The malevolent influence of Hibernianism

Tolerating imperialism to avoid class struggle


On 24 April last, small groups of people gathered at a number of places around Ireland on the ninety-ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Easter Rising to celebrate what they have designated Republic Day. Their efforts received no official support and went virtually unreported in the mainstream media. Two thousand miles away, Michael D. Higgins, somewhat inaccurately described as the president of Ireland (his remit covers only twenty-six counties), was joining members of the British royal family and heads of state of the British Commonwealth to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of one of the Empire’s greatest military disasters, the calamitous Gallipoli landings. 

Unlike those marking the historic proclaiming of a republic in Dublin, the event in Turkey received wide coverage in all sections of the national media. The Irish establishment’s current position is that the three thousand Irish men who lost their lives in a futile attempt to open a second front were heroes deserving of recognition on a par with those who died attempting to establish an independent republic in Ireland.  

While holding no bitterness towards the misguided men who left Ireland to fight for Britain’s empire in the First World War, it is still perfectly reasonable to say that what took place in Turkey last month was not an act of compassion: it was an event with a blatantly political, not to mention cynical, purpose. Britain’s ruling class is adept and long practised at using military pageantry to create a common, class-bound British identity. Britain’s rulers encourage nostalgia about shared wartime experiences of struggle and hardship, and work at promoting pride in these imperial adventures. Gallipoli commemorations were taking place simultaneously in London and Turkey and were attended by every available member of the royal family, splendidly draped in ceremonial military uniform while surrounded by representatives of the Commonwealth. A message was being sent to those wishing to secede from the United Kingdom or to challenge the status quo that the old empire can still muster powerful support. 

Michael D. Higgins’s presence at the commemoration conveyed a somewhat different message but one that was nevertheless also politically loaded. Disguised as a generous and long-overdue act of reconciliation, ostensibly designed to correct what the Irish Times described as an injustice carried out over the past century against fellow-Irishmen, this once-radical member of the Labour Party was promoting a notion that the people of Ireland are a monolithic, seamless entity, all sharing a common interest; because by focusing on the nationality of the dead rather than on the purpose of their armed assault on Ottoman territory (described recently by an Australian journalist as “an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation”) a distinct and tendentious narrative was being perpetuated.   

There is nothing novel about this message. It is to all intents and purposes the anchor story of Hibernianism. In other words, this is the promotion of a cult of nationalism that rejects class as the primary dynamic within society and seeks to replace it with the concept of a homogeneous population—the type of hapless masses once referred to by Enda Kenny as “Paddy.” It was not by accident that Connolly and Larkin frequently lamented the malevolent influence of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an organisation with an ideology so enthusiastically endorsed by John Redmond and William Martin Murphy. In contemporary Ireland it is now the ideology of those who speak of “wearing the green jersey,” or “We all partied, and now we all must pay,” or that other gem, “We’re all in this together.”   

This “all together now” line rings very hollow among Ireland’s unemployed and minimum-wage workers as they reflect on a recent survey published in the Sunday Times. Put simply, Ireland’s richest are wealthier now than they were during the peak of the “Celtic Tiger” period. This country is home to 13 billionaires, while the 250 wealthiest are worth a combined €75.03 billion. 

Of particular interest to the hard-pressed Irish working class is a reference to two of our better-off “Paddys.” The viscerally anti-union chief executive of Dunne’s Stores, Margaret Heffernan, enjoys a personal fortune of approximately €270 million, while few of her employees earn a living wage. Then there is Denis O’Brien, the ultimate owner of the company installing water meters, GMC-Sierra, who more than doubled his fortune in the last six years and now has a tasty little pot of €5.343 billion to his name.    

Coming amidst the uncovering of questionable practices surrounding Siteserv and IBRC, having evidence of such gross inequality widely reported is disconcerting for the elite. Moreover, it is extremely politically embarrassing for the erstwhile social democrats in a government coalition committed to free-market economics. Exacerbating these concerns is the realisation that southern Ireland’s party-political landscape is in a process of change. Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party are struggling to retain a purchase on their traditional electorate while the as yet untested quantity that makes up Sinn Féin and other left-wing elements are battling to impose themselves on the scene.  

From a ruling-class point of view this is certainly not the time to risk releasing a radical democratic or socialist-republican genie from the bottle. With the Easter Rising centenary rapidly approaching, there will be the inevitable jockeying to grab monopoly over events. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin will compete for control of the legacy. For so long as the discourse is confined to an argument over whose relatives were in the GPO, or whether the Provos are legitimate heirs of the 1916 volunteers, the status quo is safe.   

Of much greater significance would be an intellectual battle for control of the Rising’s narrative. Ireland’s right-wing establishment does not want attention focused on the writings of James Connolly, or unpacking the meaning of a declaration such as “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.” Applied to present conditions, these concepts pose questions that our ruling elite would rather not answer. Preferable from their point of view is the confusion emerging from blurring the line between those who took an anti-imperialist stance in 1916 and those who followed John Redmond’s call to defend an empire.   

With these many efforts in place for dissembling, misleading, and bamboozling, it’s important that a self-serving agenda is not promoted under the guise of compassion and inclusivity. We need a radical democratic programme for this century, and that will not emerge by deferring to imperialism or peddling the pernicious myth of Hibernianism.

Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in Socialist Voice  May 2015 

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email: