Easter 1916: Psychological milestone marked

Rising copper-fastened in Irish history, despite the unanswered questions about justification

The Government can be relieved at how well the celebrations have gone, given the apprehensions of a couple of years ago. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

The Government can be relieved at how well the celebrations have gone, given the apprehensions of a couple of years ago. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA


In dealing with historical commemorations, the priority of the government of the day is to make them “relevant” or at the least to survive the pitfalls they may present. In 1998 for example, when the Belfast Agreement coincided with the bicentenary of the 1798 rebellion, it was important for the then government and its advisers to highlight the brotherhood of the United Irishmen while playing down the sectarian character of the upheaval.

A year or two ago, as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition reluctantly prepared to face the 1916 centenary, their first touches were less than assured. The fatuous attempt to make the commemoration relevant, or even commercially enterprising, led to a video featuring pop stars and political notables. This famously drew an earthy expletive from Prof Diarmaid Ferriter, himself a member of the Government’s scholarly board of advisers. Anxious not to jeopardise the excellent state of British- Irish relations, politicians foolishly talked of the need to be “inclusive” and there was a crass suggestion of a British royal presence on the centenary platform.

Also, at a time when the rise of Sinn Féin seemed inexorable, the Government feared being upstaged by that organisation in the centenary celebrations. That would indeed have been an ironic development since Sinn Féin played no part in the Easter Rising.

In the event, whatever plans or ambitions the party might have had did not materialise. The separate commemoration of the O’Donovan Rossa funeral seemed petulant, and An Post put paid to the proposal to have a grandiose son et lumière spectacle at the GPO.

In the end, the Government took a firm grip on centenary planning, though this involved it in such necrophiliac, pomp- and-circumstance proceedings as the reburial of the remains of Cork nationalist martyr Thomas Kent.

Incidentally a Fine Gael-led administration was wise to distance itself from John Bruton’s implausible thesis that a successfully delivered Home Rule would have led serenely to national independence.

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This was a silent rebuke to the ambivalence in these matters of Sinn Féin, the third-largest party in the State. Moreover, schoolchildren got the opportunity to acquaint themselves, in a friendly and familiar manner, with the custodians of our national security.

Proclamation Day, March 15th, turned out to be a great success and even those of us who had some misgivings about the idea were impressed by the enthusiastic expressions and voices of the young Irish, particularly the “new” ones.

Enthusiasm indeed is the hallmark of local communities throughout the country as they commemorate 1916-related events in their areas. In hailing people like O’Donovan Rossa, locals are not at all worried about the warts which historians find in the west Cork favourite son.

The Irish public today, it seems to me, have a much more informed interest in historical events than they had in 1966. They are more concerned with what happened, with history per se, than with history as nationalist narrative.

Since 1966, the convulsion of the Troubles has come and (almost?) gone. All that has, inter alia, sobered and matured us. Meanwhile our favourite Proclamation phrase is still the inspiring “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”, which continues to be understood as a clarion call to social justice, despite futile corrections from pedants like myself about its true meaning.

In other respects, 2016 Ireland is unbelievably different from the country of the 50th anniversary. Historical sources are rich and varied and, thanks to the digital revolution, more or less freely available.

Wide cast

All of this augurs well for our better understanding of the revolutionary events we are to commemorate in the next few years.

In recent weeks, there has been a furore about the banners draped on the front of the Bank of Ireland at College Green (by the Department of the Taoiseach and Dublin City Council) honouring four major figures in the history of constitutional nationalist politics, Grattan, O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond. The building housed the Irish Parliament abolished by the Act of Union in 1801 and, throughout the 19th century, symbolised the hoped-for restoration of a native legislature. In nationalist processions, leaders would symbolically point towards the bank. Critics of the banners have been lamenting their seeming inappropriateness in the context of the 1916 centenary. But this is to ignore the creative interaction, the symbiotic relationship, between physical force and constitutionalism in modern Irish history . One recalls O’Connell defending agrarian terrorists, Parnell and the New Departure, and the (much appreciated) supportive visits of John Redmond to Tom Clarke in Portland prison. And the 1916 Proclamation itself, by promising a representative assembly as soon as possible, implicitly pays tribute to the strength of the parliamentary tradition in advancing the cause of Irish independence.

In conclusion, the Government can breathe a sigh of relief at how well the celebrations have gone, given the apprehensions of a couple of years ago.

More importantly, a psychological milestone has been passed. The 1916 Rising has been soberly copper-fastened in Irish history, despite the still unanswered questions about its justification. We are moving away from the fantasy world of “the Republic as in 1916 established”. We are now recognising that proclamation is not “establishment”. Increasingly, as further anniversaries pass, the magic (sometimes black) of the Easter Rising will be less seductive.