2007 - 2020

Easter 2016: From The Province of The Cat

queenMaeveI was thinking of Easter 1916 in Dublin and remembering September 2014 in Scotland so I went on Easter Monday to Strath Naver in North West Sutherland to contemplate on why we were being encouraged to commemorate one and being manipulated into forgetting about the other. I did not expect to meet Cathleen Ni Houlihan, Queen Maeve or the Aishling of my lost generations of Mackay’s and Gunn’s, but only to breathe the clean Spring air of Easter and walk down from Skelpick into the heart of one of the most beautiful straths in Scotland. Yet no matter the magnificent wine colour of the copper birches which burnish the Eastern slopes, the dark peaty water of the gravel-cut river and the iced white anvil of Ben Clìbric towering to the South, my mind drifted like a ship hypnotised by the storm onto the rocks of the unfinished business of history. Easter 1916 was a theatrical coup which changed a nation and shocked the world and is now seen for what it was – the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The campaign for an independent Scotland leading up to the referendum in September of 2014 was a colourful carnival of ideas which excited a new generation into politics and has been managed into a layby by a paranoid British state and a cautious Scottish government.

Even if there had been a positive outcome to the referendum in 2014 what we would have been celebrating on Independence Day in March 2016 would not have been the Workers’ Republic as dreamed of for Ireland by James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizens Army, and shot while tied to a chair and already dying by the British Army on May 12th 1916 in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. Scotland, we were told, would be a modern, progressive democracy. If Scotland was an independent country in 2016 would we who live in it now notice any difference to the country as it was two years previously? The calming balm offered by the SNP to both the middle class in Scotland and the UK state in London in answer to that question is, “No, you would not.” Arguing about how best to raise tax in order to not encourage the wealthy to re-locate instead of setting out to the people how you will spend the revenue for the benefit of all is not progressive politics. I’m not sure if it’s even modern. Arguing about economic holes caused by the fall in the oil price to a Westminster Chancellery who do not know the difference between “balancing the books” and a multi trillion deficit is a waste of time. What should be the political energy driving us forwards is dissipated into semantics and abstraction and the sight of all the bald women and men fighting for a comb which is the TV leaders debates in Scotland is a discouragement bordering on melancholy. A pointless mediocrity is shuffling to Holyrood to be endured.

To walk in Strath Naver is like walking back in time. Like the light from distant stars which are so far way that by the time their light reaches planet Earth the generating body is dead. So it is with sporting estates. To look upon Strath Naver now is to look upon the nineteenth century. What you see is a beautiful empty landscape which, for all its aesthetic natural richness which pleasures the eye, cannot satisfy the appetite for art, for unity, because it is a landscape with no people in it. The burial cairns at Skelpick are 5000 years old and are testament to humanities long engagement with this land. These Neolithic remains are extant because they are higher up than the more historically agriculturally exploited lower slopes and strath-bed which, since that time, held an active population. Brochs and hill forts whisper as you pass, as do the many clearance townships such as Achanlochy and the individual raised houses where the voices still kiss the stones. The shochads (plovers) whistle and the lairags (skylarks) are soothing as even, strangely, are the sheep because the lambing is upon us and life, inevitably, goes on. All life except human life. Unless it is connected to the raging kennet barking of the enclosed hounds which savage the air as you pass this estate house and that hunting lodge.

Is it for this that people voted “No” in September 2014? One of the ideas expressed in the Proclamation of 1916 was “The right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland.” In Scotland that idea is being bitterly resisted by the ruling class. It is the desperate self-interest of those who will lead us into the void. To witness the political “status quo” in North West Sutherland is to see vast acres of land literally doing nothing. These are the frozen cultural materials and stolen lands of displacement and enclosure which began in the 1770’s, reached their cruel peak after the Napoleonic War and have staggered from appropriation and one economic crisis to the next ever since. These are the assets which belong to the Scottish people and are wasting away under the ownership of a few wealthy individuals. Anachronistic land owning on this scale makes the numerically small, residual population passive, powerless and silent. The vibrancy of their history and the possibilities of the future are denied them because there is no real political will abroad to shift the crooked paradigm and make this landscape active once more.

The Easter Sun may have been shining but the atmosphere of injustice was palpable as I walked along. Small columns of 4×4’s occupied the narrow road and ferried the anglers to various beats along the Naver River. The anglers themselves cast and re-cast their flies upon the water as if they were whipping the river into submission or trying to flay the empty strath alive. In a field below a broch a young red deer stag, trapped behind high fences, ran in ever desperate circles searching for an escape. Over a gate hung the tail-less carcases of five foxes, bowing in supplication to murder. Pheasants rose up in startled panic, as if shrieking out their useless grief. The overgrown gardens of estate houses held close the tenacious frost of Winter, because no matter how much the Spring insisted on the Voar colours, or that the buttery primroses stared green lidded and yellow eyed like Queen Maeve herself out from beneath the riverbank, there was a deep coldness to the ground so that you might get the impression that no-one could really live here no matter the history.

But that would be a mistake because the archaeology tells a different story. This hopeless scenario of under-use and dereliction is what has to change or nothing else in Scotland can change: who owns the nations land, what they do with it and why, is the fundamental, vital question we as a democracy must address. If we do not then I fear for our democracy. How many more times must this be shouted from the hills?

But who actually is there to tell this story of on-going Highland dispossession?

Among those leading the Uprising, and responsible for it, during those hectic, desperate and violent days of Easter 1916 in Dublin, were poets, playwrights and actors as well as teachers, workers and a sizeable and formidable band of women. The Rising, if nothing else, was a dramatic event. Legend has it when Countess Markievicz, the revolutionary Sinn Fein nationalist and actor at the Abbey Theatre, was asked if the poster she was putting up was for a play she replied “Yes, it is!” When asked again if it was a play for children, she replied “No, this one is for adults.” What she was pasting onto a Dublin wall was the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Up to the 23rd of April 2016 The Abbey Theatre will be performing “The Plough and The Stars” by Sean O’Casey, the last two acts of which are set during the Easter Rising of 1916, and the third play in the “Dublin trilogy”. During the actual Rising it was alleged that rifles for the IRB were hidden beneath the stage and that the first republican casualty on Easter Monday was an actor from The Abbey.

The Abbey is now the National Theatre of Ireland. Amid all the celebrations, ceremonies, soul searching and the usual re-writing of history, the people of Ireland are at least being told their story, they are finally being allowed to have a perspective. As I walked out of Strath Naver on Easter Monday past and turned my face to the sea I wondered when the National Theatre of Scotland would tell the tragic story of what I had just walked through. So far their contribution to the dramatizing of our Northern narrative and the development of Highland theatre has been a production of “Whisky Galore”. Their engagement with the Referendum in 2014 was tangential at best. The recent successful revival at the Dundee Rep of “The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil” has born witness to the fact that the story of that play still needs to be shown to all of the people. But John McGrath, the plays author, is with his 7:84 Theatre Company in the grave. The Scottish cultural establishment like their radical Highland theatre to be safely “historical” just the same way as the Irish establishment like James Connolly and his revolutionary socialism to be “gloriously” dead.

It’s not that there is a dearth of gifted playwrights and actors in Scotland, far from it and many of the best of them hail from the Highlands. Even with the recent austerity cut the National Theatre of Scotland still has by far the biggest budget of any producing theatre in the country so why this indifference to such a fundamental and relatively untouched area of the nation’s story? The Abbey Theatre was founded in 1904 and the NTS only recently in 2006 so comparisons are obviously unproductive and it is, at best, wishful thinking to imagine that the NTS was set up along the same literary and revolutionary lines as its Irish sister: it was not. On the other hand Ireland and Scotland are both lands full of poets and dreamers and with the ever narrowing focus and irrelevance of the mainstream media and the ever internalising and trance inducing nature of social media the need for an active and engaged theatre in Scotland, where people can be brought together in a public space to share in a communal story, becomes increasingly important and especially in the so-called liminal and peripheral areas. Understanding that where Scotland physically stops is also to understand that this is where Scotland culturally begins.

The general attitude among those who took part in the Easter Rising in 1916 was “We belong to an old traditional and proud culture and we will no longer be treated as second class citizens”. The racist opinion of the British to the Irish – and this was one of the main objections to Home Rule – was that they couldn’t run a government or, in fact, run anything at all. In Scotland we have grown too used to such sentiments. For the brave Irish men and women at the beginning of the 20th century the cultural revolution led to the political revolution and they were glad to endorse it. We saw an inkling of that consciousness, that transition, at work in Scotland leading up to the Referendum in September 2014. Our comparatively well behaved and mild exercise in consultative democracy did shake the British establishment, but it did not fall. Three years after the Easter Rising Sinn Fein declared an Irish Republic and it was then that British Empire began to fall apart. It is now, thankfully, all but gone. Only in Scotland, in places like Strath Naver, do we tolerate its ghost, its continual wasting and immoral presence in the form of sporting estates and empty space. What else, other than poetry and history, do I have to blast this corrosive remnant to smithereens? The Scottish people are about to vote, to demonstrate yet again, that we have the right to govern ourselves. Yet after May 5th 2016 we will, in reality, still be governed from without.

As the events of that crucial Easter Monday in 1916 began to unfold one of the Risings leaders, the poet Joseph Plunkett, was reported to have said, “At long last the curtain is open and we are on stage. This day will be remembered!” In Strath Naver, in Scotland, we still await that moment, that day.

Comments (28)

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  1. Jean says:

    While I very much enjoyed the authors lively and vivid discription of rural Scotland his notion that the British are ‘all but gone’ from Ireland reeks in deliberate blindness aiming to cover up or swiftly by pass the 6 counties.

    I’m aware that most want to do the same, we are a bit of an embarrasment after all, aren’t we? Speaking of ‘things we would rather not speak of’ the Irish constitution, it should be stated that as it was written it was never acted upon. In fact one of the Commandants in active service during the Rising, Eammon DeVelara, took Ireland into one of the most repressive regimes in Europe when he handed the fledgling republic over to the Catholic Church. The whole of Ireland is only recently clawing its way out of that black hole and it’s shameful past where women, children and the most marginalised where treated no better than slaves with absolutly no rights what’s so ever and where many died in dire circumstances under the auspice of a government who knew what was happening but turned their faces away…….all is still not a gleaming Republic but it’s better that it was 30 years ago……..would James Connellly and the other rebels recognise what they died for? In a word NO, they wouldn’t, was it worth all those lives, NO and I’m speaking as a proud Republican who was 19 when the ‘Troubles’ started here in Derry.

    However now the that the chains of the British imperialism and the Catholic Church have been removed forever we can make a start to putting into place that Republic that the rebels invisioned……as for us up here in the 6 counties……well that’s another story isn’t it…….time and economic forces me thinks will be the deciders of our fate, not guns I’m glad to say…..I won’t see it but maybe be my grandchildren will live to see the benifit of what that brave and visionary band of rebels made a stand for and willingly gave their lives for.

    1. Alex Mclaren says:

      well said Jean.

  2. EuanB says:

    Very nice reflection! Maybe also a free Scotland will free the rest of the U.K. from its long imperial dreaming!

  3. john young says:

    Jean you confuse the Catholic Church”body” with the “Catholic Faith”,nowhere/anywhere ever will you find support in the Catholic Faith i.e the people at masses or in prayer for the vile vile acts perpetrated in the name of our faith,human beings and all the baggage that come under that umbrella are the disease,the Catholic Church has more than it,s fair share of human detritus but no more no less than any/all others,take a look closer to home and see what is/has/will be carried out in the name of our Queen/Country some of the most horrific acts against humanity.

    1. Connor McEwen says:

      Took the words out of my mouth.
      A couple of photos of Strathnaver would have improved ” a no bad erticle”

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Mòran taing dha-rìribh airson na h-aiste barraichte a tha seo. Sgrìobhadh ealanta, cianalach, macmeanmnach, lèirsinneach, brosnachail.

  5. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    I commend George Gunn’s passionate and truthful writing, as always. Living in rural Argyll, I despair at the ’emptiness’ of the land. The Scottish people are detached, for the most part, and there is nothing to hold the young here. The Scottish Government has not (yet) made clear any commitment to the renewal of that necessary bond of people to land that we so lack, and which ails us still.

  6. Alf Baird says:

    Change the words it looks real good: “The right of the people of Scotland to the ownership of Scotland.”
    Land and language/(culture in the wider sense) are fundamentals of any nation and are the two key aspects Scotland must deal with if it wishes to cast off the unionist yoke. Unfortunately the SNP has no policies to effectively deal with either, despite the fact powers exist to make changes even within a devolved unionist-constrained assembly.

  7. Ian Vallance says:

    The first world war ended the age of Empire entirely. Britain’s involvement essentially bankrupt it and ended the empire. Had Britain not joined WW1 Ireland would very likely have achieved Home Rule which would despite the revisionist view today very likely have been enough for most Irish folk at the time. That would have meant the vicious civil war would not have happened. The Irish rising may well have accelerated the decline and fall of the British Empire but it wasn’t by a long chalk the primary cause or reason for it. It’s fate was sealed by the decision to take part in WW1. By not joining WW1 and Extending the age of the British Empire may not have been all bad or at least not as bad as we are encouraged to consider it was. The UK today is imo a redundant concept directly because of that decision in 1914. Without the Empire Britain is exposed fully as what it really always was Greater England.

    1. Heidstaethefire says:

      You’re right to say that the majority of Irish people at the time would have settled for home rule, but it’s by no means certain they would have remained content with thst settlement for a hundred years. You’re also correct to argue that the rising wasn’t the reason for the fall of the British Empire, but it was the trigger; the main political reason that Britain fought so hard to hold on to Ireland as that they feared a domino effect throughout the rest of the subjugated colonies.

  8. Kevin Brown says:

    Good article, beautifully written. Thanks. Shared.

  9. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Beautiful, brave, and to the point: shades of Somhairle. Tapadh leibh.

  10. Punklin says:

    Nice imagery but this article’s lazy,facile and ultra-left analysis of the Scottish Government irks me. We lost for goodness sake and we are still dominated by an admittedly weakened but ruthlessly right-wing establishment and press. Timidity is hardly the issue – Scotland doesn’t have the power and we have to keep working away and persuading no voters to change their minds until we do. Some of the articles, this one included, and the comments on this site reduce to accusations of SG ‘s caution being like a choice of what colour socks to wear. The situation is much more profound and complex. Re-read Gramsci or just get real.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “The situation is much more profound and complex. ”

      Aye, its aw juist awfu complex fur wir wee Scots brains tae tak in. We’e juist no “genetically programmed” tae mak aw thon muckle deceesions. (Ye soond awfu like yon brainch office wifie mind.)

    2. James Fleming says:

      You think that’s ultra-left? You’re the one needing a reality check.

  11. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the sporting estates-barren land cleared of people and “undesirable” animals-ones that are our native wildlife and that we might actually like to see. It saddens me when people talk about the Wilderness as if it were a natural landscape and there was some beauty in it. I find nothing more depressing than mile after mile of grouse moor. The landscape could be far more interesting,productive and vibrant.
    I hope that when we do get independence we will have a complete rethink of land use and ownership.

  12. George Gunn says:

    I read Grmacsi. I had good teacher in that, a certain Hamish Henderson. It is intersesting, I think, to reflect on what might have happened to Ireland had the First World War not happened, if you see what I mean. A civil war with the northern and southern militias over home rule? I agree with Jean, that sometime soon, it will have to be sorted and she is probably right – time will do it. In a short article its not easy to cover everything. On the other hand I have a great deal of sympathy with the Scottish Government. Trapped between a rock and a hard place. Irish and Scottish history is different and we may, the pair of us, achieve the republic of which James Connolly and others dreamed of. In Scotland we can learn from Ireland.

    1. d ní mhathúna says:

      Fine writing, heartfelt as always GG.
      In magnificent Strath Naver we can yet see and smell the destruction of Scotland’s land, the wasteland created – nay “cultivated” by the hunter and the hunted. It’s a starker tale than Ireland’s. Its destruction happened much more recently, what’s more. Scratch the surface of the sheep-trodden straths and you can still find the drove roads, hear the Gaelic of Rob Donn, sense the pride of a people at one with their place on the world.
      Easter 1916 did belong to the poets and the dreamers and if they achieved anything lasting, it must surely be hope. Up to now, our young Irish people have been nurtured on revolutionary poetry, song and irreverant, often brilliant literature – only to be flung to the far corners of the planet, like lambs to market, while the British who left the administration to us simply came back by another route to run the dodgy banks of Dublin’s shady financial centre. The world has changed far more than the dreamers imagined. I find it difficult to see how Connolly could speak to these times. All the same, I suspect that he, above all of them, is the one who still has something to say to the people of the Cowgate, as much as the people of Liberty Hall.

  13. John Page says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece
    John Page

  14. The Glasgow Clincher says:

    I read this article the day after I watched Bob Geldof’s documentary about WB Yeats. He seemed to be making the mistake so many do by inferring that Yeats, and other poets and dreamers, were the real drivers of the nationalist/republican cause, instead of acknowledging that Connolly and his beliefs were in fact betrayed by the Redmond Volunteers and the phoney, backward-looking proponents of the Celtic Twilight (or Celtic ‘Toilette’ as Joyce had it).
    The lesson for Scotland is clear: that independence on a socialist basis is the only viable way to proceed. Nationalism on a capitalist basis means we simply exchange one form of oppression for another; what’s the good of us saying, ‘They may be bastards, but at least they’re OUR bastards’? Lack of a real political perspective meant that Ireland became partitioned and sowed the seeds for endemic sectarianism – to whit, the ‘divide and rule’ last trick of the imperialists.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “Nationalism on a capitalist basis” appears to be where we are headed with the SNP, as evidenced by the kept-quiet offshore ‘private equity’ deal with SinoFortone following hard on the heels of various other ‘arrangements’ for the offshore private equity owners of most of Scotland’s key ‘utilities’, and much of our nation’s land as well. Odd that such a supposedly ‘competent’ administration should fall for the smart suited offshore investment banker charm, more especially given today’s Panama revelations. Many key aspects of the Scottish economy and Scotland’s land is now offshore owned and the SNP are pushing for more of the same as far as I can see; they are certainly doing nothing to address the issue.

  15. John Tracey says:

    The article moved me emotionally and I think that we must ensure the emotions are tapped into. I am very level-headed, objective, rational, etc about reasons for and possible consequences of independence but emotion is central to the cultural aspect so often referred to by various people in their articles here.
    Thank you for the article. I’m a townie who move to the Highlands. I love the scenery here much more but as so many others have said – the scenery could be so much better supporting people in a worthwhile existence. I also think our towns and cities could have a better scenery as well supporting people with a worthwhile existence.

  16. Kevin Williamson says:

    Another shimmering Bardic reflection, George, on who and where were are.

  17. Papko says:

    Nice article , a touch over adorned , but appropriate for Bella Caledonia .

    IMO the Catholic Church in southern Ireland was the dynamic of Irish history at that time , The Easter rising was the spark , brutally crushed by the British ,(what choice did they have ?, if troops mutinied , they were shot )

    There can be no doubt the execution of the leaders , tilted the balance , and fuelled the Irish civil war .

    Partition was inevitable , with the Protestant six counties , entwined with Britain .

    If the Catholic church , had been in the majority in Scotland then
    Scotland would have followed Ireland .

    the crucial difference (and perhaps uniquely in the World ) Scottish nationalism is political and economic , the “case must be made ” , people must think they will be “better off ” .

    hence the” Yes” campaign got bogged down with currency and such like .

    The lessons of 1916 , are equally unpalatable to both sides of Scotland s debate .

  18. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Thanks George, the voice of place itself sounds through you.

  19. deewal says:

    I only came on to Bella to read this George.

  20. ben madigan says:

    lovely article George. I agree with Jean and other posters that the promises of the 1916 proclamation of the irish republic were never fully realized.
    James Connolly and other bearers of progressive ideas of the time (e.g. votes and equality for women) were murdered by the british after the easter rising and by the irish themselves in the civil war after the treaty partitioning ireland was signed.

    However, modern scotland and its struggle for independence should bear in mind the abbey theatre in dublin was but one manifestation of “irishness”. The land league with its slogan “the land of ireland for the people of ireland” had long fought for the rights of tenant farmers and land labourers. The gaelic league and the gaelic athlethic association for years had fostered interest in irish language,literature and myths, music, dance, culture and sports.
    Even people who were not “political” started recognising their native culture in themselves and identifying as irish rather than british or rather english. All these movements in one way or another embraced most of the irish population of the day.
    Today, maybe Scotland could benefit from a concerted effort of all its similar organizations to join up the dots and foster “Scottishness” nationwide

  21. George A Gunn says:

    Well written. I have many Irish friends who would agree. They couldn’t believe we voted no. I have a great suspicion that we actually voted yes.

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