The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Where Two or Three Shall Gather...
Liam O Ruairc • 28.11.03

The IRPWA organised last Friday evening in West Belfast a lecture on Wolfe Tone given by Dr O Reilly. This was one of those rare public events left in this part of town where alternative views are encouraged and developed. Though organised by the IRPWA, this was a very open and ecumenical event. There was no Provo or RSF bashing, It must have been very disappointing for the organisers that only a handful of people turned up for the event. However, in these times, probably more people in Belfast believe in the Bermuda Triangle and in alien abductions than in Tone's ideals. These are no longer the days where West Belfast and Republicanism are as synonymous as Ivana Trump and liposuction. The "Real" Republicans have been so demonised by the media that they could as well called themselves Fatso or confessed to a furtive interest in coprophilia, as Terry Eagleton would have put it. This is most unfortunate, as those events could potentially be the Wolfe Tone societies of the twenty first century. However, if few were present, significantly a great number of them were young, and most of them have benefited much from this occasion, which in itself is a reason to keep holding those meetings.

This event differed from both the "mass meetings" organised by the left or the sort of gatherings recently organised by the IRSP. The "mass meetings" organised by the various "internationals" in Belfast are usually sad occasions which attract a couple of dysfunctional and frustrated people. Those meetings are close in spirit with religious cults, although in this case it is to build the Irish section of some "International world party of proletarian revolution" (be it Cliffite, Mandelite, Taafeite, or any of the other thirty six varieties) rather than some Church of Christ. It also differed from the recent series of successful meetings organised by the IRSP, which attracted dozens of individuals, whose purpose was to collectively develop ideas for a political strategy on the basis of a discussion on current affairs. But this was neither a political cult or an attempt to develop a political line. This event was essentially convivial in nature. What Marx wrote about the conviviality of communist meetings could also apply to this one: "When communist workers gather together, their immediate aim is instruction, propaganda, etc. But at the same time they acquire a new need -the need for society- and what appears as a means has become an end. This practical development can be most strikingly observed in the gatherings of French socialist workers. Smoking, eating, drinking, etc. are no longer means of creating links between people. Company, association, conversation, which in its turn has society as its goal, is good enough for them. The fraternity of human beings is not a hollow phrase, it is a reality, and the nobility of individuals shines forth upon us from their work-worn figures." Such was the spirit of this meeting.

Writing of Tone, Connolly noted: "Apostles of Freedom are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when living." (Collected Works 1, 321) Lenin had written something similar: "During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes hound them constantly, attack their doctrines with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaign of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them so to say, and to surround their names with a certain halo, for the 'consolation' of the oppressed classes and with the object of dumping them, while at the same time emasculating the revolutionary doctrine of its content, vulgarising it and blunting its revolutionary edge." (Lenin, State and Revolution) For a long time, the 26 counties establishment has tried to appropriate and monopolise Tone's teachings for its own ends. The most substantial attempt so far has probably been Marianne Eliott's 1989 biography of Tone. A more recent example is the chapter on Tone and the United Irishmen in Martin Mansergh's book on the history of Republican thought (2003). However we should always remember Connolly's point that "the men who push forward most arrogantly to burn incense at the altar of his fame are drawn from the very class who, were he alive today, would hasten to repudiate him as a dangerous malcontent." Tone and his comrades "were overwhelmed by the treachery of their own countrymen more than by the force of the foreign enemy." Part of the greatness of Tone was that he refused "to prostitute his genius in the cause of compromise and time-serving", something which must not have gone down very well with those who could celebrate the bicentenary of 1798 while at the same time signing the Good Friday Treaty. (ibid, 322)

Dr O Reilly's lecture was a straight account of Tone's life and times. He presented the subject in a lively manner. People listened to him with attention for three quarters of an hour. His account was neither partisan, controversial or polemical. Nor did he try to appropriate and instrumentalise Tone for contemporary political ends, he wasn't telling the audience that had Tone been alive today he would be in the 32csm. He left it to those present to make up their own minds about Tone's legacy. However, this potentially carries the danger of reducing Tone to essentially a historical figure, maybe great, but with little contemporary relevance. The lecture on Wolfe Tone was followed by a session of traditional "Rebel Music". In his introduction to his 'Songs of Freedom', Connolly wrote: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek in a song for the aspirations, the fears and hopes, the loves and hatred engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of the few, and not the faith of the multitude." (Collected Works 2, 105) The songs and the way the audience reacted to them showed that after more than two centuries, Tone's teachings were not the dogma of the few and still could be the faith of the multitude.

Connolly said: "We are told to imitate Wolfe Tone, but the greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody." (Collected Works 1, 324) In itself, going back to Tone or Robert Emmet is not sufficient. "If the national movement of our day is not merely to re-enact the old sad tragedies of our past history, it must show itself capable of rising to the exigencies of the moment. It must demonstrate to the people of Ireland that out nationalism is not merely a morbid idealising of the past, but is also capable of formulating a distinct and definite answer to the problems of the present and a political and economic creed capable of adjustment to the wants of the future." (Connolly, Collected Works 1, 304) That is the challenge faced by Republican and Socialist organisations today. But it is important to think about Tone. What a contrast between him and the politicians standing in this week's elections! "Do not be misled by the promises of politicians" wrote Connolly, "Remember that the whole history of Ireland is a record of betrayals by politicians and statesmen, and remembering this, spurn their lying promises and stand up for a United Ireland -an Ireland broad based upon the union of Labour and Nationality." (Irish Worker, 4 April 1914) That evening reminded those present that in this period of opportunism and parliamentary cretinism, Wolfe Tone remains a figure of inspiration.


 

 




 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles



28 November 2003

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

Where Two or Three Shall Gather...
Liam O Ruairc

 

Julian Robertson Interviewed

Anthony McIntyre

 

From the Franklin River to the Chalillo Dam
Toni Solo

 

Rafah Today
Mohammad Omer

 

23 November 2003

 

Raymond Blaney Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre

 

Derry's Ultimate Protest Vote

Eamon Sweeney

 

Boycott Undemocratic Elections
Andy Martin

 

Is Northern Ireland A Dangerous Place
Liam O Ruairc

 

Predictions
Liam O Comain

 

Stop Bush
Colin Gregory Palmer

 

The Learning Experience of Rakan
Mary La Rosa

 

 

 

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