Respect our existence: or expect our resistance
“ To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connection of England – the unfailing source of all our ills – and to assert the independence of my native country … these were my objects.”
When Michael Collins quoted Wolfe Tone’s words, above, in a 1918 election speech, he knew they would be instantly recognized by his audience. That motto had formed the original seed and core of Ireland’s nationalist independence movement, of which Tone was the idealogical father.
This uncompromising call to action had an impact equivalent to Malcolm X’s pithy summation, over a century later,
“… by any means necessary.”
It was a line drawn in the sand: political change would no longer be a mere debating point. It was a question of survival. It was a seizure of the moral high ground, and the right to defend it; in arms if need be. From this point on, the evil of violent conflict might be considered by nationalists as lesser than the evil of continuing under a regime with genocidal consequences.
Collins’ connection with Tone was not merely rhetorical. He grew up among those who had fought in the Fenian rising of 1867, and whose grandfathers had risen with Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald in 1798. Collins’ own father had received his education surreptitiously, before the repeal of the Penal Laws; from a cousin, a hedge school master, who had been a school friend of Tone’s.
Tone helped bring Irish politics intellectually out of feudalism, and into the age of modern republicanism. Along with other thinkers and doers of the 18th century Enlightenment, he promulgated the idea of a democratic society based on universal human rights, and the consent of the governed.
In 1798, the concept of government by and for the people challenged the age-old order of things. In previous centuries, people had frequently risen up en masse against tyranny and injustice. But once risen, had nowhere to go; except to choose between one lord or the other, one king or the other.
Human rights and democracy are ideas which many have the happiness to take for granted now. Even while, in some parts of the world, they remain very much at issue.
We have also lived to see the flaws in democratic systems. In two centuries of popular insurrections, and the establishment of modern republics, many things have changed. And many things have not changed.
Yet there is still much to learn from the thinkers and doers for social justice who’ve gone before. And from their fate.
Wolfe Tone was taken prisoner in the 1798 rebellion, and died in a British prison. Michael Collins was shot to death under suspicious circumstances; at the close of a war with England, which could with justice be called a continuation and consummation of what Tone began in 1798. Both their promising careers were cut off in the bloom of young manhood. Under current Irish law, too young to run for president.
Both have left an undying legacy of courage, innovation, ideas, writings, achievements, which continue to inspire present and future generations.
Why revolution? Why democracy? See previous post:
Revolution and Democracy
“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
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