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Strange Figures: Absentee Founding Fathers

By: Richard Harrington

Twitter: @TheLatestByte

Post Date: 2024-01-29

If your country is new enough, or old enough, it’ll acquire a few of them along the way. Some 19th-century statesman in a ridiculous coat, a puffy-wigged general looking serene against a Virginia hillock, or some laurel-crowned ancient rendered in sepia- we all have them. Like biological fathers, they are often complicated, flawed, even wicked figures- but they made you. Much like men, countries are essentially stuck with whoever founded it, fixed at some point in the last three hundred years and eternally vulnerable to changes in perception. Nowhere has this been a problem more fascinatingly acute than in America.   


I write not only of America, but of my own country of Ireland. What has the one to do with the other? America is the ocean-striding colossus of mercantile free trade and Anglophone world-domination, Ireland is a tiny, rainswept island shrouded in the shadow of another island. Yet despite our vast differences, Ireland and America face the same problem: we are ashamed of our founding fathers. 


America is well-supplied with founding fathers. America knows how to worship them. In Washington DC, it is hard to avoid the omnipresence of the dead gods of the Republic, their spirits caught in marble and bronze, lurking on pedestals in a city whose very name is stamped with that of the victorious American Cincinnatus- General George Washington. His face stares dispassionately from coins and statues and oil paintings. He is enthroned like a god above the rotunda of the Capitol Building, sword in hand and power dripping from his features. He is not alone in America’s pantheon- Co-Emperor Lincoln glowers from his own throne, the lesser figures of prior founders looming from walls and boulevards, names written and stamped on street corners, mausoleums cut in Greco-Roman marble, and the great Alexandrian obelisk of the Washington Monument crests over the imperial core of the USA. The entire city is one part Pharaonic-Masonic tomb complex, one part bureaucratic beehive, and one part neglected slum. Rome could not have dreamt of such a boldness. 


America has found itself with a difficulty unique to republics: they actually begin somewhere. The birthing pool of America is still effectively England, and England is an institution with roots going back to Alfred the Great, and the English as an ethnicity stretch back long further. Local Brittonic kings of Celtic blood became replaced by Roman nobility who in turn were displaced by Saxon chiefs and Norman barons. These aristocracies rested above the sullen general population like cream in a milk bucket, and the English spent a great many centuries in a docility, uncaring of the blood or background of the kings who ruled them. 


It is not a difficult read through history to see how monarchs and their noble families replace other families, how they weave a tapestry of succession in countries- very useful for breaking history into manageable chunks. The issue with revolutionary republics- such as the United States- is the very small and rather recent clique which is responsible for creating it. There’s very little fog-of-ages around Jefferson, no comforting haze of myth. One can hardly criticize Hengist and Horsa, or Romulus, or Cyrus the Great. Their statues and ideas are calcified, dead. Jefferson’s statues are living things. The construction or destruction of one is pregnant with meaning, the implicit and the explicit. 


Unlike America, my own country of Ireland is a very old place. We are a people more ancient than the Romans, and yet our country as a modern political entity is barely over a century old. As such, we have our own founding fathers, barely any of whom would survive the week of our founding. These are the men of 1916. 


Americans know little of them- and neither do the modern Irish. The chief moment of our political history was the failed uprising of 1916, where an alliance of Irish nationalist groups struck key locations around Dublin City during Easter Week, while the United Kingdom was deep into a war it would come to regret. 


They were poets, trade union leaders, political agitators, lawyers- the disillusioned middle-class which form the bedrock for most foundling countries of the 20th century. Their commander was a wall-eyed poet and nationalist, a slightly-built teacher named Padraig Pearse, and the entire show would have stalled- the entire national effort in fact- without his rhetorical skill and passionate drive to see Ireland standing among the nations, a free and Gaelic republic, aloof from English laws, customs, power, and importantly: language. You would be forgiven for thinking he had any prominence at all.


The centenary was announced for 2016- which seems a lifetime ago now. I was struck by a disturbing feeling, similar to the sinking feeling of groping for your wallet and finding it absent from your pocket. There was a missing person at the centenary. There was no alert or nationwide search. Padraig Pearse had all but vanished. 


Where could we fit him? Pearse was a Catholic and a Nationalist, and carried in his heart an apocalyptic vision of a willing blood sacrifice that would rejuvenate a nation. Almost a fascist, he cannot be seen as an unambiguous hero by the modern Irish democrat, who assumes we have outgrown him as much as we have outgrown God and the Irish language. In contrast, socialists like Connelly and Larkin have a perennial appeal, and can be widely admired by everyone from working-class labourers to university socialists with English degrees and English pedigrees. 


He had slipped out of my own view somewhere in-between the age of nine and the age of fourteen but I couldn’t place why or how. I looked around at a city hung richly with the sentiment of national memory. The country put on quite a show, even if it seemed almost gun-shy about the event itself. A festival atmosphere celebrating our centenary of supposed independence was in full swing, yet the guest of honour was nowhere to be seen. He had been supplanted, some might even say usurped, by another. Pearse was gone.

I first appreciated this when I saw, as a boy, the gable-mural painted by Robert Ballagh which summed this up. The mural is a fiery declaration of continuity with the struggle, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Rising, emblazoned with the rhetorical line “Who fears to speak of Easter Week” The men of 1916 were all there, backlit by the blazing numerals of the year of their glory, a triumphant Republican Phoenix arising overhead. 


Yet the commander of the battle, the President of the very government for which the war of independence would be fought, stands meekly to the side. The nationalist, trade-unionist leader James Connolly takes centre-stage, marked by a thick moustache and heavy frame. Pearse looks like a bystander in his own uprising. 

In sharp contrast to Washington DC, Dublin has almost no sign that Pearse ever existed at all. His father’s old business is marked with a simple profile-bust of Pearse and his brother, but no great statue marks his triumphal defeat. Other heroes line the main street of Dublin City: the Anglo-Irish figure of Charles Parnell, who campaigned for an Irish parliament within Great Britain, and the establishment Catholic nobleman Daniel O’Connell, who won rights for the Irish at the cost of entangling us with the machinery of empire. They stand guard at either ends of the city, while the site of the General Post Office- a building which may as well be the Irish Alamo- has no true monument to Pearse. 


A labour leader, Jim Larkin, stands there instead, his mouth frozen in a perpetual roar and his arms aloft and directing the traffic. The only statue in the place is of Cu Chulainn, our mythical Achilles, a hero distinctly silent on matters of government policy and tragically bereft of a manifesto. One would think Padraig Pearse was as illusory and as mythical as the god-man tied to a pillar with a crow on his shoulder, as the statue depicts.


Pearse lingers on, of course, in the houses of our slowly dying relatives, on the walls of slowly dying rural pubs- tired old photographs nearly as old as the men in them. Calls were made to build something for him- a great, Leninist statue at the very least- but the fragile and compromised nature of the Constitutional Republic of 1949 is a very different creature to the Revolutionary Republic of 1916, and the state could not countenance the building of a monument to a figure who, at once, provides and destroys the legitimacy of the current Irish state. 


America finds itself with the same problem. The Founders are flawed, dead gods, and their having lived undermines the entity that squats where their dream once stood.


The Greeks became so tired of their gods that they came to two conclusions: either the gods were good and the poets lied, or the gods were nothing but myths and the true god was yet to be found. In America, the Republicans cleave to the former, and the Democrats to the latter. Like ancient Greece, and like modern Ireland, the United States find themselves mythically rudderless. They don’t have a distant founding or a core ethnic group to rally around, but flawed men that generations of mythmaking have built into gods, only to be torn down. Seventeen Founding Fathers were slave owners, and eight of the first twelve Presidents were the same. Columbus was no unambiguous hero, regardless of what Tony Soprano might say on the topic. Without a solid foundation, America cannot get the story of itself straight, and is scrambling for a narrative, caught in flagrante in the act of self-dissolution. A rudderless ship always crashes, and America has one hell of a list to port. 


One day, the American people will become the iconoclasts they have always wanted to be. It has already begun. When America has no need for its gods- having replaced true worship of the divine with the civic religion Americanism, an imperial act of self-deification inevitable to all empires- the country will not even have the will to hold itself together. The chief responses I have seen are either to tear down the Founders and rebuild America into a Randian nightmare, or to pugnaciously stick to the old ways and stand by their absentee Founding Fathers. 


I, for one, hope that when the iconoclasm begins in earnest, we have a government that can write a check. Cheap bronze and marble can always find a home, and I have a few proposals of what to build from recycled materials. After all, if Ireland has adopted the phoenix as a symbol, we can take some ashes and have them rise again.

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