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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Shadow of the Gunman

Paul Dunne • 20 February 2003

I am a bold undaunted youth, Joe Brady is my name,
From the chapel of North Anne Street one Sunday as I came,
All to my surprise who should I espy but Moreno and Cockade;
Says one unto the other: "Here comes our Fenian blade".

I did not know the reason why they ordered me to stand,
I did not know the reason why they gave me such a command.
But when I saw James Carey there, I knew I was betrayed.
I'll face death before dishonour and die a Fenian blade.

They marched me up North Anne Street without the least delay,
The people passed me on the path, it filled them with dismay.
My sister cried, "I see you Joe, if old Mallon gives me lave,
Keep up your heart for Ireland like a true-born Fenian Blade.

It happened in the Phoenix Park all in the month of May,
Lord Cavendish and Burke came out for to see the polo play.
James Carey gave the signal and his handkerchief he waved,
Then he gave full information against our Fenian blades.

It was in Kilmainham Prison the Invincibles were hung.
Mrs Kelly she stood there all in mourning for her son.
She threw back her shawl and said to all:
"Though he fills a lime-pit grave,
My son was no informer and he died a Fenian blade."

That's "Joe Brady", a song collected by, though on the evidence of the closing couplet quite possibly written by, the bould Brendan Behan. "He died a Fenian blade", says Mrs Kelly. A blade was a term for a dashing young man; but a blade was also the instrument that Mrs Kelly's son and his comrades used to cut down two of the most prominent members of the British state in Ireland. On the evening of 6th May 1882 Lord Frederick Cavendish, recently appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and just arrived in the country, and his Under-Secretary, T. H. Burke, were set upon by a band of assassins while they were walking in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and hacked to death with twelve-inch long surgical knives. The killers belonged to a secret society, the Irish National Invincibles -- more commonly simply, "the Invincibles" -- composed mostly of former IRB men operating independently of IRB centre. An IRB statement issued after the deed stated that the men who had carried out "this execution...deserve well of their country".

Parnell at once expressed his shock at the killings, and offered to resign from leadership of the Irish National Party. Well, now. Parnell, like any great politician, held his cards tight to his chest. Was he really so shocked by the killings that he was prepared to cast away his life's work, and resign from political life? It's unlikely. But it was clearly in his interest to persuade Gladstone of just this. Whatever of Parnell's inner relationship to the affair, the short-term fallout in the public world was predictable: a halt to progress on the constitutional front, an increase in coercion. The long-term impact? Nix. For the British knew full well that they must engage with the constitutional arm of Irish nationalism, or wage in Ireland low-intensity warfare, to use the term of another era, for the foreseeable future. Gladstone, being a statesman in the true sense of the term, chose the former alternative. So, Parnell owed his power and influence not only to his great gifts, undeniable as those were, and to the mass movement which he led; but also to the dark shadow that ever loomed behind, too tall and imposing to be cast by him or any one man: the shadow of the gunman.

What does this teach us today? Well, first and foremost, it should be a lesson to those who criticise the current leadership of the Republican movement. The crucial weakness of the dissident argument is simply that it rejects a vital lesson of Irish history which the Phoenix Park affair throws into stark relief: the mutual dependence between the pike in the thatch and the orator in the House or on the doorstep. Take the central event of modern Irish history: the Easter Rising. 1916 and its aftermath did not spring fully-formed from the head of Zeus Mac Cronos; on the contrary, it took 40 years of preparation, a stretch of time that encompassed the struggles of the Land League, and of the Irish party in Westminster, the propaganda of the Sinn Féiners, and the hard slog of the enthusiasts poring over Father O'Growney's Irish language primer. The Army of the day, the IRB or Fenians, were initially distrustful of all such measures, regarding them as half-hearted and reformist; but they grew to trust in Parnell and Davitt sufficiently to maintain a working relationship, to "give them a chance". And in time, the social changes wrought by Davitt and Parnell would be vital, damming up the waters in which the fish of 1919-21 could swim. Conversely, Parnell was able to build up the Home Rule movement precisely because, looming at his back and menacing all his interlocutors, was ever the shadow of the gunman. Yet this shadow would have been of no avail had he not been able to represent himself and his movement as the one force that could control the violence.

As the home rule movement burgeoned, it grew beyond itself in a process for which there is no word in English. Hegel called it "Aufheben": the movement in which a higher form of thought or being supersedes a lower form, and yet preserves what is true in the lower. It was as Parnell had said:

"But no man has the right to say to his country, "thus far shalt thou go and no further", and we have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland's nationhood, and we never shall".

And so in the aftermath of 1916, the message of the hard-liners, an Ireland united, Gaelic and free, came to be the vision of a goodly portion of the people also.

Conversely, when the movement that had been "a forty years a-growing" was derailed and defeated by the British -- and their Irish allies North & South -- in the 1922-23 period, it had repercussions that have lasted up to the present day. In contrast to the decades before the Easter Rising, there was after the Treaty no cultural, economic and political movement dedicated to the cause of real independence for Ireland. The army was left to carry the banner alone. They made a sterling attempt; but their isolated effort, because isolated, was not enough. What limited success they did achieve over the last few decades illustrates, by its very limitation, that no armed wing, no matter how dedicated and sophisticated, can substitute itself indefinitely for the Irish people -- no more than the Bolsheviks could substitute for the working class in Russia.

Today, both régimes in Ireland, the neo-colonial gang in the South and the British administration in the North, have been forced despite themselves to deal with Sinn Féin because of the threat from the IRA, which despite their best efforts has not been defeated. On the other hand, a military victory by that same IRA was never on the cards. We were never going to see on our television screens dramatic live coverage of the last British helicopter taking off from the roof of Stormont, a dishevelled David Trimble clinging desperately to the runners, as the 1st Republican Armoured Division closed in on all sides. Belfast is not Saigon. It was not in the ambit of the IRA, it never has been in the power of the physical force movement in Ireland, to deliver the full programme in one fell swoop. It might have been better that way; but it was not to be. The military campaign which flared up from the ashes in 1969 and ceased without defeat (a milestone in Irish history, by the way) in 1997 is not the be-and and end-all, the last flutter of the dying flame, even if it did not deliver all that it promised. Just as the failure to achieve the goals of the proclamation doesn't make the sacrifice of 1916 pointless; nor the turn to constitutional methods render the exemplary efforts of 1848 and 1867 irrelevant; so the settlement today must not be seen as negating the struggles of the Volunteers, but as building on them.

The peace process may be, if the Irish so chose, the beginning of a new national movement, a clarion call to those who would fulfil at last the ancient dream: "Ireland for the Irish, the land for the people". If we would see that dream reality, then we must build a movement that, without rejecting the armed struggle in principle, recognises that real and lasting success can only be the outcome of a long economic, cultural and political struggle. Let us not, then, be disheartened by the failure of the Volunteers to gain all they aspired to. They have laid the groundwork; it is up to us to build on it.

You can read Paul Dunne's weblog here: The Shamrockshire Eagle




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

20 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Shadow of the Gunman
Paul Dunne


'Ulster Says No!' to a Bush Bomb Blitz
Newton Emerson


The Rally
Anthony McIntyre


Impressions of the NYC Anti-War Demonstration
Sandy Boyer


In Praise of Father Mc Manus
Congressman Ben Gilman


"Just Get Out!"
Gabriel Ash


16 February 2003


A Plan "B" for Tony Blair and Northern Ireland
Paul Fitzsimmons


Evidence, What Evidence?
Michael Youlton


Choices to be Made
Larry Kirwan


Talking Through His Cassock
Bert Ward


Letter to Uncle
Jimmy Sands


Long Kesh Meets Peterhouse
Anthony McIntyre


Socialists, Leadership and the Working Class
Davy Carlin




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