There are two Irishmen whose names will feature in more and more headlines over the next eighteen months. They are John Redmond and Patrick Pearse. This afternoon a ceremony attended by President Higgins will honour the Irishmen who died in the Great War, men who were encouraged to die by the words of Redmond. Ian Paisley Jr believes the words of Padraig Pearse reveal him as “a madman”, “a lunatic” in the way that he talked about war and sacrifice.
In today’s letters column of The Irish Times, Mr Paisley would seem to find support for his claims. A man called Noel Murphy has written in to the paper’s editor, quoting Pearse’s words on the First World War: “Heroism has come back to earth. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives gladly given for love of country”. Lurid stuff. Like most things, however, it has a context – in this case a linguist context. That’s how The Great War was talked about then by those favouring it. Pearse’s language was more the rule than the exception. But of course what he says is still nonsense. The truth is that some men fought in the Great War because they needed a job, some men felt pressured into joining up because some half-witted women went about handing out white feathers, some men joined in the mistaken belief that it would mean Home Rule for Ireland, and some men fought because they thought this was a war to end all wars. Fat chance, that last one. In fact it was a war fought by the British Empire to crush Germany, which was emerging as a growing economic – and more democratic – challenge to the undemocratic British Empire on which the sun never set.
John Redmond, on the other hand, is more direct in his language than Pearse – or he is in the letter in today’s Irish Times. “Your first duty is to take your part in ending the war” he told Irishmen in 1915, having encouraged thousands of them a year earlier to go out and die, with the promise of Home Rule as the prize. Pearse’s language is by far the more blood-drenched of the two; but it was Redmond’s words that let to the spilling of gallons of Irish blood in the course of the Great War.
In coming months, you will hear more and more about the noble sacrifice of Irishmen who fought in the First World War. Lots of Irishmen died but it wasn’t a noble sacrifice. It was a futile sacrifice. It was a sacrifice based on lies and deception by Britain, and on stupidity and gullibility by Redmond and those who listened to him. Compared to Redmond, Pearse’s outlook was locally focused and in the end effective. He may have had daft notions about the earth being nourished by human blood, but he had the blood of a lot fewer Irishmen on his hands than had his contemporary Redmond.
But if you’re at the ceremonies in Glasnevin cemetery today, you’ll not hear President Higgins or anyone else talking like that. Noble sacrifice, brave men. End of story.