From: The Crane Bag 3 (1979)
The most striking of the mythic dimensions of the 1916 Insurrection which Richard Kearney subjects to a philosophical critique in his essay. 'Myth and Terror’(The Crane Bag 2, 1978) is the notion of 'blood sacrifice' which was so vivid in the imagination of Padraic Pearse and in the national imagination kindled by the events of the Easter Rising. I should like to carry RK's thoughtful interrogation a little further by spelling out more fully the sacrificial overtones of 1916 and by suggesting that to evaluate them we must first attempt to discern the ‘creative' or life-promoting function sacrifice can have from its 'destructive' manifestations.
My main argument with RK is that he seems to regard the idea of sacrifice as intrinsically harmful and irrational, whereas I would see it as an essential disposition of human existence and as the only way in which the aggression in man can be integrated into a creative relation to God, or whatever stands in the place of God, and to other men. In the attempt to clarify and control the dangerous aspects of the language of sacrifice one can dilute the concept out of existence, as those liberal theologians do who protest against the sacrificial interpretation of Christ's death or of the Eucharist, often on the basis of some caricature of sacrifice in terms of magical expiation if not sado-masochism.
But faced with the primitive upsurge of the sacrificial instinct, not only in militant Irish Republicanism, but also in international terrorism, in the cult of torture by the supposed defenders of order and in the strange activities of a Charles Manson or a Rev. Jim Jones, a non-sacrificial religion has to fall back on feeble appeals to reason and common sense and is unable to enter into a dialectical confrontation with the forces here at work. The dynamic behind sacrifice also operates to maintain the injustices of the system of criminal law, with its urge to punish scapegoats, and the irrational prejudices and hostilities which are played out in the absurd rite of war. Christianity can correct this only by assuming and transforming the energies of sacrifice, not by turning a blind eye to them.
The questions thus raised are:
1. Is the language of sacrifice genuinely Christian?
2. Can it be legitimately used in secular or political contexts like an insurrection?
3. Had Pearse access to an authentic version of the Christian language of sacrifice? Was his use of it authentic?
4. Is Pearse's own ideologv of sacrifice insofar as it can be viewed as independent of Christian inspiration, and as deriving from mythic or Celtic sources to be seen as a regression to primitive notions of sacrifice (as RK suggests) or has it reached a level of refinement permitting it to be aligned with the Christian ideology?
5. What authentic use can be found for Christian and national ideologies of sacrifice in the Ireland of today? How is the 'creative' core of the sacrificial gesture of 1916 to be retrieved?
[2006: Otiose in 1979, these questions could hardly be raised responsibly soon after when the IRA hunger strikers and their supporters, with the collusion of some clergy, vamped up an image of themselves as Christlike sacrificial victims, with no memory of the victims of the IRA’s many atrocities.]
1. It is true, as RK claims, quoting R. Bultmann, that early Christianity integrated many elements of the Hellenistic religiosity of the surrounding culture in giving an account of Christ's death and of the rites of baptism and the Eucharist. But Judaism had long before this developed a sacrificial system which also borrowed much from 'pagan' sources and it is in terms of this system that Christ's death is interpreted as a sacrifice in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The capacity of the Christian dispensation to integrate and to transform all previous notions of sacrifice indicates to me that its authentic sense is disclosed not by stripping away all these sacrificial representations but by discerning to what fundamental truth Christianity has recalled them.
The notion of sacrifice gave Western theologians a lot of trouble once they began to speculate on it in the ninth century. Even the Council of Trent, seven hundred years later, could not come up with a definition of sacrifice though intent on defending the sacrificial character of the Mass against Luther. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps irritated by the eternal debates about the what and how of sacrifice used to quote a phrase of Augustine's to the effect that 'a sacrifice is a work whereby we are enabled to adhere to God in a holy community’, which suggests that the essential intention and goal of Christian sacrifice and of all sacrifice is to create peace between men and between man and God.
The basic intention of sacrifice is to undo violence by some cathartic deed and to restore peace. That good intention can lead to the magical strategies of 'A war to end all wars' and to the popular fatalism of Belfast; 'It must get worse before it gets better'. But it can also lead to Christ's strategy of laying down his life and taking on himself the violence of men. In the Last Supper - by its timing and style clearly meant to replace the Passover sacrifice of Judaism - Christ perfected the figurative character of his death and raised the 'pity and terror' of Golgotha into the serene medium of a communal remembrance in which the catharsis and peace effected by the bloody event could expand and resonate wherever that event was re-enacted.
How is it re-enacted? – a question which puzzled Latin theologians so much and to which the answer is probably sufficiently found in the community's mutual self-giving in the bond of charity and in their dedication in faith and obedience to God the Father. That is how they identify with the priest and victim of the sacrifice and prepare themselves to realise the sacrifice also in the concrete struggle of their lives – issuing perhaps in the scandal and terror of martyrdom or some other form of existential sacrifice. If Christian sacrifice has this communal character, if it is oriented towards the creation of peace and if it directs its participants into the concrete struggle to redeem the time, into history and not into some sacred time out of this world, then it should be able to integrate the various forms of sacrifice, and the instincts of violence that find a cathartic outlet in them, in such a way as to make of sacrifice a source of life in a quite empirical and realistic sense.
2. Since authentic Christian sacrifice directs us to a historical struggle it is impossible to deny to those engaged in such a struggle in the arena of politics the right to make the language of sacrifice their own when that is appropriate, however great the danger of presumption and imprudence. If some struggle for peace and justice coincides with the situation presented in the Gospels, in a mutually illuminating way, the non-violent dynamic of sacrifice therein contained can be invoked with complete sincerity. The sincerity of such appeals is to be measured by the ability of the protagonists to practise political realism at the same time and to refrain from self-righteousness, vengefulness and resentment.
3. Did Pearse have access to an authentic version of Christian sacrifice? Did he use the language of sacrifice as a mask for primitive violence, as an excuse for opting out of political realism, stepping out of history into the sacred time constituted by the long line of heroes who died for Ireland? And if he did, was this not because in Irish Catholicism sacrifice had come to be interpreted in terms that implied a flight from history? Had there been and is there still in Irish Catholicism a tendency to divorce the cross of Christ from its function of creating a community? A certain touch of compulsive, routine repetition in regard to the Mass might be taken as showing the survival of a pre-Christian attitude. How else square the obsessive cultivation of ritual with the dread of celebrating it in a truly sacrificial i.e. communal way?
Pearse could also be seen as the victim of a mythic distortion in the image of the priest, the angelic ministrant of the sacrifice, the man of isolation and bondage – a scapegoat figure who is a parody of the freedom and community Christ established. Pearse – like De Valera – may have acted his priestly role all too well. He never broke the heart of the faithful as Parnell did by showing feet of clay (of course Parnell too, as the Fallen Idol, fulfilled a scapegoat function and satisfied the sacrificial urge in another way). What is it in our Christianity that has us continue to look for scapegoats where Christ should suffice? The moral intolerance of the South and the tarring and feathering of the North as well as the total participation of Irish Americans in colour racism and anti-Semitism are other signs of a lack of the Christian sprit of creative sacrificial generosity, and of a real relapse into a cult of tribal cohesion. Pearse conceived Ireland as a relatively ecumenical community but his vision of Ireland free might have been richer had it been informed by a sense of the freedom of man in general, as in the American Declaration of Independence, rather than by a narrow tribal insistence on the identity of the Gael. His sacrifice won independence for that Gaelic identity but could not free it from the prison of its tribal self-worship. The sacrifice of the Mass is liberative, not fixative, and the community it founds is for the world, not for itself. Irish Catholics had, however, so cultivated a myth of being a chosen people that these broader horizons of Christian sacrifice were in abeyance.
Even so, was Pearse's use of Christian language not justified within the limits of the awareness of his day? If it was not, how can we be sure of using it rightly when historical hindsight is sure to find blind spots in our vision too? It is probably an excess of purism to deny that the authentic lineaments of Christian sacrifice can be discerned in some degree in the gesture of 1916. Their sense of doing a glorious thing was not all delusion. Martyrs are usually such by self-appointment and this leaves them vulnerable to accusations of self-glorification, fanaticism, masochism, impatience with the slow course of reality, suicidal instincts and a thousand other things. Human nature being complicated, some of these accusations are likely to stick. The terror of blood-sacrifice is compounded by the questionability that attaches to all sacrifice, because it steps beyond the categories of everyday reason, the questionability that kept Yeats 'awake night after night' and would not go away.
4. Could the cult of Cathleen ni Houlihan be compatible with a Christian spirit of sacrifice? As a poetic supplement it surely had a place, though to an extent Cathleen is a dangerous symbol, dangerous because abstract, suggesting a Platonic Ireland of the mind rather than the actual small community that inhabits the country. The worship of such an image has led to the present bloodthirsty campaign in the name of 'the indivisible island' and has contributed to the incapacity of Irish people to grasp their situation realistically and work on it. The bloom has somewhat fled from the daughter of Houlihan's cheeks now and one hopes that a better, more broadly based sense of national identity will emerge to replace the ghostly appeals of that insatiable siren.
Otherwise the poetic vitality of Pearse's myth has the same kind of value as a Wagnerian opera, a capacity to stir the unconscious of a race and to set its imagination alight. Yeats thrived on it and it even infiltrated the texture of Finnegans Wake, though neither Joyce nor Yeats were uncritical or stereotyped in their loyalty to Ireland. [2006: No, it may have stirred Joyce and Yeats to creative response, but today it creates only a rancid simulacrum of national identity. The revival of the military parade to celebrate the anniversary of 1916 was not doubt an attempt to prevent a hijacking of the 1916 mythology by Sinn Fein in their bid to get the IRA terror campaign written into Irish history as an honourable chapter. But it represents a failure of political and historical imagination on the part of the present Government, and a feeble clutching at reassuring tokens on the part of the American-dominated nouveau riche Ireland of today.]
As a set of cultural symbols those of Irish nationalism are of a superior order, going back to ancient roots and conjuring up ideal and generally wholesome visions of vanished ways of life. The glorification of violence implicit in them is never a glorification of imperialist aggression but rather celebrates just resistance to oppression; and there is in that something capable of refinement and Christianisation. I do not see this set of myths as a genuine source of political inspiration any longer, but their value as a source of moral inspiration may be underrated by Richard Kearney and by others who deplore the use made of them by the IRA.
5. In the present political and social situation of Ireland how is Christian sacrifice to be lived and what is the peculiarly Irish flavour such sacrifices may this time take on? One salient manifestation of the spirit of sacrifice comes instantly to mind – the efforts of non-violent groups to create a new society in Northern Ireland. If their sacrifice is fruitful a renewal of the national sense of identity quite as great as that effected by 1916 might well come about. To counter the new primitivism of which the IRA is one of the local symptoms, Christianity must throw itself with equal extravagance into the sacrificial way of life and integrate the forces and the fascination of aggression into the life-promoting dynamic of the cross. Gandhi, Luther King, Berrigan, Bonhoeffer are so many clues to this possibility. People of Pearsean dedication would be needed to carry out this programme and to bring the national and Christian aspirations of the Irish people to bear on reality rather than on mythic abstractions.