“We took risks, we knew we took them. Things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”
Although the above quote is strikingly similar to the sentiments expressed by some of the participants in the 1916 Rising its source was perhaps as antipathetic to the aims of Irish nationalism as could be imagined.
They are in fact from the last message to the public written by Robert Falcon Scott just before his death on March 29, 1912 when he and his party perished on the return from the South Pole within 11 miles of a food depot that might have saved their lives.
They had been beaten to the Pole by the wily Norwegian Roald Amundsen, and Scott is often cited as an example of a loser Brit who had not methodically planned, as had his rival, to eat all the puppies. Indeed a staple of British comedy in the 1970s and 80s was mockery of Scott and his companions. Much mirth was extracted by recreating the scene where Titus Oates walks into the Antarctic blizzard with the words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
I of course thought it was funny at the time, and there is certainly ample material for surreal comedy in the whole thing. There are those who like to focus on Scott not just as an exemplar of stiff upper lipped English stupidity; but of human, indeed specifically male foolishness for it is almost invariably chaps apart from outliers like Amelia Earhart and Alexandra David-Neel who abandon the J. Alfred Prufrock world of a life measured out in coffee spoons, in the pursuit of what seem to the distant observer to be projects of dubious merit, or indeed sheer insanity.
Curiously while Scott was a product of a sometimes bizarre, if effective, Royal Navy tradition, his polar journeys and Shackleton’s later attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent, were regarded as smacking slightly of draft dodging, particularly in the case of Shackleton whose departure for the frozen south coincided with the outbreak of World War I. So they shared with Pearse and his comrades in the suspicion directed at chaps who it was thought ought to be charging happily and suicidally at the Bosch in muddy fields and who seemingly had not a chance of success, rather than sledging across snow and declaring republics.
Tom Crean from Annascaul was part of Shackleton’s crew on the James Caird which sailed 800 miles in hellish conditions from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Those who shared the James Caird with Crean on the epic voyage recalled him chanting indecipherably at the tiller in the manner of a Buddhist monk. It was most likely a sean nós song from his Kerry childhood. They left the island on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916,the same day that the Volunteers took over the GPO in Dublin. Four days later, Thomas Ashe from Kinard, Lispole, just up the road from Annascaul, led the attack on Ashbourne RIC barracks.
The Creans were subject to a raid by the Tans in 1920 after Nell Crean was seen at a commemoration for Ashe, who had died on hunger strike in September 1917 during an horrific attempt to force feed him. Tom’s brother Con was an RIC constable and was killed by the IRA in county Cork in 1920. Tom had bought the South Pole Inn in Annascaul and lived quietly there until his death in 1938.
Although his adventures had been motivated by a “lonely impulse of delight” rather than a devotion to the Empire, Crean was not celebrated as a hero in Ireland during his own life or for decades later. He was regarded as a bit of a Brit.
Anyway, what got me to thinking about all of this was the notion that doing mad things is to be frowned upon, and that polar explorers and romantic revolutionaries might have found something better to do with their time rather than paint more of the map an Imperial pink, or stage hopeless uprisings. Had Crean remained in Annascaul digging fields few would remember him.
The same applies to his neighbour Thomas Ashe who not only was part of what many regarded as a futile and doomed military adventure, but who endured tremendous agony in defiance of his captors. Likewise Bobby Sands, whose personal courage in the face of what he knew were overwhelming odds has earned his place in the pantheon of heroes. Ashe and Sands memory will endure despite the failure to achieve the Republic. Crean and indeed Scott and Shackleton have earned the same despite falling short of their goals.
The rejection of individual courage and risk and adventure is connected to a view of human beings as having little control over their own destiny. The ideal of totalitarians from Fourier and his bee hive like phalansteres to the Nazis and Marxists has been to turn human beings into means to an end, devoid as much as possible of personal autonomy and dignity.
The attempted dehumanisation of prisoners in the H Blocks had a similar objective. All of them have failed because of the refusal of even a small number of people to accept the taking away of their individual freedom to act, even if that freedom consists of no more than the withholding of consent.
The vanguard of totalitarian collectivism Lenin’s Bolsheviks, comprised largely of déclassé émigrés, did not wait for the clock of historical inevitability to strike. Their coup and elevation from a marginal millenarian sect to a central and malign part on the historical stage was founded on an opportunistic coup d’état motivated by a risky gambit. “You know what would be a mad idea Comrade Nadezhda …”
Lenin, despite his ostensible belief in collectives as the engine of change, was the supreme voluntarist. Not only were he and his small band of obscure malcontents the indispensable key to turning the world upside down, but his enemies were “shit” and “scum” to be destroyed rather than the unwitting actors in a world historical drama beyond their individual influence. And therefore perhaps to be absolved.
One of Lenin’s contemporaries and soul mates, a brooding Austrian corporal railing against Jews rather than the Czarist autocracy, held a similar view of and contempt for humanity and individual humans.
So perhaps we ought value more those are driven by perhaps futile adventures rather than planning the future for the rest of. Whether we want them to or not.