1916 and Me: Emigrants reflect on the Easter Rising

‘The Irish Times’ invited readers to share their feelings about the rebellion. Here’s a selection from Irish people abroad


‘I am proud, but also scared, of the Rising’

As a 24-year-old recent graduate living and working in Edinburgh, I find it almost impossible to articulate what 1916 means to me. Not because I am so overwhelmed with emotion that I cannot speak but because it confuses me: I like it and I hate it, I am proud of it and frightened of it.

I also do feel a deep emotion that one doesn’t usually reserve for historical events, but 1916 isn’t really a historical event. It is a myth. It isn’t commemorated on its actual anniversary but in Easter Week. I am sure this is what the leaders wanted, to create a myth linked inextricably to religion.

But then I have to stop myself, because I have no idea what the leaders wanted. Nineteen sixteen has become such a linchpin that it shrouds all other historical events that may have led to the War of Independence or the Civil War, or our current Government.

We all become mindreaders trying to guess what the men (and women) of the Rising might have wanted, and they turn from people to shadowy, mythical figures wielding impressive power and authority.

The signatories to the Proclamation created a document like the Bible, in that people seem to take from it a thousand different messages. I seize on the opening words: “Irishmen and Irishwomen”. In bold and brash pride it proclaims gender equality, and later says there will be equal suffrage.

But my joy at these words is often snuffed out by people who condescendingly declare, “That’s not what that meant at the time.” I have a history degree, but that never stops people from kindly explaining historical events to me. The very fact that I studied history, however, rather than making the event clearer, simply obscures it even more.

It is argued that historians shouldn’t allow their emotion to colour their scholarship, but it is inevitable that their emotion will always colour their scholarship in some way.

I am proud of the Rising because of some of the leaders, because it was a “poets’ revolution”, because it was romantic and doomed from the beginning, because, regardless of what people tell me, women took part – in some cases as equals with men.

I am also scared of the Rising because it is an event that has led to the glorification of violence, because it was undemocratic, and yet we allow this small group of men the place of spiritual State founders and wonder if they would approve of modern Ireland. I cannot see how leaders with such opposing views could have crafted a government.

I will never feel just one thing about the Rising, but I think that is a good thing. I hope Irish people will never stop being confused about the Rising, and arguing about it and questioning what it means to them. This means that our history is still alive and that we are not blindly swallowing a narrative of our State that is being spoon-fed to us by some higher authority.

To me this questioning and uncertainty are a sign of independence.
Aoife O’Leary McNeice
Edinburgh, Scotland

‘What would my grandfather think of the choices I’ve made?’

I never expected to be living in Canberra. To be slathering my kids with sunscreen every day before school or splashing around in a swimming pool in the garden on Christmas Day. But here we are, living in Australia, and squeezing every bit of fun from it that we can.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of Ireland would have emerged if the leaders of the 1916 Rising had not been executed. Had they lived to lead our nation. Would I be living in Ireland, thriving there instead of here?

Every Saturday morning I haul my daughter out of bed at an unholy hour and drive a distance equivalent to that from Dublin to Athlone for her Irish-dancing class. Back home I wouldn’t bother. But here, on the far side of the world, it’s different. Along with other bleary-eyed expat moms we hug our takeout coffee cups in the dazzling early-morning sun.

Perhaps we make more of an effort to hold on to that part of our identity that is Irish because the alternatives are so seductive.

I think of my grandfather. What might he have thought of the choices I’ve made? He was a teenage boy selling newspapers outside the GPO on April 24th, 1916. Struck on the head by a policeman’s baton amid the commotion, he bore the scar all his life.

Three years earlier WB Yeats wrote of those who strove for independence, “They weighed so lightly what they gave.” Now we make calculated decisions about job security, career opportunities and lifestyle. Sometimes, being here, enjoying this lifestyle, I feel ungrateful for their sacrifice.

And yet, ultimately, what they gave us, what they fought for, was freedom. Freedom for us future generations to grasp our destiny in our own hands. Whatever that destiny may be. To move abroad. To thrive. To come back home. Isn’t that what they would have wanted for us? Isn’t that what my grandfather would have wanted for me?

When I move back home – and I know in my heart that time is coming – I will be bringing with me what I have learned from living in three very different countries over the past 10 years.

The can-do spirit, embracing disruption, the boundless optimism of the place. I will bring that with me. Within me. See, I too am changed, changed utterly. A rebel in my own way.
Dr Christine Deane
Canberra, Australia

‘I still consider Ireland home, no matter how far I go’

In Irish schools lessons are being taught about this event that changed our country, but I am not a part of them.

The 1916 uprising was a defining moment in the creation of the Ireland we know today. However, as I have lived outside of Ireland for so long, most of what happened during the rebellion has gradually been lost on me.

As a 17-year-old Irish girl living abroad, I know that back in Ireland there are lessons being taught, stories being told and memories being recalled about this event that changed our country, but I am not a part of them. I feel guilt that I cannot do the same here.

I wouldn’t change how my life turned out. Moving here has been one of the best things that has happened to me, but I feel disconnected from the pride that my friends and family feel back home.

I still consider Ireland my home, no matter how far I go or how much I forget, and I will always proudly call myself Irish. I think that’s what these “rebels” wanted to accomplish with this uprising. I think that these courageous men and women were just fighting for their own voice, their own independence, their own national identity.

If Ireland hadn’t changed on that momentous occasion I would not be the person I am today. The independence of Ireland has allowed Irish people to fully find themselves, to find their traditions and old family rituals that I believe we wouldn’t have if still controlled by the British.

In my opinion independence and identity are two of the most important things that contribute to any human being. Not only do they comprise who you are, but they give a sense of where you’re coming from and where you’re going. These “rebels” who were fighting for our independence knew that the place they had come from was not the place they wanted to stay in. They knew that Ireland could be so much more than it was.

It’s these things that make me proud to call myself Irish.
Daimhlinn Darling
Hong Kong, China

‘Let’s remember the blood that was shed but not get too carried away’ 

I remember the faded framed Proclamation on the wall in national school and those stark sideways black-and-white portraits of the doomed signatories. But it was the execution of a wounded James Connolly, tied to a chair, that really hit home.

As a young lad I regarded the leaders of the Rising as heroes. Their courage was remarkable and beyond reproach. The blood they shed gave birth to the Republic as we know it. Their historic achievement should not be diminished.

Modern political Ireland has its genesis in 1916. And yet modern Ireland bears little resemblance to the noble rhetoric and vision of the 1916 signatories. Socialism never got past first base.

Unshackling the British yoke never led to a radical transformation of Irish society. Pearse’s vision of a flourishing Irish language never materialised. Ireland has come a long way from its agrarian economy of a century ago. The Catholic Church’s influence is well and truly on the decline.

We now can regard ourselves as being on a par with most nation states in the developed world. Although, remarkably, the scourge or otherwise of emigration is showing no signs of abating.

As a long-gone migrant I welcome any commemoration of the 1916 Rising. But any celebration should transcend party politics. Nor should it become an instrument to beat up on our neighbours across the Irish Sea.

And as a long-departed migrant my sense of patriotism has seriously ebbed. But I was never one for flag-waving or tricolours on coffins. I don’t care about not being able to vote. Leaving Ireland behind has long since leached away any nationalism I may otherwise have harboured. Having witnessed the bloody and ultimately futile carnage of the Troubles, mostly from afar, 1916 in contrast was resoundingly successful.

By choosing to live in Australia I am now a dutiful member of the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth is our nominal head of state. The Union Jack remains firmly ensconced in the Australian flag, and the likelihood of Australia becoming a republic any time soon seems remote.

So what does 1916 mean to me? It will always remain one of Ireland’s defining moments. But the challenges facing modern Ireland go way beyond nationalism. Arguably, Ireland can and should do more to help with the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe. Irish women can justifiably feel that their day has not yet arrived. Far too many young people, for so many reasons, still see no future for themselves in the country of their birth.

Yeats’s immortal 1916 lament was perhaps a little too rash. Maybe he recognised that nationalism should always be tempered with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

By all means let’s remember those brave men and women of 1916 and the blood that was shed. But let’s not get too carried away. I suspect they wouldn’t have wanted too much of a fuss.
Philip Lynch
Tasmania, Australia

‘Violent revolution is a dodgy game’

In Belfast, in my teens, 1916 was an immense source of pride. Now I see that 1916 caused great collateral damage and suffering. It may be time to atone for it.

Partition made Mum and Dad, as Salman Rushdie would write, “children of midnight”. As infants, one evening in December 1922, they went to bed Irish and woke up the next morning as second-class citizens, in the new state of Northern Ireland. They, and 500,000 others like them, became overnight a de facto stateless people.

Although Easter 1966 passed off peacefully, in May someone calling himself Capt William Johnston, of the Ulster Volunteer Force, contacted the Belfast Telegraph with this chilling message: “From this day we declare war against the IRA and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.”

That summer I had a weekend job in the Phoenix bar at the top of New Lodge Road. One night in June one of my workmates, after his shift, went to a bar on Malvern Street, off Shankill Road, where he was shot dead. He was 18 years of age to my 17, as much a victim of 1916 as he was of the UVF. He would be the first of many.

At the end of January 1972, when the images from Derry came on the television in the lounge of the university residence, my fellow students leaped to their feet, applauding, clapping and cheering, as football fans do when their team scores an important goal. I didn’t feel anger towards them, then or now, no more than I do for my coreligionists who celebrated the deaths of British soldiers or police officers. I feel only sadness for them.

I’m not whingeing about 1916 spoiling my young life and pushing me to emigrate. I survived, and thrived, by my own devices. Nor, heaven forbid, am I accusing Northern Ireland’s majority of anything. I owe more to that community and to Westminster than I do to southerners or to Dublin.

But I do know that violent revolution is a dodgy game of musical chairs. Armed conflict often leads to civil war and ethnic cleansing. The vast majority of the fallen are usually civilians. Can 2016 speak to these issues? I wonder.
Patrick McKenna
Montreal, Canada

‘They were opportunistic – a trait mirrored in the Irish of today’ 

Living in Whistler, in British Columbia, where for six months of the year my snowboard is what I use to commute, it’s sometimes easy to let the importance of home slip my mind. So what does the 1916 Rising mean to me, a 24-year-old Irish person? It means being able to express an Irishness without conditions.

This year we’re celebrating the beginning of the birth of the Ireland that we now know. One hundred years ago a group of men stood up for what they believed in and what they knew the future of their country would believe in.

There are those who still question the rebels’ actions, when so many Irish husbands and sons were losing their lives on battlefields in France. There is no doubt that they were opportunistic, a trait I think is mirrored in the Irish of today.

Over the next few months I’ll refrain from tensing up when people here ask if Ireland is part of the UK. I’ll calmly say no, we’re an independent country, and that’s what the men and women of 1916 fought and died for, thank you very much.
Lloyd Hamilton
Whistler, Canada

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