Commemorating 1916

Today I went along to the GPO in Dublin’s O’Connell Street to attend the official (state) commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. I posted a Facebook status update saying I was attending the event, and a friend posted in reply (in Irish): “seo an chéad uair a chuala mé faoi” (“this is the first I heard of it”). This was unsurprising, as the event was only publicised, in a fairly low-key way, in the past couple of days by the Department of Defence. Last year, when something similar happened, approximately 7,000 people assembled nonetheless in O’Connell Street. The media reported this and a columnist later wrote that this demonstrated that such commemorations had no popular support.

Why did I go? Well, I have always thought that the group of men who led the Rising included some exceptional and admirable individuals: playwrights, poets, thinkers, educationalists, visionaries. Figures such as Patrick Pearse were hugely influenced by the revival in Irish culture and literature, which had begun in the mid 19th century. The aftermath of theGreat Famine, the subsequent establishment of the Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association, together with land reform, the downfall of Parnell, the collection of folklore and literature from among the ordinary people in the West of Ireland by figures from an Anglo-Irish background suych as yeats and Lady Gregory: all of these activated and inspired a younger generation of idealists, who were later attracted into the revolutionary movement.

There was some family involvement in the War of Independence on my mother’s side,   although I know little detail about the actual involvement. I have a War of Independence service medal, which was awarded to my grandfather. Both my grandparents were very much inspired by the Irish Ireland ideal, as was my mother, who was involved in the Gaelic League, growing up in Mallow in the late 40s and 1950s.

For a long time throughout the 1970s and 1980s, official commemoration of 1916 was discontinued, and indeed discouraged, in the Republic. The Northern Ireland troubles, which began in 1969, frightened the establishment in the South, who feared growing republican paramilitarism in the North and wanted to avoid anything which would appear to “give succour” to such groups, who claimed to be the inheritors of the 1916 vision. Effectively, in doing so,the State ceded its own revolutionary heritage to such groups. For a long time, to even speak of Pearse and the 1916 rising was to lead to accusations of being “a fellow traveller” of the IRA, and epithets such as “hush-puppy Provoism” abounded in the southern media- a term pioneered by the brilliant and gifted polemicist Eoghan Harris. However, to mark the 75th anniversary of the rising in 1991, a small scale military ceremonial was held outside the GPO in Dublin, on the initiative of the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey. A cultural commemoration was organised by a group led by artist Robert Ballagh the following weekend.

In late 2005,Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis that his government was going to revive the annual military ceremonial at the GPO.  A speech given by President Mary McAleese at UCC in January 2006 (which may be read here) hailed “our idealistic and heroic founding fathers and mothers, our Davids to their Goliaths”. She rather unnecessarily and controversially added “In the nineteenth century an English radical described the occupation of India as a system of ‘outdoor relief’ for the younger sons of the upper classes. The administration of Ireland was not very different, being carried on as a process of continuous conversation around the fire in the Kildare Street Club by past pupils of public schools. It was no way to run a country, even without the glass ceiling for Catholics”. She was roundly abused for this by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times, who slammed her for her “dreadful speech”. Amid some controversy, and notable hostility from certain quarters, a major military parade was organised by the Government, and well publicised in advance.  120,000 people lined the streets of Dublin, and the Irish Times declared in its headline that Ahern’s parade “had won political approval”.

In the five years since 2006, the state has continued to hold a military ceremonial at the GPO each Easter Sunday. It is not widely publicised, but is quite an impressive spectacle, with the Minister for Defence, Taoiseach and President arriving on parade. The programme today was fairly typical. The national flag was lowered, a prayer of remembrance was lead by Mgr Eoin Thynne, the Army chaplain, a piper played a lament and an Army officer read the proclamation. An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD invited President McAleese to lay a wreath in memory of “all those who died”. A minute’s silence was then observed, the Last Post sounded and the national flag raised to full mast. Reveille and the national anthem followed, with Air Corps jets flying overhead. RTE News reported later that 3,000 people had attended the commemoration.

This year, the approaching 95th anniversary of the rising was heralded by a number of newspaper columns, all of them casting a fairly cold eye. It seems true to say that we are deeply conflicted, as a society in the Republic, about 1916 and what it represents. It is indeed odd that the greatest attention which has been paid in over 30 years in the public consciousness to Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, opened in 1966 to commemorate “all those who died for Irish freedom” has been in the context of the forthcoming visit of Queen Elizabeth II. The Government has apparently secured that the Queen will lay a wreath there, an act of symbolism carefully balanced by plans for her to lay a wreath also at the War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, which commemorate the many Irish who served in the regiments of the British Army in the First and Second World Wars. This reflects the carefully balanced commemoration organised by Ahern’s government in 2006, which featured a major military commemoration of the Battle of the Somme at the War Memorial Gardens, and the carrying of Irish regimental flags of the British army (which was then the Irish Army) by officers of the Republic’s defence forces, as well as the Easter Rising commemoration.

It is a difficult path to tread for the Republic’s establishment. There are many within the state whose forefathers were unionist in the 1916 to 22 period, for whom 1916 commemorations are a particularly neuralgic matter. There are the descendants of (Irish)RIC police officers and (Irish) British Army personnel. There are the descendants of some who were burnt out by the (Old) IRA during the War of Independence. There are the descendants of those whose allegiance was to the Irish Parliamentary party, and its leader John Redmond, which were eclipsed in the 1918 general election by Sinn Féin. There are also unionists in the North, who view the 1916 rising and the War of Independence as acts of treachery, particularly egregious because they were committed while Britain was at war-Britain being “stabbed in the back” in their view. Of course,Pearse and his comrades questioned why Britain was exhorting young Irish men to “fight for the freedom of small nations” (notably, Belgium) while Home Rule was being repeatedly long fingered by the British Parliament, in defiance of the wishes of the overwhelming majority in Ireland.

However, many of those not initially sympathetic to the rising, or the politics of its leaders, were moved to pay tribute to their courage and bravery. Prime Minister Asquith in the House of Commons noted that the rebels had mistreated no prisoners of war.

George Russell (AE), the artist, mystic, poet and writer, no sympathiser with the rebels, wrote:

Your dream had left me numb and cold
But yet my spirit rose in pride,
Re-fashioned in burnished gold
The images of those who died,
Or were shut in the penal cell –
Here’s to you, Pearse, your dream, not mine,
But yet the thought – for this you fell –
Turns all life’s water into wine.

In recent years, the southern state, after several decades of official amnesia, has moved to acknowledge the many thousands of Irish who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. Television documentaries and books have brought their sacrifice to the attention of the public. Over a number of recent years,  a rebound hostility to nationalist remembrances has been evident in media and academic commentary. In Ireland, we seem incapable of “both/and” perspectives: it must always be “either/or”. To bolster my sense of belonging and history, yours must be disparaged. The pendulum swings wildly from nationalist triumphalism to aggressively self-critical excoriation. We end up, in the words of a Goverment official in 2006, “almost apologising for our patriot dead”.

But the 1916 rising, the executions which followed, and the War of Independence, did set in train the process which led to independence for the 26 counties. The state cannot realistically wash its hands of the muddied baptismal water from which it took its being. There is much to celebrate and admire in the noble and generous vision of the 1916 proclamation. We are unusual as a country in having no Independence Day. Perhaps when we have the new constitution, promised by Éamon Gilmore during the general election, we can declare Ireland a Republic in our Constitution (we are only a republic by statute at present), and all our citizens can then join in celebrating Republic Day without disowning their complex and diverse pasts.

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