Coalition has struck right balance on Rising centenary – Roy Foster

Historian ‘impressed by how Government’s commemorative strategies have worked’


The Government has got the balance right in how it plans to commemorate Easter 1916, distinguished Irish historian Prof Roy Foster has said.

Speaking at the Irish Embassy in Rome at what was billed as the first overseas centenary event, he said: “I’ve been very impressed by how the Government’s commemorative strategies have worked.

“When they were first outlined, they received a lot of flak . . . but I think they were very carefully planned to avoid the pitfalls of crude triumphalism and of excluding that large part of the population who were not represented in the 1916 Rising, most notably the large proportion of the population who were fighting for the allies [in the first World War ].

“I think that the way it has panned out has vindicated the Government’s celebratory but not triumphalist approach and the very deliberate decision not to lose sight of the other elements in the very complicated jigsaw of the time.”

Prof Foster was responding to a question from the UK ambassador to Italy, Christopher Prentice, who had noted that Irish-UK relations have never been better than they were today. In that context, continued the ambassador, what would Prof Foster like to see happen in this commemorative year?

“Well, you could start by giving us back the Hugh Lane collection,” responded Prof Foster, apologising immediately for “my cheap and unnecessary shot”.

His jocular remark related to the arrangement whereby eight French impressionist works in the Hugh Lane collection were still shared by Dublin and London.

Prof Foster earlier delivered a lecture on “Yeats and the Revolutionary Generation” within the context of a two-day seminar at the Roma Tre University, Writing The Rising, organised by Irish academic John McCourt, and featuring 21 academics and from Irish, English, Scottish, Italian and Czech universities.

There was inevitably considerable talk about poet WB Yeats and much else besides.

Colin Reid from Northumbria University said that in the wake of 1916 Sinn Féin had wanted to attend the Versailles Peace Talks at the end of war in their role of “heir” to the “Ancient Sovereign State Of Ireland” (still under British rule at the time, of course). But the victorious allies rejected their application.

One of the most engaging and informative presentations on the first morning of the seminar came from Irish academic Joan FitzGerald, who works at Roma’s La Sapienza university.

Dr FitzGerald is a niece of former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and the granddaughter of Desmond FitzGerald, the Irish revolutionary, poet and publicist who served at the GPO in 1916.

Ardent nationalist

Dr FitzGerald depicted much of the heady atmosphere of those confused times. She recalled how Desmond FitzGerald, a Catholic, had eloped with Belfast Protestant Mabel McConnell, who, notwithstanding her background, became an ardent nationalist.

Dr FitzGerald also recalled how Desmond FitzGerald nearly missed out entirely on Easter 1916. Having been informed that the Rising had been called off on Easter Sunday, Desmond and Mabel travelled into Dublin from Bray where they then lived, unsure what would happen.

The couple met up in front of TCD on Easter Monday morning and headed off to find some breakfast. It was only when they heard cafe customers reporting that there was shooting at the GPO that they realised the Rising had started, after all. Desmond then rushed to do his nationalist duty.

Arrested on more than one occasion, Desmond FitzGerald was elected Sinn Féin MP for Dublin Pembroke in 1918. A supporter of the treaty, Fitzgerald was Minister for External Affairs in the 1922 government of the Irish Free State.

He went on to represent the new state at the League of Nations and at imperial conferences. Desmond FitzGerald died in 1947, leaving four children – Desmond, Pierce, Fergus and future taoiseach Garret (1926–2011).