Biographers eagerly sift through your papers at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, searching for more clues about your life and death.
Best of all, you never have to compromise. Ever. You are forever pure, forever free of the scent of sell-out, the odor of deal making, the stench of treachery.
Your memory is invoked whenever somebody in authority attempts to resolve national disputes in a peaceful way. What would the late, great Fenian martyrs say about this sell-out, this compromise, this dirty deal? People cite you as an implacable defender of great republican ideals, as somebody who chose death over compromise.
They do not mention that because you are dead, you really have no opinion about a current issue. So an opinion can be imposed upon you. You died before compromise was reached, before times changed, before reality caught up with revolution. So you never had to sign that treaty, negotiate with that politician, or order your colleagues to dump arms.
You are a dead Irish patriot. You are pure. You are Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, with Padraig Pearse standing over your corpse. You are John O’Leary, regaling Yeats with tales of Fenian days.
You are not Michael Collins, or John Devoy, hard men forced to make hard decisions. You are certainly not Daniel O’Connell or Charles Stewart Parnell, men who chose political confrontation in the House of Commons over physical confrontation in the lanes of rural Ireland.
You are the unrepentant Fenian, the embodiment of romantic Ireland, defender of the doomed cause.
Back in the days when Sinn Fein had a slightly different view of politics than it has now, sneering sympathizers in Ireland and here in the U.S. were fond of asserting that Ireland did not have the government for which Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and the other Easter martyrs died. The same argument was made during the Treaty crisis in 1923. The anti-Treaty side argued that Pearse and Connolly had not died for a so-called Irish Free State consisting of 26 counties, still wedded to the British Commonwealth, with a British presence in the north.
No, they hadn’t. And because they were dead, they never were asked to choose between an imperfect peace and the possibility of defeat, never torn between peace and war. The living, however, had to make choices, and some chose compromise, and for that they were dismissed from the ranks of the true and the brave.
Today, of course, the pure and the dead are again being invoked as the IRA brings its campaign to an end without having achieved its stated goal of a 32-county republic. Bobby Sands and his comrades did not die for a continuation of the status quo, say the dissenters, mercifully few in number. The dead Volunteers of the last 30 years did not die for the sake of a compromise.
No, they didn’t. But the living must deal with reality, while the dead are transformed into uncompromising romantics. Eighty years ago, Michael Collins was given a choice denied to Pearse and Connolly: A step towards the prize, or another romantic defeat. He chose partial victory, and wound up dead at the hands of those who called him a traitor. But who can say what the pure would have done, had they lived to be given a choice.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness long ago set out on a perilous journey that would lead inevitably to compromise — a compromise they would have found unacceptable a quarter-century ago. But it is no longer 1980, and while the tenets of unyielding republicanism may not change, everything else has. Adams and McGuinness saw that continued violence was leading nowhere, so they have chosen to work within the system they hoped one day to destroy. Does that mean their republican comrades died in vain? They would not be the first to do so. But if nations chose to keep fighting for the sake of the dead, the British army would still be garrisoned in New York. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died in an effort to preserve slavery. Did we soil their memories when we allowed black people equal rights? If so, too bad.
It is a hard man or woman who would make decisions for the living based on the presumed desires of the dead. The dead may inspire us, but they ought not to dictate policy. Sinn Fein and the IRA have come to that realization. Their critics have not — that is, their critics from within, those who believe Sinn Fein’s compromises somehow betray the dead of Glasnevin.
Were I a resident citizen of the Irish Republic, I would argue that it surely is time to think about the future, about the living. It is time to escape the long shadows of the dead. Let them rest in purity. The living know that life is not always neat, that solutions often require compromise, and that peace and justice are better than war and violence.
The Irish patriots buried in republican plots had a vision of the Ireland they wished to bring about. That vision included peace and prosperity.
In their name, then, let the living work their compromises, agitate for justice, and get on with the business of… living.