Thursday, June 16, 2016

Object of offering, object of ire

NOTE: This post originally appeared on our program's blog, Murray State's Irish Literature Study Abroad, as an assignment about an object we found interesting.

The Yank's offering at Collins' grave.
A few times a year, an American woman calling herself “The Yank” visits the Glasnevin Cemetery to deliver a bright red flower, an American flag and a one-sentence note at the monument to Irish patriot Michael Collins.

Her offerings and pilgrimages to Collins’ grave are noteworthy but not extraordinary because the Irish are constantly refreshing the plot in which Collins is buried with potted plants and bouquets. Nearly 100 years after Collins was assassinated, he still commands loyalty and admiration.

A few sections of the cemetery away sits the grave of Eamon de Valera, Collins’ contemporary who became a longtime leader of Ireland.

De Valera’s grave, in contrast, was sparse. No flowers. No flags. Just gravel and a modest stone cross that was meant, initially, for his child before it became his grave marker too.

Some of us wondered why it was so understated for someone who spent 10 years as Taoiseach (or prime minister) and 14 years as Ireland’s third president.

My theory is that perhaps de Valera didn’t think he’d ever need a grave because he was a survivor. 

He was the only male leader of the 1916 Easter Rising to escape execution. I say male because women played a huge role in the planning and fighting, and seemed at the time to be moving rapidly toward equality. 

The Countess Markievicz was a key leader.
As we have learned, the Proclamation of the Republic is the first such document in the world to specifically reference women. It starts: "Irishmen and Irishwomen ..."  And many of the Rising’s commanders, such as labor leader James Connolly, were feminists. “Win the women to your cause and your cause is secure,” Connolly famously said.

The British refused to kill the women who participated in the six-day-long uprising. But the other 14 rebel leaders were shot. (The Brits didn’t consider the 25-year-old Collins, who was aide de camp to Joseph Mary Plunkett, enough of a threat, so they sent him to a prison camp in Wales.)

De Valera was a political survivor as well. Because he was the highest-ranking rebel still alive, he filled the power vacuum after the Rising and heading into the Irish War for Independence in 1919. The Irish guerrilla tactics proved so effective against the more powerful British, that the two sides set out to negotiate a treaty in 1921 that would effectively split Ireland creating a free country across most of the island but leaving six counties in the north under British rule (or "continued occupation" as our tour guide at Glasnevin Cemetery put it).
The treaty wasn't popular but did pass.

Here’s where de Valera showed what kind of political survivor he was. Instead negotiating a treaty that would inevitably have to involve concessions, de Valera sent Collins to do it.

And Collins paid the price with his life. The treaty sparked a civil war, and de Valera gave himself cover by denouncing the treaty’s terms. Collins, in August 1922, was assassinated in an ambush while leading a patrol in his home county of Cork.

De Valera would go on to play a key role in undoing much of the gender equality that many of his fellow rebel leaders sought because he allowed the church to essentially set social policy. 
The grave of the well-mourned Collins.

First it was a slow recession of rights – women, who briefly served as judges during the “shadow” government before independence, suddenly were excluded from juries and high-level government jobs, as Dr. Mary McAuliffe, University College of Dublin gender history professor, told our class. As the church and government blended, “respectability” became the standard and radical women were “demonized,” McAuliffe said.

Throughout our studies and travels, we've heard repeatedly that the Ireland of the 20th Century likely didn't resemble what the 1916 Rising leaders seemed to envision. And that brings us back to the note that “The Yank” lays at Micheal Collins’ grave. Our tour guide at Glasnevin said it contains a simple message that piques the imagination:

“Michael, who knows what might have been.”

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