President Higgins calls for brutal honesty about the origins of the State
By Bernard Purcell
As the year of reflections on 1916 draws to a close Ireland will soon have to confront its own bloody and violent origins in the War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War of 1921-22, President Michael D Higgins has warned.
President Higgins made his remarks at the spot which commemorates the assassination of Michael Collins by Republicans on 22 August 1922 in Béal na Bláth in Cork last Sunday. He was the first Irish Head of State to address the annual gathering. President Higgins said that brutal honesty will be required in looking back at the events of that time – “a dreadful human tragedy for so many”.
“No one side has a monopoly on either atrocity or virtue,” said the President, referring to events which a hundred years on still have the capacity to polarise some communities in Ireland today.
As part of this decade of centenaries preparations will soon start to commemorate the events of the early 1920s including the terror and killings wrought by British forces like the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries but also by Irish people against their own friends, neighbours and families.
“We will be required to face, too, the ruthlessness of many executions by the IRA, the mistakes that inevitably happened in killings of purported informers, the executions of Republican prisoners during the Civil War and the outrages perpetrated during both wars against Protestant people,” he said.
The Civil War was, admittedly, used by some as a pretext to settle old grudges, he acknowledged. But it was imperative if the truth is to be given its due that there be between now and the centenary events “a generous willingness to go past old wrongs so as to build a new shared understanding of who we are as a nation and as a republic.”
At the height of the Civil War Collins urged those fighting under him to remember the Irregulars were fellow Irishmen, not their mortal enemies.
“Sadly, such a spirit did not prevail and the atrocities of the Civil War were ones that we must recognise for what they were, on both sides: cruel, vicious, uncontrolled, and informed by vengeance rather than any compassion,” he said.
Some of the deaths arose out of no more than “the jagged ends of land hunger, envy and… the opportunity taken for a sectarian identification of targets”, he said.
President Higgins urged that commemorations should address the exclusion of women for so long in Irish public life and the failure to recognise poverty and class during the revolutionary period. They should also look at why so many left Ireland after the foundation of the State, he said. Above all they should acknowledge that Michael Collins only ever wanted Ireland’s wealth and resources to benefit all its people and not just the few, he said.
“Michael Collins would, I am sure, have wanted our people to have reached sufficiency in all of the essentials: health, housing, education, childcare, culture, and above all in the ability to live together in peace,” said President Higgins.
“Many have speculated, too, on what Michael Collins would have thought of present circumstances. Previous orators here have often dwelt upon this theme. If I may instance just one of Michael Collins’ frequent references – his emphasis on the development of resources to satisfy a native frugality rather than any insatiable hunger for accumulation or ostentatious waste.
He saw the importance of using our resources well and he was very interested in not being dependent on a single market. He was also concerned at the consequences of tendencies to monopoly,” said the President.
Indeed, it is the case that from some parts of Kerry, for example, over 90 per cent of the members of some companies of volunteers emigrated to the United States before the end of the 20s.”
“It is important to acknowledge, today, all those who played a part in the establishment of the Irish State but who were denied acknowledgement in its early years.
Isn’t it appropriate, also, to trace the difference between the republican values invoked through many generations and the authoritarian ethos, which influenced much of the legislation for decades after the establishment of the new State? To recognise such circumstances is not to seek a new currency for old and tragic divisions.
“It is, rather, to lay the ground for such an act of memory as will rob the grievances of the past of any capacity for disabling the achievement of new possibilities and opportunities in the future both at home and in our new global responsibilities,” he said