In April 1991 an aged Rolls Royce, vintage 1949, drew up to a small crowd outside the post office in Dublin. The president of the Irish Republic, Mary Robinson, stepped out for a brief ceremony, lasting less than half an hour, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1916, when a group of armed separatists seized the center of Dublin and declared independence from Britain at the height of the World War I.

The myth of Irish nationalism is based on that dramatic event and its proclamation of independence. The Provisional Irish Republican Army, or Provos, who in its name still maintain a violent campaign in the north, hailed the 1991 anniversary and condemned the Irish government in routine terms for having consistently, and over many years, betrayed the republican tradition. The Irish government, by contrast, faced the day with some apprehension. A quarter of a century earlier it had greeted the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising with pageantry, and it had no wish to leave the celebration to others. But to celebrate against a background of terrorism in Ulster might appear to support the “obscene atrocities” (as one of its back-benchers put it) of the Provos; and Des O’Malley, a government minister, announced that what in his youth he had been taught to think of as a “glorious adventure” now represented, as he saw it, a dangerous model for the young of Ireland.

What neither side of the controversy is likely to have known is the astonishing fact that in 1916 the IRA did not support or favor the Easter Rising. It is a fact that, duly considered, might have let the Irish government off the hook and even given it a message to preach, which if not enough to stop the Provos in their tracks might have seriously embarrassed their campaign of intimidation and violence. It is not that this matter has never been mentioned: it is just that it has not sunk in. It is only known at all for the odd reason that in 1966 a priestly professor of early and medieval Irish at University College, Dublin, Father Francis Shaw, S.J., offered an article to Studies, a Dublin Jesuit journal. The article was called “The Canon of Irish History—a Challenge,” and in it he convincingly documented the absence of the IRA from the Rising of 1916 and the contempt of its leaders for the IRA. The article was a reckless act, no doubt, for a medievalist and a man of God, and his spiritual fathers seem to have thought the challenge needlessly provocative at a time of relative quiet in Irish affairs. The article, at all events, was not published. Father Shaw, known to his friends and students as Father Frank, died soon after, aged 63, in December 1970, by which time the troubles in the north had been renewed. Two years after his death Studies published the article, in the belated hope of bringing the extremists to their senses.

Father Frank’s argument was blunt. At no time had independence from Britain been the chief or only goal of Irish nationalism. The Irish Party in the British House of Commons, like Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) before it, had been consistently against independence and had sought nothing more than local autonomy or home rule. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, had been founded mainly by Arthur Griffth as “a constitutional, nonseparatist association,” and it had “no connection with the Rising of 1916.” Some of the leaders of the Rising, indeed, felt it to be hostile to them, and in any case useless and in terminal decline. The implication of the article was clear. The IRA could claim no credit for the act that led to the creation of an Irish state in 1921.

Credit, nonetheless, had been claimed. The confusion apparently arose because the name “Sinn Fein” (“Ourselves Alone”) had somehow captured the imagination of the British, who came to use it carelessly as a broad term for Irish nationalists in general. In other words, the Irish mistake may have been in its origins a British mistake, much as President Robinson’s official car in April 1991 was a British car. “It may come as a shock to some readers,” Francis Shaw wrote in the mid-1960’s, to know that as long ago as 1919 P.S. O’Hegerty, writing a history of Sinn Fein, confessed that it had “nothing to do with the insurrection,” which in inspiration was Fenian. The Fenians were romantic nationalists from the Victorian Age. Only one of the seven men who signed the republican proclamation of 1916, Sean MacDiarmada, had ever in his life been a Sinn Feiner, and he had severed connections years before; while most of the remaining six would have objected strongly to being identified with that movement. The IRA took no part in plotting for arms with the Germans in 1916, seizing the Dublin post office, or killing some 300 civilians in the Rising, along with 130 British troops. Patrick Pearse, executed as a ringleader in May 1916, had told Arthur Griffith four years before, in an open letter, that he had “never had much affection” for Sinn Fein, and hoped the movement would soon die out. “It’s about time for them,” he wrote with satisfaction, noting their decline in Irish affairs. As the survivors of the Rising surrendered to the British in April 1916 and were led off as prisoners, an Irish crowd jeered at them, spitting on them as traitors who had taken innocent Irish lives, wrecked the main street of Dublin, and collaborated with the Germans in time of war; and it is possible that there were IRA supporters there, jeering and spitting with the rest.

None of this is now much remembered, in Ireland or elsewhere. The heroic IRA myth survives, and I doubt if Father Francis Shaw, that courageous priest-professor now twenty years and more in his grave, would have been at all surprised at the near oblivion into which his discovery had fallen. As he must have known, it is a rare article in a scholarly journal that changes the course of events or even the course of opinion, and he was a modest man and nothing of a politician. He loved an argument, however, by all accounts, though he is best known as a careful editor of medieval Irish texts. A sickly man, ascetic and humorless, he spent many hours visiting the dying in Dublin, eventually becoming a Superior in his order, and he died uncelebrated, though he is still remembered with affection by his colleagues and pupils. But if he cannot now speak, at least others can.

Ireland, it is said, is in all the world the saddest victim of history. But the real cure for bad history is not silence or the bomb but good history; and at least Francis Shaw, in his day, showed how potent facts can be, if you let them, and how much the past can do to enslave or make us free.