Martin McGuinness And the Myth of Sisyphus


Have the Irish got it wrong? “To make peace with the Empire” wasn’t the point of it all – all the guerrilla warfare. Peace with the Empire isn’t something to celebrate. But the funeral of Martin McGuinness seemed to say that this exactly was the point of it all. And that this “peace-making” is something to celebrate. Seeing Bill Clinton touch the Irish flag on the altar of the Derry church touched a raw nerve.

Did the Empire co-opt McGuinness? Did he compromise himself when he made peace with the Western establishment?

These are questions that swallow all who first wage war with the Empire and then make peace with it – without having really changed anything – with the political structure more or less as it was. War fatigue is understandable. But – after all the fighting – is the embrace of the status quo that caused the war understandable?

Modern Irish history is built on this dilemma: peace or war with the Empire? This question being a problem because one choice is as bad as the other.

Ireland’s struggle against the Empire has always been Sisyphean. Ireland’s heroes have rolled the rock up the mountain only to see the rock roll back down and crush all the ideals which made the push possible in the first place. Each Irish “victory” has ended up – in one way or the other – a defeat. But somehow the Irish continued to roll the rock back up the mountain.

Martin McGuinness was Ireland’s latest Sisyphus. He followed the likes of Wolfe Tone, Daniel O’Connell and James Connolly. What they fought for – in words and deeds – ended up being crushed. But they set an example which others have followed nonetheless.

Wolfe Tone was a founder of the United Irishmen in Belfast, in 1791. And he went on to lead the great rebellion of 1798. This epic battle against British rule in Ireland involved tens of thousands of Irishmen and even included the support of Napoleon. Nevertheless it failed. And the United Irishmen (revolutionary republicans) ended up, in 1800, with the Act of Union – the Union of Britain and Ireland (ultra-royalist and ultra-racist). That is, the United Irishmen got the exact opposite of what they wanted.

Three decades later (1820s) Daniel O’Connell, from Kerry, decided to push the rock of British rule up the mountain again. His tactic wasn’t revolution but reform. And by mobilising hundreds of thousands of Irish people (at monster meetings) and with skilflul legal arguments – he won “Catholic Emancipation” (political rights for Catholics).

This proved to be the most hollow of victories however. Because within a decade or two “Catholic Emancipation” turned into “Catholic Genocide”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s wiped Daniel O’Connell and reformism off the face of the planet. British rule had rolled back down the mountain. And it was O’Connell’s turn to get the exact opposite of what he wanted.

The next Irish push up the mountain relied upon the memory of the genocide and the vision of a revolutionary future. James Connolly, from Glasgow, best embodied this effort. In 1916 he was one of the leaders who took over the centre of Dublin with a rag tag army of men and women. The British blew them and Dublin to bits. But – if there was any doubt about it – the British blew their legitimacy to bits as well.

After a few years the British were out of Dublin but still in Belfast. Revolution was in the air but reaction too. When the dust settled Ireland was cut in two. And it’s vision was blinded by counterrevolution. James Connolly (socialist) got the exact opposite of what he wanted. British imperial rule and gombeen Irish capitalism had rolled back on top of him.

Which brings us to the present push upwards. It is a child of the 1960s: civil rights and cultural revolution. Around 1968 Irish youth plugged into the youthful energy emanating from Alabama, Algeria, China and Cuba. Emboldened by internationalism rather than nationalism – they refused to take Britain’s apartheid shit anymore. And as a result they found themselves in a protracted dirty war against the UK. Belfast and Derry lit up the Western sky.

The twenty year old Derry man, Martin McGuinness, appeared alongside other twenty-somethings and resurrected the feeling of Irish strength. This underground army (the  provisional IRA) reinvented guerrilla warfare against the Empire and didn’t crack once over a three decade period. The catch however was it’s subterranean nature. Not only were the imperialists in London forcing this fight for freedom underground but so too were the gombeen men in Dublin. There was to be no decisive mobilisation of people power.

Something had to give. So the provisional IRA gave up their guns. And the Empire? What did it give up? That’s the question of today. The Union Jack still flies over Derry. And the border separating Derry and Donegal still exists a few miles away. Moreover the British army still recruits mercenaries in Ireland for it’s killing fields in the Middle East. Martin McGuinness didn’t fight for this. But that’s what he got: the exact opposite of what he wanted.

Seen through the eyes of Irish history however this negative dialect is nothing to be ashamed of. And going deeper: seen through the eyes of Greek mythology there is meaning in this tragedy – even if it is absurd.

The Empire may have consumed McGuinness – just as it consumed Wolfe Tone, Daniel O’Connell and James Connolly. But the futility of his (and their) resistance to the Empire created something which the rest of us mortals can hold onto and use regardless. The example of disobedient courage and strength in the face of the imperial gods – despite the negative ending – isn’t worthless.

The lesson of McGuinness isn’t to be found in the reconciliation but in the resistance. In other words: war, no matter how hopeless, can be more meaningful than peace. In the case of McGuinness: it is.

Albert Camus points towards the moral of this defiance in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He ends his meditation with these words:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s  burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile or futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Our wager is that McGuinness was happiest not when shaking the hand of the British queen, but when plotting her “impossible” downfall.

The ideals of Martin McGuinness weren’t compromised or co-opted at the end. They just rolled back down to the bottom of the mountain. Others in Ireland and around the world will pick them up. And carry on the struggle against the Empire.

Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.