Ross O’Carroll-Kelly beautifully captures the essence of a certain type of south Dubliner. His type can be seen at the annual ritual that is the schools rugby match between the likes of Blackrock and Clongowes, bellowing from the side lines in Donnybrook, all sheepskin, hip flask and privilege. I know this type well because not only did I go to Blackrock but I even played in that very fixture many moons ago and found these sideline bores to be about the most obnoxious ‘know-alls’ inflicted on a poor schoolboy – who is terrified playing in front of thousands of his peers let alone their insufferable uncles. But in defence of the South Dubliners, we are a broad and eclectic spectrum of types; Ross is only one extreme version.
I was thinking about Leinster schools rugby as I wandered amongst the throng down to the GPO on Monday afternoon. Granted, this was not the most nationalist emotion to be running through a true patriot’s veins as I approached the tabernacle of republicanism – but bear with me.
Over the weekend, I have been doing my own little bit of research about 1916. I’ve always been struck by the enduring professional aristocracy that the revolution spawned. Listening to the radio the other day, which was wall to wall relatives of the Rising, it was significant just how many are still in control of the commanding heights of this economy and society. So many of the grandchildren of the revolution have gone on to dominate politics, the public service, academia, the law and a variety of bourgeois professions; it’s hard not to conclude that one aristocracy was replaced by another form of nobility.
Now, I realise that there are loads of people whose fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers fought bravely and who ended up in poverty, but let’s just focus on those who used the new State to leverage themselves and their families into positions of power and privilege. There’s no point in naming names, everyone knows who we are talking about – grandson of this or great granddaughter of such and such a patriot. With that in mind, I decided to examine what the rebels did for a living by looking at their occupations, which they listed when they were captured. What class were these rebels? The vast majority were employed, which in a city with very high levels of unemployment, tells its own story. However, what is more interesting is the fact that most were from the class that Marx would describe as the hated petit bourgeois. These were the last people a traditional, early 20th Century revolutionary movement would have expected to draw from.
There were clerks, drapers, drapers’ assistants, confectioners, druggists, furniture salesmen, lots of grocers and insurance clerks and even a pair of silk weavers and a pawnbroker. The list is fascinating and what it reveals is not a proletarian revolution but a Rising of the petite bourgeoisie or the lower middle class. They were Christian Brothers revolutionaries.
The real military machine of the country – the poor Dublin working-class squaddies and the traditional Catholic nationalist officer class – were fighting in Flanders.
Was 1916 a power grab by one class over another?
This thought brings me back to the rugby boys and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.
If you look at the schools that dominate schools rugby, they are big Catholic establishment schools, founded in the late 1800s: Clongowes, Belvedere, Blackrock, Terenure, Castleknock and St Mary’s.
These schools were set up to create a new Catholic establishment that would take over the reins when the British eventually left Ireland. It is my view that the British were on their way out of Ireland from the mid-1860s.
London was actively trying to disengage and promote the Home Rule movement and London realised for the Home Rule movement to succeed it had to have a robust nationalist establishment, deeply entrenched in Irish society. The Protestant middle-class population outside Ulster was simply too small.
Therefore, as part of a greater plan to leave or to underpin Home Rule, the Catholic mercantile and professional class had to be loyal to Home Rule, rather than full Independence.
For this mercantile class, Home Rule was ideal. Remember we were what could be termed a “beer and biscuits” economy. Irish industrial output was beer and biscuits – both derivative of agriculture. That was Irish value added. The rest was more or less live animals exported on the hoof. The Catholic trading class really needed free trade with Britain and some form of devolution.
The only flies in the ointment were apparently the Ulster Unionists. However, there seemed to be an understanding, naive as it turned out to be, that the Conservatives could handle the Ulstermen and, in time, moderate Conversativism would geld the Ulstermen and coax them into some sort of Home Rule.
This grand design – the gradual British pull-out – was going according to plan pretty well up to the time the Ulster Volunteers said no. Once the Ulster Covenant was signed and it became clear that the Ulstermen would fight, the notion of some sort of partition became a reality. This was what John Redmond feared most.
Then the game became one of who would control a partitioned State: the lower, middle-class Christian Brothers boys or the upper, middle-class rugby boys?
The rugby boys thought the prize was theirs by right and took the “model prisoner” approach to Home Rule. The model prisoner is a very middle-class approach to negotiation and stems from currying favour in order to extract concessions on the basis that you are the most reasonable man in the room.
The Christian Brothers lads were therefore looking at the prospect of not being ruled by the remote British but by a bunch of class-obsessed, Catholic bourgeois snobs – an Irish Jesuits and Holy Ghost educated officer-class. For the Christian Brothers lads that was truly terrifying.
If you buy this narrative, the revolutionary period from 1914 to 1924 in the South can be seen as not so much a battle between the Irish and the British but as a truly vicious struggle between the Irish as to who would run the place when the Brits high-tailed out of here, as London was planning.
But given their enduring appeal the Irish Eatons and Harrows have been singularly unsuccessful in producing a political class. And once the Ulstermen said No, it came down to a war within Irish Catholicism between the lower middle class and the anointed, upper middle-class, rugby players.
Looking at all the Taoisigh from 1922 right though to 1982 we see they were all Christian Brothers boys. Sure, De Valera was always the ambiguous outlier who ended up in Blackrock having won a scholarship for the final two years, but he was a Christian Brother all the way up to then.
In fact, the first product of the original posh Catholic establishment schools that were set up to rule this place was Garret FitzGerald – but he was part of the revolutionary aristocracy whose parents were in the Rising, a dauphin of the new nobility.
Now I’m no historian but it’s interesting to speculate on other narratives that may be lurking underneath that single national myth. When I looked at the occupations of the captured rebels, the class element of the Rising is quite stark.
That’s why, when I heard the Proclamation being read out in the GPO on Monday, it was Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, rather than Sean T O’Kelly, who came to mind.