Former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, whose state funeral took place on Sunday, was interviewed by the Echo in 2006 about his father and mother’s participation in the 1916 Rising.
By Peter McDermott
A chance discovery in a cupboard brought Garret FitzGerald into Dublin’s General Post Office, 50 years after the Easter Rising.
He’d found his father Desmond’s first-hand, participant’s account of that watershed event in Irish history.
“My older brothers knew [he’d written the manuscript], but he never said it to me,” said the former taoiseach.
The youngest son of Ireland’s first foreign minister arranged to have it published in 1968, along with correspondence between his mother and George Bernard Shaw. Now 90 years after the event, “Desmond’s Rising” is being reissued with a considerable amount of new material.
FitzGerald, who is 80, has in recent weeks come to the defense of the insurrection in which both his parents were involved.
“Without 1916, you wouldn’t have had independence in 1922,” he said in an interview with the Echo. “We would have gotten Home Rule in some form in a partitioned Ireland, but not independence, and Home Rule would have become permanent over time.”
Already, from about 1911, the monetary transfers were greater from Britain to Ireland than the other way, “but the scale wasn’t huge, so we were able to get out from under in ’21,” he said.
If the welfare state had been fully implemented, the transfers would have become massive and it would have been far more difficult to mobilize later for separatism. The second decade of the 20th century, it turned out, was Ireland’s last opportunity to strike for freedom.
“I have that strong view that 1916 was fundamental to the achievement of what we have achieved,” he added.
Ireland may have been poor for a long time afterwards, and may have made serious economic mistakes, but they were its own mistakes, and it learnt from them, eventually using “the powers of independence to become a viable and successful economy,” FitzGerald said.
The former taoiseach made a related argument critiquing the Provisional IRA campaign from 1970, which he said made Northern Ireland even more dependent on Britain, postponing the possibility of unification by decades.
FitzGerald said: “I wrote a book on Northern Ireland in 1970 in which I said our economy and theirs [the North’s] was growing at 4.2 percent per year, while Britain had 2.35, and at that rate, in 25 years the whole of Ireland would be at the same level as Britain. No more subsidies — so that obstacle to unification would have disappeared.
“We did it. It took 29 years, not 25,” he said. “But of course, the IRA destroyed the Northern Ireland economy.”
The other outcome of the violence, said FitzGerald, a key architect of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, was that it ultimately brought the two governments closer together than had ever been once thought possible — hardly, he added, the aim of the paramilitaries. “Three thousand people dead for that?” FitzGerald said. “It was a most extraordinarily unsuccessful campaign.
“But I recognize, of course, the skill with which [Martin] McGuinness and [Gerry] Adams have won people around to do the exact opposite: that is to make Northern Ireland work, rather than destroy it,” he added.
FitzGerald, the author of the just-published “Ireland in the World: New Perspectives” was in New York last week, though, to speak at NYU on a broader theme: “European Union and its role in world peace.”
The former taoiseach said people in the U.S. know little of the EU’s enormously positive influence on world affairs and challenged, if indirectly, Donald Rumsfeld’s notion of an “old Europe.”
“Basically Europe has reversed its values in the last 50 years on every issue,” he said.
The picture has been transformed on states’ responsibility in the area of human rights, on capital punishment (abolition is a requirement of membership) and in what circumstances countries can legally go to war. Although the Balkans’ civil wars in the 1990s were disastrous, other latent ethnic disputes were prevented from surfacing, precisely because the different groups were agreed on joining the EU.
Added FitzGerald, the EU gives four times as much aid worldwide than the United States relative to its population. “And in ecology we’re leading the world,” he said.
It was the era of the old colonial Europe, that the 1916 leaders launched their rebellion. “There was a war going on, launched by emperors and kings against each other in the context of which only two countries had universal suffrage,” FitzGerald said.
The planners did, of course, have the promise of support from one of those powers.
Desmond FitzGerald agreed with the last-minute decision to call off the Rising when material aid from Germany failed to appear on Good Friday, 1916. However, when the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s secret Military Council pressed ahead with an uprising in Dublin on Easter Monday, FitzGerald felt morally obliged to join it, having trained men to fight.
The future revolutionary was born in London in 1888. The son of stonemason, he was swept up in the cultural nationalism of the time in the city, where he met and fell in love with the daughter of a Belfast Presbyterian businessman, Mabel McConnell, who had become a republican, suffragette and socialist at Queens University.
FitzGerald was primarily a poet, like three of the 1916 Proclamation’s signatories; in fact, said his son, he was not all that political.
“He did the jail bit, and she did the extreme nationalist bit,” he said, laughing.
McConnell was for a time a secretary to Shaw and her passionate letters to him in 1914, urging him to back Irish separatism, prompted “very amusing ones back from him, very entertaining, very affectionate responses,” said her son.
The couple married in 1911, moved to Brittany and then in 1913 to Irish-speaking Dingle in County Kerry, where he organized the newly-formed Irish Volunteers.
They had gone to Ireland to take part in the “national movement,” a cause distinct from that of the predominant Home Rule party. After being prohibited by the authorities from operating in Kerry, FitzGerald moved to Bray, Co. Wicklow, 20 miles from Dublin, where the family lived thereafter.
Mabel FitGerald worked in Dublin for Cumann na mBan, whose offices didn’t have a typewriter, “She would go home to do the typing at night, having spent the day meeting people,” her son said.
She was involved in the first few days of the Rising. After she’d completed a couple of important missions for him, Patrick Pearse said: “You can’t have the parents of two small children here — you go home.”
Desmond FitzGerald had been put in charge of the food supplies on the third floor of the GPO, where the restaurant was, “Everybody came up to eat there,” said his son.
The elder Fitzgerald’s account of the Rising itself has drawn attention because of revealing conversations with Pearse, who was executed 90 years ago today, and fellow signatory Joseph Plunkett.
Two aspects of his father’s account of his conversations with the two men stand out for Garret FitzGerald. “One was their suppressed sense of doubt about the morality of the Rising,” he said of one exchange. “All three were producing arguments in favor of the Rising as being morally justified, trying not to think of any arguments the other way.
“The other is that Pearse was a realist,” he said. “He’s presented by the mythmakers and the revisionists as if he were a lesser man that he was. As a realist, he knew that if the Germans won the war, they would restore a monarchy in Ireland.”
The thinking was that the kaiser’s sixth son, Joachim, would be married to a Catholic and that the children of such a union would not speak English. The result, they reasoned, could be an Irish-speaking Catholic monarchy.
FitzGerald, who became one of his father’s successors as minister for foreign affairs, wondered if this idea had originated with the Germans themselves, and wrote to Joachim’s grandson in Spain some years ago. He didn’t get a reply.
Pearse’s emergence as the “president of the Republic” is still the subject of debate. For one thing, he hadn’t been universally admired by his fellow conspirators, said FitzGerald.
He recounted the story of Sean Mac Diarmada’s mission to the North in 1915 to ask Denis McCullough to become president, or head center, of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. McCullough and Bulmer Hobson, the driving forces behind the renewal of the IRB from 1907, were cautious of insurrectionary adventures. But it suited the Military Council to have the former nominally in charge, and safely out of the way, “So they could get on with their plotting,” said Garret Fitzgerald.
When McCullough suggested Pearse, Mac Diarmada said: “Pearse? That lunatic?”
It’s assumed that Pearse took the key role because of his writing and speaking skills, and that Tom Clarke, the elder statesmen of republican revolutionaries, was happy to take a back seat.
“But Kathleen Clarke was always furious about her husband being pushed to one side by Pearse,” said FitzGerald, who was taoiseach for eight months in 1981-2 and again from 1982 to 1987.
He said his father obviously respected the two best known of the 1916 leaders, referring to them in his manuscript as “Mr. Pearse”, of whom he and his wife were particularly fond, and “Mr. Connolly.”
FitzGerald, who served a jail sentence in 1915-16, was back behind bars after the Rising’s collapse. He would serve two further jail terms before the Treaty, one of which, with Eamon de Valera, is described in “Desmond’s Rising.”
In 1919, FitzGerald became minister for publicity in the new underground government and set about swaying world opinion in favor of the Irish cause. He used all of his contacts in London and Paris to bring journalists over to Ireland and made it a rule to publish, in the republicans’ Irish Bulletin, only information that had been verified by an affidavit. Said his son: “The result was that after six months, the journalists could believe what was in the Bulletin, but couldn’t believe a word the British said.”
When he was imprisoned, Erskine Childers succeeded him.
FitzGerald — a great admirer of his ministerial colleague Michael Collins — supported the terms of the Treaty. Now veterans of the Rising, like W.T. Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy, and FitzGerald, found themselves at war with their former comrades.
Cosgrave was once close to de Valera; Mulcahy was related by marriage to two prominent anti-Treatyites, (Sean T. O’Kelly and James Ryan, both later Fianna Fail ministers); and FitzGerald’s wife Mabel took the republican side, though not actively, said her son.
The independence negotiated by Collins up to May 1922 was significant, said Garret FitzGerald, greater than the dominion status held by Australia and Canada. In contrast to the latter cases, the role of the British monarch in the workings of the new Irish democracy was “totally nominal,” he said.
“Now we had irritants left,” FitzGerald said. “Forms of terminology were objectionable.”
The first Irish government did what it could with these within the terms of the Treaty, he added, paving the way for Fianna Fail to dismantle it later.
In addressing this issue of whether the 1916 martyrs would have supported the Treaty, Desmond FitzGerald recalled a comrade saying, when passing the massive military base at the Curragh, Co. Kildare: “If we could just get rid of the British army and have our own embassies.” Six years later, Collins achieved just that. (The man quoted died in the fighting in Easter Week.)
Only “much, much later” did the future Fine Gael politician find that his mother had a different view. Even after his birth, she wrote to a friend in London saying she hoped the government would be thrown out as soon as possible, and that de Valera had made the same mistake as the others: he compromised. Mabel FitzGerald was, at the time, the wife of the minister for external affairs.
But he said that Kevin O’Higgins’s assassination in 1927 had a profound effect on her. At the time her husband was seriously ill, and she sat by his bed from early in the morning until late at night, to prevent anyone telling him the news of the murder of his colleague and friend, which she believed would kill him.
“She modified her position eventually,” he said.
He said none of the cabinet later regretted their Civil War executions policy (whose 77 victims included Childers). He said their worry was that the IRA policy of assassination of pro-Treaty TDs threatened the government’s majority; and that only by extreme measures could they show they were serious about protecting the fledgling democracy. The ministers, he said, would not allow friendships get in the way of what they regarded as their duty.
“It was a motivation of an unusual kind,” he said.
FitzGerald’s father died in 1947, when he was 21, still too young, he said, to raise such grave matters.
Generally, the Civil War’s traumas weren’t referred to.
Instead growing up in Bray, his father’s memories of the national movement were often related as funny stories, focusing on the absurd aspects of incidents.
“My father had a great sense of humor,” he said, adding that it comes across in “Desmond’s Rising.”
He referred to a cultural shift over time in the way people talked about certain issues. “Violence wasn’t seen as it would be today,” he said. “There was great enthusiasm for war [during the 1914-18 conflict].”
That’s something many of those who criticize the Rising fail to acknowledge, FitzGerald contended.
“Some revisionists are perfectly serious historians trying to establish the facts and the data available,” he said, but others are pundits who take an ahistorical approach.
“It’s retrospective history because of the IRA claiming to be inspired by 1916, which is nonsense anyway,” he said.
“They [revisionists] try to judge what happened then by today’s standards. It’s ridiculous. You can’t make judgments on people about their actions 90 years ago outside the framework of the time.
“It was a totally different world,” FitzGerald said.