Pursuing Inclusivity: C of I responses in 1966 to the Easter Rising

This article appears in the Autumn 2012 issue of Search, a Church of Ireland journal. See further details below.

In 1966, the Government in the Republic prepared elaborate plans to mark the Golden Jubilee of the 1916 Easter Rising. The Commemoration Committee’s programme was announced by Taoiseach Seán Lemass on February 11th, and featured religious ceremonies, military, public and children’s parades, the opening of the Garden of Remembrance, the unveiling of the Thomas Davis statue in College Green, Dublin, a pageant at Croke Park and numerous other cultural events. There was a determined effort to include all sections of southern society and the official programme set the agenda for local initiatives. On Easter Monday, there would be religious ceremonies throughout Ireland, including Solemn Votive Masses, ” Church of Ireland services and special prayers in Diocesan Cathedrals”.[1]

In the South, the Church of Ireland, notwithstanding the distinguished role a number of its sons and daughters had played in the national revolution[2], was still associated in the minds of many with the ancien régime which it had sought to supplant, and with remembrance of the Great War. Conscious of this, she was anxious to lend her cooperation to this national commemoration.

Being an all-island church, there were certain tensions. Perhaps with an eye to the IRA border campaign of the 1950s, an article was published in the Church of Ireland Gazette entitled “A Time to be ‘the Church of Ireland’ ”. It sounded a warning note in relation to the upcoming celebrations, stressing the necessity to ensure that no action should be contemplated which could be interpreted as a aligning the church with one side or the other.

It set out starkly the conflicting views on the rebellion. Easter 1916 represented “the very vortex of the disagreements of the Irish people. To some it is the epitome of glory, and to others, of shame…. For some the smoke of burning was the veil of a terrible beauty, for others the mark of the funeral pyre of a nation’s honour. ….In the context of the Church of Ireland, it must be added, with heavy emphasis, that this irreconcilable conflict exists even within her own ranks and the line of it does not conform to that of the political border”. It concluded by saying that “even without the possibility of irritant being provided by an illegal organisation, there are here all the makings of trouble, and it behoves us… to look the situation in the eye and rally the forces of goodwill and common sense.” [3]

“The Rector would like it made known that the Church of Ireland is not indifferent to the jubilee commemoration of Easter Week, 1916 ,” ran a report in the Connaught Telegraph [4]. In Nenagh, the rector sent apologies to a commemorative planning meeting, explaining “we feel that Easter Day itself, celebrating as it does the Resurrection of our Lord, is so fundamentally important that we cannot alter the liturgy for that day. However, we are holding on Easter Monday a diocesan service in the Cathedral at Killaloe at 11am, to be attended by all clergy and people and at which the Bishop will preach a special sermon.”[5]

Church of Ireland services appeared in commemorative programmes in such places as Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary; Killarney; Tralee; at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist and Saint Mary in Sligo, and in Drumshanbo.

The Connacht Tribune, reporting on a service in Kilmacduagh Group of Parishes, noted that special prayers were authorised for use by the House of Bishops, including the following bidding: “Beloved in Christ, we are come together in the presence of Almighty God to offer our worship to him in thanksgiving and prayer. Let us give thanks to Him this day, the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of our country as a sovereign independent state, and remember with thanksgiving before Him, the courage and devotion of those who pledged their lives and the lives of their comrades in the cause of freedom and welfare of this nation…. “ [6]

Many northern members of the Church looked with dismay at her participation in the southern commemorations. A commemorative service was held at St Eunan’s Cathedral in East Donegal[7] (presided over by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Dr Tyndal, whose diocese straddles the border). However, a resolution expressing “consternation and regret” that some Church of Ireland churches intended to hold such commemorative services was passed by the Select Vestry of Glendermott Parish Church, across the border in County Derry. A copy of the resolution was to be sent to the Diocesan Council with a request that the bishops of the church direct that no such commemoration should be held in any of the churches in their diocese.[8]

The apex of the celebrations, Easter Monday, 11 April 1966, saw a heavy schedule of events in Dublin city. These included High Mass at the Pro-Cathedral at 10am, and a 1916 Commemoration service from St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin at 11am. The formal opening of the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square, Dublin was scheduled for 11:55am.

The event at St Patrick’s was a United Service organised by the Dublin Council of Churches. In an unauthorised action prior to this service, a wreath was laid on a War Memorial in the Cathedral by Major R Bunting of Dundonald, Belfast “in memory of the British officers who died in the line of duty in Dublin in Easter, 1916.”[9]

Archbishop George Otto Simms

Archbishop George Otto Simms

In his sermon, Archbishop George Otto Simms noted that the service included Thanksgiving and Commemoration, but also, as we faced the days ahead, Dedication.“The prayers we have used in our worship have been for our country, our President, and for all those who bear responsibility in government, administration, in our public and civic life. Their phrases and aspirations are very familiar, for we have used them regularly and constantly all through the years of the State’s progress and development. Today these prayers spring to life in a vivid way and emphasise with a fresh realism that our own way of life is not a mere private, self-interested pursuit, but something more like a call to use our energies, activities and gifts, such as they are, for the general good and for the life together that we share in country and community.

Dr Simms had words of praise for the efforts of the State to foster tolerance since independence: “There is much for which to give thanks on our commemorative occasion. We are grateful across the span of the last 50 years for the goodwill, tolerance and freedom expressed and upheld among and between those of differing outlooks and religious allegiances. The words of the Proclamation that guarantee ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all citizens’ have brought help and encouragement to minorities during this period. There is a rock like quality about such elements in the formation of a State”.

He noted the voice Ireland had in world councils as a result of the sovereignty won: “We give thanks, too, for the spirit of reconciliation and goodwill that has been evident in recent times. Understandably, our prayers are offered for the peace of the whole world in which we are set as a country with a place and a voice in international assemblies. “Our country’s place in the world of nations, not least in the councils that are concerned with world peace and harmony among all men, has been a notable one as a result of the vision of our statesmen..”[10]

Rather embarrassingly, Archbishop Simms was locked out of the opening ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance, which was being performed by President de Valera, and featuring a blessing by Archbishop McQuaid. Dr Simms had been collected in a State car from St Patrick’s and was accompanied by the Rev William McDowell, representing the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and Councilor Maurice Dockrell TD. When they arrived at the Garden, the gates had already been shut for the ceremonies and officials were unable to find a key to open them. A key eventually was found, but at that stage the ceremonies were nearly at an end.[11] The President in his remarks expressed thanks to both Archbishops McQuaid and Simms for the services held that day.

Another service was held in Cork, presided over by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, the Right Rev Dr RG Perdue: “Let us look to the future with hope and optimism. “The idealism, sincerity and determination of the 1916 leaders was a challenge to us, both as citizens and Christians.” The Proclamation itself, written and read at a time when there was much tension and feelings were running high, was a tribute to the leaders’ vision, charity and breadth of vision. What stood out about 1916 was the courage of that little band of men who, for their ideals, were prepared to risk all and sacrifice all, even life itself. “Men of such calibre must be held in the esteem of friend and foe alike. They set a standard of service admired by all and they are a challenge to all complacency.” Warning that it was the duty of citizens to take a full part in the life of the community, he said that where there was injustice, “our voices should be heard so that we inform public opinion, which, in turn, can have a powerful influence on the direction of policy.”If we are as dedicated to the spread of Christian love and to the expression of the Will of God in human affairs, as the men we remember today were dedicated to the cause of Ireland, we, too, could shake the nation and accomplish ends greater than our wildest dreams.”[12]

The Right Rev Dr Wyse Jackson, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe preached at a special service in St Mary’s Cathedral, attended by the Mayor and members of the Corporation. At Killaloe, a service of intercession for Ireland was held in Saint Flannan’s Cathedral. The Bishop, the Rt Rev HA Stanistreet, preached, referring to the “genuine idealism in 1916”. “There has been little or no corruption in the machinery of the Republic. Not one of our public men has had his name besmirched by scandal.” Noting that members of the church had served the Republic in Dáil, Senate and judiciary, he said “God will judge us by what we strive to be and to do. We as Irish Church people must affirm our loyalty to the State.”[13]

A day of ceremonies focussed on schoolchildren was held throughout the State on Friday, 22 April 1966. In its report “Schoolchildren Pay Tribute to Men of 1916”, the Irish Press reported that “at special Masses and Church of Ireland and Jewish services, they prayed for those who lost their lives in the Rising. In the schools they recited the Proclamation and sang the National Anthem.” Some 2,000 children from Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist schools in the city attended a ceremony at St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, where they were told by the Archbishop, Dr Simms, that they were right to meet for worship to dedicate themselves to the service of their country: “We dedicate ourselves today to the kind of service that will be rock-like in laying foundations of a life of truth and honesty both in private and in public; of charitableness in outlook and attitude with understanding that hears the other side in a human story or in any argument.” The Archbishop later unveiled a copy of the Proclamation in St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar school.[14]

These actions were mirrored in other places. In Co Meath, there were commemorations in the Carrick and Westland schools  (featuring  a reading of the Proclamation , the National Anthem and the placing of a commemorative plaque), and services at Preston  and Flower Hill schools.[15] At Midleton College’s celebrations in County Cork, the Headmaster, Mr JW Smyth urged the boys to dedicate themselves anew to their country, so that when the centenary celebrations of the Rising came about they would feel a far greater pride and justification in their achievements than the present generation felt today. [16]   

On Monday 25th April, the Irish Independent reported on another gesture- Archbishop Simms handing over to the Lord Mayor of Dublin of the site of the Wolfe Tone Memorial Park in the grounds adjoining Saint Mary’s Church, Mary St, Dublin, on behalf of the Church of Ireland Representative Body.

The Church of Ireland’s southern leadership, and in particular Archbishop Simms,  were responding to the prevailing view of 1916 in southern society at the time. The press reports indicate nonetheless a nuanced understanding and greater acceptance  of the complex conditions surrounding  the birth of the independent state on the part of much of the Church than might sometimes be projected back by contemporary stereotypes. Through its involvement in the celebrations, the philosophy and process of constructive engagement with the State heralded through the pamphlets of WB Stanford (A Recognised Church, 1944) and HR McAdoo (No New Church, 1945) were being continued and deepened.

It must also be recalled that, notwithstanding the north-south rapprochement with the Lemass/O’Neill meeting, the two parts of the partitioned island remained largely unknown to each other.  Paisleyite elements excoriated the Church of Ireland’s role in the southern celebrations. Official recognition in the South of the service of Irish men and women in the world wars was still largely absent. “Revisionist” critical studies of the Rising would only gain ground with Father Shaw’s article[17], published in Studies in 1972.  Despite occasional episodes of violence in Northern Ireland, the long conflict as we have known it was yet to develop.

The Troubles, which began in 1969, frightened the establishment in the South, who wanted to avoid “giving succour” to paramilitary groups claiming to be the inheritors of the 1916 vision. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, substantial commemoration of 1916 was discontinued, and indeed actively discouraged, in the Republic. It was not until the 1994 ceasefire and the Peace Process (culminating in the Good Friday Agreement) that there would be any significant relaxation in this regard. In late 2005, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced that his Government would revive the annual military ceremonial at the GPO.  Amid hostility from certain quarters in the media, a military parade went ahead, 120,000 people lining the streets of Dublin. The Irish Times declared in its headline that Ahern’s parade “had won political approval”.

In 2011, Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance in memory of those who had fought for Irish freedom (and at Islandbridge in memory of those Irish who had served with the British Army in the Wars). The southern state had finally moved in recent times to acknowledge the many thousands of Irish who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars. Television documentaries and books  brought their sacrifice to the attention of the public. Of course, the Church of Ireland continued always to remember her War dead at annual Remembrance Day ceremonies. But in 2012, Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson also participated in an interfaith prayer service at the State’s 1916 commemoration in Arbour Hill – a higher level of Church of Ireland representation than had been seen at 1916 Rising ceremonies for quite some time.

Archbishop Jackson at the interfaith service during the 1916 Commemoration at Arbour Hill, May 2102

Archbishop Jackson at the interfaith service during the 1916 Commemoration at Arbour Hill, May 2012



[1] Irish Press, 12th of February, 1966

[2] See article Harry Nicholls & Kathleen Emerson: Protestant Rebels by Martin Maguire,  35 Studia Hibernica, 2008-2009

[3] Irish Press, 5th  February, 1966

[4] 5th May 1966

[5] Nenagh Guardian, 5th March, 1966

[6] Connacht Tribune, 16th April, 1966

[7] Irish Independent, 4th April 1966

[8] Ibid.

[9]  Irish Times, 12th April, 1966

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nenagh Guardian, 16th April, 1966

[14] Irish Press, 23rd April, 1966

[15] Meath Chronicle, June 11, 1966

[16] Southern Star, 30th of April, 1966

[17] “The Canon of Irish History,   A challenge” by Father Francis Shaw SJ, Studies, 1972

Note: This article appears in the Autumn 2012 issue of Search, a Church of Ireland journal. It is one of a trio of articles relating to the Decade of Centenary commemorations of events ranging from the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the Great War, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence etc. The other articles in this trio feature an overview by Bishop John McDowell of Clogher, chairman of the Church of Ireland working group on the centenaries, and a piece by Wilfred Baker, diocesan secretary in Cork, offering a southern unionist perspective. The current issue also features articles on the debates on sexuality currently animating the Church of Ireland.

One thought on “Pursuing Inclusivity: C of I responses in 1966 to the Easter Rising

  1. Pingback: Major Ronald Bunting’s 1966 trip to Dublin. « Come here to me!

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