish, those in the Arab world have had first hand experience of British interference and imposed partition in their lands. The Proclamation of 1916 asserted the, “right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible.” The same of course, should hold true for those who live in the Middle East. We now hear talk that we should steal the oil from the people of Iraq, a sovereign country that had not attacked or invaded us. There does not seem to be a way of reconciling the words and spirit of the 1916 Proclamation with a nakedly colonialist call to plunder the wealth of another country.
Nor when people with valid visas are denied entry into this country can we forget the many decades of work by Irish American activists fighting restrictions on entry into the United States of people from Ireland. For example, the Visa Denial Repeal Committee kept fighting for years to try to get a ban on Irish Republicans such as Ruairi O Bradaigh from entering the U.S. lifted. Others from Ireland who were prevented from entering the U.S. at one time or another have included Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and Marion Price. Although these excluded Irishmen and women were all militant political activists and some were tagged with the label “terrorist” based on their involvement in the republican struggle, Irish activist in this country argued that they posed no danger to the U.S. and that Americans had the right to hear their views. Surely then we cannot be frightened by those seeking to come to the U.S. from many countries in the Middle East, not to forward any political agenda, but simply to escape from the horrors of war and violence. Many indeed are small children whose lives have been traumatized by what they have had to experience. At least some, although certainly not all, of this strife in this part of the world, moreover, has been exacerbated by outside interference in the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq.
Irish activists in this country have also organized for many years to keep those former Irish Political Prisoners who did get into the U.S. from being deported. Activists have argued that these people have families here that should not be forced to make the horrible choice of leaving the country or dividing up their family. We have argued that former Irish Political Prisoners have jobs, families, and community connections to this country. We have argued that they should be treated as individuals, real human beings, not as stick figure “Irish terrorists.” We must, therefore, look at the individuality of the Syrian refugee and the humanity of the Iraqi family looking to stay in the U.S. if we are to remain true to the values that we espouse when we talk about the families of Irish Deportees.
There are those who act as if the danger that a single Syrian refugee or a single visa entree from a country in the Middle East might commit a terrorist act is enough to justify the denial of entry of anyone from entire national populations. The first question it should raise is, what if that standard had been adopted when many of our ancestors were seeking to enter this country? Simply put, there would have been no Irish America or Italian America as we now know it. That standard would also have allowed Britain to bar all Irish people from its shores for most of the past number of decades. In 1974 the Birmingham pub bombing killed 21 civilians and wounded 162. The British security forces responded by rounding up suspects, and coercing confessions based on physical and psychological abuse. Mistreatment of Irish prisoners has recently surfaced again with the papers from 1972 produced by the Pat Finucane Center in Derry that documented fours cases of water boarding of Irish victims by the British Army and RUC. Now of course, there is talk of bringing back water boarding and “a whole lot worse” here in the United States. Listening to this we should immediately recall the legacy of the Hooded Men, Irish citizens who were tortured by the British Army. As for the Birmingham Six, their story is now of course a well known example of a British miscarriage of justice. Yet, even The British did not impose a complete ban on Irish travel to England.
The experience of the Birmingham Six was horrible enough and was a deserved stain on Britain’s reputation. Imagine, though, if the British had gone even further than they did and threatened the family members of the Birmingham Six with murder or torture. Yet we now hear also talk in the U.S. of torturing or murdering the families of those accused of terrorist offenses. Beyond the sheer immorality and criminality of such an act, what would be the after effects of such State torture or murder? Could any sane person believe that murdering the families of the Birmingham Six before they were exonerated would have worked to Britain’s long term advantage? Similarly, can anyone think that murdering innocent families would not come back to haunt us in this country? In the case of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, there were at least some people who could look beyond the label of “convicted terrorist” and see human beings who might be victims of a grave miscarriage of justice. We cannot be blind us to the fate of those on the receiving end of these measures taken under the pretext of security. We must also be aware of the ways in which the State can use fear of terrorism as a pretext to implement repressive “security” measures. This is also something that we should be familiar with from the example of Ireland.
A famous case in recent Irish history was the passage in December 1972 by the 26 County government of the infamous Offenses Against the State Amendment. Two car bombs exploded in Dublin while this repressive legislation was being debated in Leinster House. The Act, which was directed at Republicans, and reversed the legal norm that the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty ,then passed. No responsibility was ever claimed for the bombing, although suspicion fell on the Littlejohn brothers who had links to British Intelligence. The purpose of the attack appeared to be to encourage passage of this repressive legislation. We see now see the disturbing sight of those in power in this country spreading lies about non existent attacks or events in order to lay the groundwork for State repression that may focus on certain groups at first but which can be used against us all in the future. Our Constitutional freedoms already unacceptably weakened and watered down over the years, will now be under even more assault. The question is whether we will see through these tactics and speak out against them when those on the receiving end are not Irish?
It might be useful to look at the example of O Donnovan Rossa when considering this question. Padraig Pearse, of course, gave his famous oration at the burial of O Donovan Rossa in August 1915 when he spoke of the “fools, the fools, the fools, the have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” Rossa was a militant Fenian. He suffered horribly in a British prison, with long stretches of solitary confinement. He was released from prison by an amnesty and took up residence in the United States. Rossa, though, did not cease his militant activities when he came to the United States, quite the opposite. From his base in the United States Rossa organized a dynamite campaign against England.
The Irish American community is now quite respectable. So what to make of a militant felon like O Donnovan Rossa? When we are told of the appalling conditions that he and his fellow Fenian prisoners had to endure in English prisons we are still moved to anger and sadness, even though Rossa’s sufferings have long since ended. But are we concerned about the mistreatment of political prisoners, or even non political prisoners,, that is occurring right now? Solitary confinement drove some Fenian prisoners, such as Thomas Clarke’s compatriot Thomas Gallagher, mad. Yet, solitary confinement is still in use throughout the world, including right here in the United States. So how can we be moved by the treatment Rossa and his compatriots endured in the distant past and not care now about political prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, or in a black site prison in Eastern Europe or in an Israeli prison camp? It cannot simply be that O Donnovan Rossa was Irish and his tormentors were English. That would be a disservice to Rossa and to his compatriots.
For one thing, O Donnavan Rossa was an Irish Republican and Irish Republicanism from the beginning has always had a universalist and international component, inspired at it was by the Enlightenment, as well as the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Irish Republicanism has looked for and obtained support from outside Ireland and the Irish Diaspora, and has supported liberation movements around the world.
True Irish Republicanism therefore is not a narrow tribal movement. It is animated by universal principles of right and justice. For example, when Harry Boland was in America trying to gain recognition from the U.S. Government for the Irish Republic during the Irish War of Independence he was as involved in Dudley Field Malone’s League of Oppressed Peoples, and other Irish Republicans here in New York, such as Liam Mellows, were also involved in Friends of Indian Freedom. This connection between the Irish struggle and other victims of colonialism or occupation continued on with support for the anti-apartheid movement and other liberation movements. This history and legacy of the Irish struggle does not mean, of course, that we must automatically support every group or movement that claims to speak for the oppressed of the earth. We have a responsibility to be discerning and there are clearly groups out there who do not deserve anyone’s support. As Irish Republicans, though, we have an obligation to at least listen to the voices of those who are marginalized, those who are vilified, and those who live under occupation, as well as those who are imprisoned or are targets of state surveillance or violence.
Irish Republicans is based on the premise that right does not make right. It is why Irish Republicans do not accept a partition of Ireland that was forced on it by Britain’s threat of immediate and terrible war against the Irish people. It is why true Irish Republicans do not seek to dominate the unionist population but want, instead, a new Ireland with guaranteed rights for all of Ireland’s citizens. It is why they want the civil liberties of all of Irishmen and women to be protected, why they want to end the mass surveillance by the British Government and to stop the harassment of young Irish people in the Six Counties.
…We have an obligation to at least listen to the voices of those who are marginalized, those who are vilified, and those who live under occupation, as well as those who are imprisoned or are targets of state surveillance or violence.
It is why groups such as the 1916 Society through the One Ireland One Vote Campaign is demanding an all Ireland vote on Irish Unity that does not recognize a partition that was imposed by British might. Irish Republicans do not waiver in their commitment to these principles. This steadfastness is part of the character of Irish Republicans.
As Pádraic Pearse wrote in The Spiritual Nation when discussing another great Irish patriot, Thomas Davis, “character is the greatest thing in a man.” Character, of course, is dependent on honesty and integrity. Even those who disagreed with him, for example, seldom questioned the honesty and integrity of a man such as Ruari O Bradaigh. Activists in Irish America know that those who claim they will bring about great things for the country but who lack basic honesty and integrity are not to be counted on and will eventually let down even their own followers. We have an obligation to use the insights we have gained from the Irish experience and apply them to situations in our own country and around the world. By doing so, we will help ensure that we keep true to the principles we have for so long espoused.