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The one phrase most likely to have been in the heads of those who went to fight for an Irish republic in 1916 came from the writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone. ” The rebels were a disparate bunch, but this was what united them: breaking the connection with England. Primarily, the establishment of an independent, sovereign Irish state, outside the United Kingdom and the British Empire.Patrick Pearse never tired of plucking it out as the essence of the radical nationalist movement: “We need not restate our programme; Tone has stated it for us: ‘To break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils’ . But the evils of which England was the never-failing source were not just directly political. Ireland, in order to be a sovereign nation, would need to be, in Douglas Hyde’s famous formulation “deanglicised”.The worst insult in nationalist circles was “Shoneen” – little John, a mini-me version of John Bull.The cultural connection with England would be broken by replacing English with Irish as the vernacular language, by replacing “garrison games” like soccer, rugby and cricket with Gaelic games, and by replacing effete tea dances with the vigorous and virtuous céilí. England had retarded and reformed the Irish economy by shaping it to serve the needs of the “mainland”.A free Ireland would develop its own resources and become a modern industrial power in its own right.It would, in particular, provide work for its own people, ending the scourge of mass emigration and population decline.
One anti-Treaty poster from 1922 turned Tone’s formula back on the founders of the Irish Free State: “Fight to break the connection with England,” said Tone.
“Wrong,” said Michael Collins, “fight to establish that connection.” And the other great acts of severance, the snapping of the cultural, economic and demographic connections, didn’t really happen.