Eoghan Harris: ‘How Terence MacSwiney teaches us to be tolerant’

by Jum Cogan
by Jum Cogan

Terence MacSwiney is my hero for three reasons: his heroic hunger strike, his hatred of Hibernianism, his noble Principles of Freedom.

These idealistic essays, written in the ferment of the foundation of the Irish Volunteers 1912-13, left an indelible mark when I first read them as a young republican in Cork.

Principles of Freedom planted the seeds of republican pluralism and prevented me from becoming the kind of Hibernian nationalist who now dominates social media.

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Like my grandfather Pat Harris, who was arrested with him at City Hall on August 12, 1920, MacSwiney loathed the sectarian Ancient Order of Hibernians.

MacSwiney: “This was in effect a sort of Catholic Freemasonry to counter the Orange Freemasonry, but like Orangeism it was a political and not a religious weapon.”

By 1913 the AOH was active all over the south. As the militant arm of the Irish Parliamentary Party, it was notorious for its mixture of jobbery and thuggery.

MacSwiney on its influence: “In Cork it completely controlled the city life for some years, but the rapid rise of the Republican Movement brought about the equally rapid fall of Hibernianism.”

Pat Harris, in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, records how AOH thugs tried to break up the first meeting of the Irish Volunteers on December 14, 1913.

A pluralist call for three cheers for the Ulster Volunteers prompted the Hibernians’ tribal wrath.

Hibernianism has always hovered on the wings of Northern nationalist parties but was rejected by republicans in the south.

But a new brand, what I call Posh Hibernianism, has surfaced among well-educated bourgeois bigots in southern media.

The old Hibernianism was satisfied with sectarian slurs. Posh Hibernianism holds on to the old AOH taunting but throws in a few more tribal tropes.

One of the most malign – and illogical – myths among Posh Hibernians is that unionists are ready to sell out for British gold – but at the same time cannot see a good financial deal staring them in the face.

This is strikingly similar to Adolf Hitler’s astounding thesis: that the Jews were behind a world conspiracy of both capitalist bankers and Soviet Communists.

Likewise, the Posh Hibernians told us that by rejecting the backstop the DUP was turning down a goldmine – but was also mad to do a deal with May for money. Go figure.

For two years now, every major commentator in the Republic has remained in deep denial about the following three facts.

First, the DUP is not doing its own thing: while some unionists are against Brexit, almost all unionists are anti-backstop.

Second, as Dan O’Brien has repeatedly shown, the backstop would mean Northern Ireland leaving the UK’s single market and staying in that of the EU.

Citizens of Northern Ireland would be basically disenfranchised, subject to laws made at the EU level, but without a vote in European elections.

In sum, the backstop creates constitutional fears among most unionists – fears dismissed by Posh Hibernians as if the Provo IRA had never existed.

Last week the Posh Hibernians were still telling us two brazen lies. First that the DUP was saying no because it never said anything but no.

But the DUP did not say no to Ian Paisley sitting down with Martin McGuinness only a few years after the Provos had stopped killing Protestants.

Second, the Posh Hibernians told us the DUP were saying no to May because they were also mindless Tory Brexiteers.

But anyone not a raving bigot watching Tommie Gorman’s moving interview with Arlene Foster could see her transparent anguish at not being able to vote for Theresa May’s deal.

Likewise, anyone not a raving bigot would also have to accept that Foster had shown us the fundamental division between the DUP and the Tory Brexiteers.

Foster could hardly have put it more plainly: “Some Brexiteers have decided that they’re going to support the deal because for them the most important thing is Brexit. For us the most important thing is the union.”

Last Friday, Nigel Dodds finally nailed the porkies peddled by Posh Hibernians when he flatly said he would rather the UK stayed in the EU than risk the union.

Posh Hibernians have no right to sneer at the fears of one million Northern Protestants following the sectarian IRA campaign.

Michael Harding, speaking from the heart last week in The Irish Times, showed us why a south Fermanagh woman like Foster might cling to the union at all costs.

“In south Fermanagh, Protestants died in school buses, classrooms, and their own back yards, as the gunmen chipped away at the fabric of unionist culture along the Border.”

Harding also reminded us that the rows in the House of Commons are not signs of decay but of democracy.

“And while civility has been scarce at times, the debate has demonstrated the strength and resilience of robust parliamentary institutions and a healthy democratic tradition.”

Harding is teaching us the same lessons laid down by Terence MacSwiney in Principles of Freedom.

As ever, MacSwiney had the tribal and sectarian divisions of our island on his mind when he wrote this plea for humility and forbearance in debate.

“Let us, for our salvation, avoid the attitude of the superior person. Don’t make sport of others – make it of yourself.”

And he adds this bit of mordant wisdom: “Ridicule of your neighbour must be largely speculation; of the comedy in yourself there can be no doubt.”

In the ferment of Cork republicanism, MacSwiney never lost his love of English literature, of Shakespeare and Shelley, nor his sense of why literature should not be a servant to politics, not even nationalist politics.

He criticised what he called propagandist plays. “A type of such play is familiar enough in these days when we like to ridicule the West Briton.

“We are served up puppets representing the shoneen with a lisp set over against the patriot who says all the proper things suitable to the occasion.”

Terence MacSwiney would have liked Eddie Naughton’s new play, Joxer Daly Esq, which received a standing ovation at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire last Thursday.

Although inspired by Sean O’Casey, Joxer Daly Esq is a reimagined person, not so much a lumpen proletarian as a Joycean petit-bourgeois clerk.

An alcoholic Mother Courage, brilliantly played by Phelim Drew, he survives the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, World War I, the War of Independence and finally the Civil War.

A true Brechtian anti-hero, he somehow stays human in the midst of all the horrors, making only one modest claim:

“History may not record that Joxer Daly did his bit for Ireland – by not doing anything at all.”

Not doing anything to add to the tribal antagonisms of our little island is the purest form of patriotism at this time.

The Taoiseach should do his bit, too – by taking the backstop off the table.

Sunday Independent


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