Commemorating 1916: How miraculous that we should have our own country in our own hands

The celebration should be a cross between a triumphant win at an All-Ireland Final and St Patrick’s Day and the wildest Lughnasa you’ve ever seen

‘I’d love a different kind of commemoration for the centenary of 1916 – full of joy and pride, and made by the people who make this country, and like the American one with floats with people throwing out showers of sweets and treats, with flags and music, Macnas with dragons, dancing puppets and painted faces and drums.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

‘I’d love a different kind of commemoration for the centenary of 1916 – full of joy and pride, and made by the people who make this country, and like the American one with floats with people throwing out showers of sweets and treats, with flags and music, Macnas with dragons, dancing puppets and painted faces and drums.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

When a country celebrates its foundation, it holds a mirror up to itself, revealing how it really sees its national life. The Fourth of July in the US, for instance, is all fireworks and sparkle and bugles and Stars and Stripes and floats and smiling cheerleaders. France’s Bastille Day is elegant as the female soldiers march by with a swing, the pleats of their French-navy dress uniform skirts open to flash red inside at every stride.

In Ireland we go for top-down and slightly morose: military-political or religious. At the annual Easter commemoration before the GPO, the arrival of Ministers is announced over loudspeakers, An tUachtarán lays a wreath, the Proclamation is read – beautifully. Then the Army marches past and everyone applauds like mad. But the citizens cheer from behind barriers.

I’d love a different kind of commemoration for the centenary of 1916 – full of joy and pride and made by the people who make this country. It should be like the American one with floats with people throwing out showers of sweets and treats, with flags and music, Macnas with dragons, dancing puppets and painted faces and drums and Clare men doing half-sets on O’Connell Street – a cross between a triumphant win at an All-Ireland final and St Patrick’s Day and the wildest Lughnasa you’ve ever seen.

As we commemorate 1916 we look back at where we came from, and then, from there, look forward to how we can be.

In remembering the Rising we can easily forget how much we have to celebrate, how far we have come, and how terrible a place Ireland was then.

Ireland in 1916 was a place of agrarian conflict with a wealthy ruling class divided from grindingly poor farmers policed, as Pádraic Colum wrote, by “the Royal Irish Constabulary with their rifles and bayonets, their drill and revolver practice”.

Thousands of British soldiers were housed in garrisons across Ireland.

The slums of Dublin were a byword throughout the world for brutal poverty. Eimear O’Duffy described how in 18th century mansions, now half-ruined tenements, open doors “gave forth a new and viler stench . . . buckets of horror stood on the pathway outside some of the doors; dirt was piled on the steps of others”.

Home Rule

Many now theorise that Home Rule would have led to independence. Not according to John Redmond, who said in the House of Commons debate on the Bill that few desired “separation”, and “if you change the present system and give into the hands of Irishmen the management of purely Irish affairs, even that small feeling in favour of separation will disappear”.

The Bill was passed, Home Rule was promised – and on the outbreak of the European war that was to last till Christmas it was postponed until the conflict would be over. But in May 1915 the main force behind the plan for Home Rule collapsed. Asquith dissolved his Liberal government, which had been dependent on the votes of Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Now the unionists, adamantly against any loosening of the rule of England over Ireland, held the swing vote in a Conservative-dominated coalition.

With even the small advance that Home Rule might have represented fading, for those who went out to fight in the Rising this seemed the only and best time for seizing control over their own country. Those ordinary men and women faced 20,000 troops of the world’s most advanced army. Their bravery gave us our nation.

As we celebrate their gift of self-rule to us we must mourn the 450 soldiers and civilians who were killed in the Rising.

We must also remember with love, regret and respect the 35,000 Irishmen killed in the first World War, gassed and bayoneted, blown to pieces, dying of typhus and dysentery, flinging back Turkish bombs from Suvla’s trenches or charging machine guns at Ypres and Passchendale – our own lost men, a fraction of that war’s 16 million dead.

Hope and idealism

How far we have come; how miraculous that we should have our own country in our own hands, independent yet friendly with our neighbours.

That mirror of commemoration must also make us reflect on how we want Ireland to become. Personally, I’d like Ireland to be dull and Scandinavian and egalitarian in social terms, flaming and creative in artistic terms.

I want the Celtic Tiger back – not the housing bubble, God, no, but the entrepreneurial creativity and success and opportunity spreading through the classes and the counties – not a country where some are paid hundreds of thousands of euro while hungry people sleep in doorways.

I want our future to come out of the hope and idealism that brought Ireland into being.

So let’s commemorate 1916 with pride and joy, have a bit of fun and remake our country again.

Lucille Redmond is an editor, teacher and journalist, and is a granddaughter of Thomas MacDonagh

Friday: Anne Dolan

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