View from the North: Mixed opinions on the meaning of 1916
Young people from both communities have different takes on relevance of the Rising
Conor McCann and Naoise McSherry in the Clann Eireann Youth Club in Lurgan, Co Armagh. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Chloe Dickson in front of the mural which she helped to design in the Ballysillan estate in north Belfast. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker
There is an unmarked, but rigid sectarian border on the town’s main street. In recent months, there have been riots, arrests and major disruption on the main Belfast-Dublin railway line that passes through the estate where Naoise McSherry lives with her family.
“Nineteen-sixteen doesn’t mean anything at all to me,” says McSherry, as she sits perched on the counter in the kitchen of the Clann Eireann Youth Club in the town.
“There are people today in this town throwing petrol bombs at the police and putting bombs on the railway tracks and they think they are in the tradition of the Easter Rising. Anybody could get hurt. They are stopping people getting to uni or to work. They are just hoods.”
Conor McCann, sitting beside her, nods his head in agreement. “Hooligans,” he says. “An embarrassment.”
However, McCann has a very different view of 1916 to his friend. “It means a lot to me. I love history, and Pearse and Connolly inspire me. They did so much. Ireland was occupied by the British for hundreds of years,” he says.
“They decided to do something about it, and they in turn had been inspired by Wolfe Tone. We wouldn’t have had the Republic of Ireland without 1916.”
The Provisional IRA is linked to 1916, according to McCann, but not in a straightforward way.
“In 1916 the issue was to gain independence for Ireland. In 1969 the main issue was to get civil rights for Catholics. It was inspired by Martin Luther King, ” he says.
“But it was also about independence. I’m not saying I agreed with the use of violence, but Northern Irish history wouldn’t have moved on without the IRA.”
McSherry has a different view. “I don’t agree with people taking up arms against the state. One hundred years after 1916 and what have republicans achieved up here?” she says.
“They have achieved power-sharing and an effective government of sorts,” McCann says.
However, his friend is having none of it. “I don’t understand why the Provisional IRA fought in the first place. Why did Ireland need to be freed? There’s too much history here,” she says.
McSherry lives in Kilwilkie, a housing estate with a reputation for republicanism.
“People think because of that you must be a big ‘Ra’ head. Which I absolutely am not. My boyfriend is a Protestant and if I brought him into Kilwilkie, I’d be called a Hun lover and all the rest,” she says.
“I wouldn’t be safe in Mourneview either: my name brands me.”
During the 1990s, Mourneview used to be the heartland of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). She uses the word “brand”, not as in corporate logos and messaging, but in the sense of a mark burned on to the hide of a beast.
Though young, she is a seasoned campaigner, having led a successful protest against plans to close the youth club last year. Then, she argued that Clann Eireann, which was established by the GAA, was a second home for young people.
It helped her to get through her exams and stay in school. It has kept young people out of trouble: drink, drugs, the drama of fighting in the streets.
“I have run into young fellows in alleyways making petrol bombs. I see young kids watching. There’s an army helicopter over the houses when you’re in bed at night,” she says.
“I went to Sinn Féin to get help keeping the club open but they didn’t care. I went over to the Protestant side of town and they helped us.”
The club, which is currently housed in a ramshackle old building with no ramps for the disabled, is to be rebuilt in the next couple of years.
“It was interesting. My great-uncle fought in World War One. There was a story in our family that he got a monkey and he was on a ship and he wasn’t allowed it and it was thrown overboard,” he says.
“That’s awful,” says McSherry. But she has her own animal war story. “My mum had a goat in our back garden, and the Brits shot it. At least I think it was the Brits. It was blowing someone’s cover.”
Then she says she had an uncle who was shot dead in 1973. A quick search on YouTube on her phone unearths a ballad about him.
“He was in the Official IRA. It says here that he fell in action against foreign invaders in his country. He was buried on his 18th birthday,” she says.
McCann says: “A lot of people want to move on from all that.”
McSherry nods and finishes his thought. “But other people won’t let them,” she says.
Both are at school, and plan to go to college. “I’d like to go away from Lurgan altogether,” says McCann.
However, his friend knows exactly where she wants to be. “Between Derrymacash and Aghagallon. I’m a homebird. I’d miss my mum too much and my granny,” she says.
However, it did not work out that way, and Craigavon failed to thrive. A few roundabouts away from Lurgan, Portadown College is a predominantly Protestant senior high school.
History teacher Seán Dunlop says Ireland rugby captain Rory Best is a former student. When asked about what 1916 means to them, these students are far more interested in the centenary of the Battle of the Somme than the Rising.
“As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, more people in the unionist community will commemorate the Somme than nationalists the Rising. The Rising is seen as a southern thing,” says one student.
The execution of the leaders was one of Britain’s biggest mistakes, he says. “It was a masterclass in creating martyrs.” Like other students, he is happy to be identified for this article. The school is not, however, citing safety concerns.
The Rising will be marked in Lurgan on Easter Sunday with a parade, which will include the Republican Martyrs’ Flute Band. It will be followed the next day by an Apprentice Boys’ parade around the town.
Some of Portadown College’s students will take part in the Orange march.
“I’m in the Hillhaven Flute Band. I don’t get why the people in the Republic are celebrating rebels attacking the state when it was at war with evil Germany. The Rising was a betrayal, though not unexpected,” says one pupil.
Marches have history here. The Drumcree parade on the first Sunday in July, the Orange Order’s commemoration of the Somme, became the focus of intense controversy and serious sectarian violence in the mid-1990s.
Many members of the original Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), set up to oppose Home Rule, were killed on the battlefield, many within minutes of leaving the trenches for no man’s land.
“The 1996 commemoration marked the 80th anniversary and it was attacked by republicans. It was just like a rerun, republicans being opportunistic, like they were during the Rising in 1916,” says another student.
This year, Portadown will be the host for the order’s celebrations of the Twelfth of July in Co Armagh. Some of the college’s pupils will not be around then, since they will be on a school tour to visit the battlefields in France.
“We’ve been a couple of times. My great-grandfathers both died on the first day of the Somme and they lost people on my Mum’s side of the family as well,” says one pupil.
“It is really eye-opening to see the sacrifice men made. My dad is into military history. Our house is very unionist and I am an Orangeman myself. The Rising was never talked about.”
Meanwhile, a fourth pupil in Portadown College is proud of her connections to the family that founded the Orange Order in Co Armagh at the end of the 18th century.
“They were my mum’s people and the family still feels very strongly about it. My granda will be marching with every society going. My great-gran lived through the first World War and was born before partition,” she says.
“When she turned 100 she got stuff from the queen and from the Irish President as well. Granda wasn’t so sure he liked that, but I think she was chuffed.”
However, she gets angry about the disrespect shown by some local nationalists and people in the Republic towards commemorations for those who died in the two World Wars.
“There is still a lot of hostility towards Remembrance Day. Friends of mine aren’t allowed to wear their poppy at work in case they offend Catholics, which is beyond stupid. People wearing the poppy get abused in the streets in Portadown,” she says.
Another pupil mentions a former UDR soldier who got attacked for selling poppies.
“They even attack the war memorial,” he says. Standing beside him, his friend thinks that history is still too tangled up in politics in Northern Ireland.
He went to Dublin to see the GPO on O’Connell Street and was disappointed.
“It was just a normal sort of post office, which is sort of surprising. People posting parcels and so on,” he says.
UnfinishedStrabaneHoly Cross College
“It makes us feel worried,” says Tiernan unfinished. “What happened during the Troubles is still on people’s minds. Strabane was a ghost town. It’s bad now, but it was awful then.”
Kellie Rouse shares his fears. “There were guns found in the graveyard a couple of weeks ago. We mix with unionists in our family, we never had hatred,” she says.
Kirk’s father’s family was “republican-minded”, he says. “We were raised to be more balanced.”
The young people have studied the Easter Rising at school and he was surprised by what they learned. “I thought it had involved tens of thousands. It turns out it was small and very unpopular,” he says.
Rouse says she had not realised how the Rising changed Ireland.
“We always got Easter lilies and all, but we didn’t know what it was about. It was the secrecy of it that made the Rising possible. The idea of blood sacrifice. I didn’t know they were poets and not soldiers,” she says.
Strabane was a poor town before the Troubles and it is still poor today. Its position on the border has contributed to its marginalisation. Students are more preoccupied by the threat of a British exit from the European Union than by Rising commemorations.
“Some of our friends are from Lifford, ” she says. Lifford and Strabane would be one town were it not for the Border, which runs through the river Foyle which separates them.
“We don’t want to go back to Border searches and army checkpoints. Soldiers landing in helicopters at night-time. The windows shaking.”
The concerns of the young people are evident; their parents have told them about the Troubles.
Earlier this week, the North’s newspapers ran a story about the family of a British soldier who was murdered in the flats during the 1970s after getting separated from his patrol.
Many local people also died in the conflict, including the first child to be killed. Divis was one areas hardest hit by the years of the Troubles. An air of damage still lingers.
Stephen, the youth worker who has set up this meeting with the young people, warns me to park inside the fence around the club. Nothing is more certain, he says, than that the car will otherwise be broken into and vandalised by children.
At six in the evening the centre is cheerfully packed with children of all ages. Rachel Keenan, Caoilfhionn McKee and Brandon Donaghy are involved in a series of projects to do with the 1916 commemoration.
They have been to Dublin to visit the sites associated with the Rising. Keenan says they will be there for Easter Sunday: “I’d like to see the unionist sites this time as well. We are in a cross-community group and we look at it from both sides.”
Donaghy is passionate about 1916. “It means everything to me. I was brought up in a republican socialist family and I’ve had family members who fell as volunteers in the 1970s and from then on,” he says.
“In 1916 it was a few men in the GPO in Dublin taking on the British army. It was the same in Belfast in the 1970s.”
McKee has a stark view of the legacy of 1916. “In the Republic they sold out the North. They have their freedom, we don’t.”
None of trio is enthusiastic about Stormont. “The men of 1916 died for a 32-county socialist republic, but to be honest I don’t know if we’ll ever get that,” Donaghy says.
“The six counties are still occupied and there is a realisation that the unionists and loyalists are here to stay. To an extent, Sinn Féin sold us out. But we have relative peace.
“Armed struggle is definitely over, so that leaves politics, but there is nobody I want to vote for. Sinn Féin say they are socialist but the point of socialism is meant to be equality and they are backing cuts that are having the opposite effect.”
However, he has no intention of voting for the People Before Profit candidate who is standing in West Belfast in the May elections either. “He is a counter-revolutionary. He hates republicanism.”
McKee says: “We are stuck in the past here. We like democracy but in this place you can only vote for one side or the other. There’s nothing in between. This is still a sectarian society.”
It replaced the old paramilitary UVF one which was painted over after negotiations with ex-prisoners. However, the words, “Lest we forget” feature in the new one as they did in the old.
“I drew a poppy,” she says. The mural has four huge panels, one showing a first World War cemetery, one the ravaged centre of Belfast after the Blitz during the second World War.
The third shows the three teenage Highland Fusiliers, including two brothers, who were murdered by the IRA just up the road from here in 1971. Their anniversary was marked last week.
The fourth panel honours the British army’s forces, including many from the North, who served for more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq. A small final panel shows a rural Northern Irish graveyard.
Knowing that she was going to feature in this article , Dickson has been revising her history. “I got an ex-Red Hand Commando prisoner to get some information for me,” she says.
“He looked it all up and printed stuff out for me. The Easter Rising was smart. Very smart. But very unfair. They waited until the British had gone off to fight the war and then the rebellion started. Our men were away. We learned about it as Irish history, not our history.”
She believes people in the North dwell too much in the past.
“I went through an Orange Lil phase. [This was a character created by the late comedian James Carson; she was a bigot in a Union Jack dress]. So did my friends, but we got over it. A lot of my friends now are Catholics from the Ardoyne and I love them.”
She is amazed at the fervour of the Rising’s leaders. “Patrick Pearse was a school teacher. What drove normal people to do a thing like that? I can’t imagine any of my teachers starting a rebellion.”