What kind of a country is this?
Brian Inglis in The Irish Times reported: “There was very little real warmth in the cheering, very little real gaiety in the atmosphere. There were loud cheers, but they were the cheers of people just tired of standing there, waiting for something to happen. There were gay crowds, but they were the usual, idle, bank holiday crowds, prepared to watch any free show until such time as the cinemas opened their doors, and they could settle down in earnest to the business of enjoying the holiday.”
There was even trouble getting the new Republic’s tricolour right. “There appears to be some doubt in the public mind, or in the minds of the manufacturers of flags, as to what exactly constitutes the national flag of the Republic. Apart from the normal variations in the hue – primrose yellow to blood orange – quite a number of the small hand flags had the orange instead of the green next to the staff, and I saw one small girl waving a tricolour on which the green, white and orange stripes had been arranged horizontally instead of vertically.”
Souvenir sellers were having a hard time. The price of small Irish flags with gold tassels and pictures of Wolfe Tone or the GPO started at sixpence. By the time the military parade got under way the price was down to twopence, and even before it ended they were being knocked down for a penny. Souvenirs, after all, are meant to stir memories. The crowd may have sensed that this republic, too, would be forgotten.
IN REALITY THEdeclaration of a republic in 1949 changed nothing much. Ireland left the British Commonwealth, and this negative act was the only meaning the new republic ever had.
Asked by the London editor of The Irish Times whether the Republic of Ireland Act marked a step forward in Ireland’s development, a sceptical George Bernard Shaw replied, “Ask me five years hence. If the terrible vital statistics improve to a civilised level, then our steps will have been steps forward. If not, there will be nothing for us but the ancient prescription of the submergence of the island for ten minutes in the Irish Sea.”
Shaw’s scepticism was entirely justified. The new republic changed little – not even the name of the state, which remained simply Ireland. The term “Republic of Ireland” was declared to be “the description of the State”, not its name.
The Republic of Ireland Act is in fact a desultory piece of legislation, containing five sentences totalling 96 words. It could be so short because it had nothing to say, nothing to bring into effect. Everything carried on exactly as before. The vital statistics of the population – life expectancy, health, poverty, education – did not improve, unless, of course, people left for other countries, as they did in their droves in the decade after the new republic was inaugurated.
This, in itself, surely says something about the idea of an Irish republic. If you can declare it in 96 words that have no consequence, it is only because you have become used to forgetting it. It is an airy, insubstantial thing.
From Up the Republic! Towards a New Ireland, edited by Fintan O’Toole and published by Faber