Step out from the martyr's shadow

September 12, 2003

The history and heroes of Ireland have cast the Irish as victims. That portrayal needs to end, says Marianne Elliott.

I cannot recall when I first encountered the legend of Robert Emmet. I do not remember it at my north Belfast schools, despite the perception that Catholic pupils were taught sedition and perverted history.

Rather, I seem to have grown up with the Emmet legend in my home, largely through the songs of Thomas Moore, which were sung by my father and used in my childhood piano lessons. Most Irish people would have had a similar introduction to the most iconic of all Ireland's national heroes.

Emmet was a young idealist who was executed in 1803, aged 25. A university-educated Protestant and member of the Anglo-Irish elite, he nonetheless led an unsuccessful rising against British rule. At the end of his trial for high treason, he delivered an impressive vindicatory speech that became one of the most influential examples of Irish oratory. The famous last lines proclaimed: "Let no man write my epitaphI when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written." Many Irish people can still recite those words.

They have been the stuff of school speech days and Irish feiseanna for generations and became a talisman for the "unfinished business" of partition.

For his actions, Emmet was publicly hanged and beheaded. But his was also a tragic story of romance, for the young rebel had been conducting a love affair with the youngest daughter of Ireland's most celebrated barrister.

Her death soon afterwards completed the drama. The failed rebellion and the deaths it had occasioned were largely ignored as the legend developed and its power deterred any serious analysis of the ideology that it came to underpin.

The story, which was particularly influential among the generation who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising and subsequent Anglo-Irish war, is neither invention nor myth, though it does involve the selective memory and historical errors that go hand in hand with nation-building. It is a legend in its historical origin, its simplicity and its pervasiveness, a narrative of noble victim against foul oppressor. The sentimental is remembered, the uncomfortable forgotten. It is a story entirely of high points that are passed down the generations and simplified in song, verse and picture. From the fiery speeches of Patrick Pearse to Moore's melancholy sentimental songs, it is a legend that appeals to all on the nationalist spectrum.

I started researching Emmet's legend as a postgraduate student in Oxford and Paris in the 1970s. It was the first time many of the documents I found had been examined, and I still recall the sense of excitement at the emergence of quite a different historical figure from the rather vapid romantic icon that was the stuff of my upbringing.

Since my early research into Emmet, I have devoted much of my time to promoting the study of Ireland at university level in Britain. With Roy Foster - who now holds the chair of Irish history at Oxford - I co-founded the conference of Irish historians in 1976. In the mid-1980s, I conducted a survey into the provision of Irish studies in British higher education and went on to establish the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. Next year, the institute will host the largest Irish studies conference in the world - with American, British and Canadian associations - the first time such a gathering has taken place in Britain.

Irish studies has played a vital role in analysing how myths such as the Emmet one have been used to bolster a victim culture in Northern Ireland and how this has stunted the province's development.

In the years since it found its place on the academic map, there has been a volte-face in Irish politics. At the Opsahl Commission in 1993, I argued for the inclusion of Sinn Féin in any peace process. Ten years on, it seems extraordinary that such a suggestion then seemed so controversial. Sinn Fein has come a long way since then, reassessing some of the simple interpretations of the past on which so much of its philosophy has been drawn. Intellectuals in the Irish Republic have spent many decades doing likewise, often in language that has horrified the greener nationalists.

But the debate, even the shock therapy, was a necessary prerequisite to the emergence of the confident Irish state of today.

The negativity of the past is receding. The long-established pattern of Irish migration to Britain is reversing as Ireland's economy booms and relative peace returns to the North. New Irish arrivals are more likely to be successful professionals, while return migration is now significant.

Graduates with Irish studies degrees from British universities are as likely to find employment in Ireland as Britain. The dispersal of so many talented people with a professional understanding of the subject through the British workforce has played no small role in the steadily improving relations between the two countries in recent decades.

Ireland long ago reassessed an identity too exclusively based on victimhood and trauma. "Victimhood" is a widely used term, though it causes great offence to those who really are victims. There is a heavy and necessary emphasis on victims and suffering in the current phase of the Northern Ireland peace process. However, there will come a time when we must move beyond this.

The history of Ireland provides a salutary lesson on the dangers inherent in not doing so. The canon of Irish history was defined almost totally by a sense of victimhood, which in turn bred a terrible negativity and vengefulness in Irish nationalism. The Emmet legend at its simplest is a tale of victim and oppressor. It is partly fiction and has underpinned a martyr complex and brought much self-inflicted damage on past generations.

Perhaps, at the bicentenary of Emmet's death, his epitaph might finally be proclaimed in the confidence and success of the new Ireland. Perhaps it should mark the final move away from an identity largely based on victimhood.

Marianne Elliott is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University. Her book Robert Emmet. The Making of a Legend is published by Profile Books, £20.00.

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