1916/2016: A day of commemoration
Those marching were much more than a romantic gesture to the past or nod to dead generations – they are an assertion of sovereignty and success as a State
There is a theatrical convention attributed to Anton Chekhov that if one brings a gun on to the stage in Act One, it must be used before the end of Act Three.
Life is not that different. The arming of the Irish Volunteers – whether or not in response to the provocation of the Ulster Volunteers – was our Act One. That, in the context of the time, and not least a bloody world war, the guns would be used eventually was as inevitable as night followed day; the post hoc agonising a century later over the morality of their use in the Rising, a phoney controversy, albeit a proxy for a different, very much live, and worthwhile argument about the illegitimacy of physical force today.
Yeats, no admirer of the physical force tradition, wrestled with the issue in his poem Easter 1916. It was pointless, he argued, to ask now, after the event , “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith”. All was changed, changed utterly. The executions cast the Rising and its dramatis personae in a completely new light, their morality in a new light – today, right or wrong it matters not, the Rising is part of the foundation narrative of our State.
Close up, today, we appear a sorry mess. Our politics, gridlocked. Some talk of a banana republic. We appear unable to form a government, the recent election, above all evidence of the alienation of our people from politics and the politicians who lay claim to be inheritors of 1916.
But yesterday’s parade and ceremonies are about us taking the long view, about what we have achieved as a State and people, not the legitimacy of insurrection, but the Ireland that emerged.
Have we completely vindicated the aspirations expressed in the Proclamation? No. Far from it. But we have written Emmet’s epitaph – one hundred years on we have “taken our place among the nations of the earth”.
Those men and women in the uniform of our Army marching yesterday were much more than a romantic gesture to the past or nod to the dead generations – they are an assertion of sovereignty, of maturity and success as a State despite the difficult times. Independent. Democratic. Tolerant. European. Of many faiths and none. Most importantly a State in which our multiple identities are interwoven in what AE called that “confluence of dreams/That clashed together in our night,/ One river, born from many streams.”
One stream, the physical force tradition, is inextricably associated with 1916. But it is, and was, only an element, and very much a minority element, whose importance is not in this commemoration of one week in a decade of revolution being privileged.
Its heroes, Clarke, Pearse, Connolly. are in the pantheon of our nation’s heroes, but they join the likes of O’Connell, Parnell, Davitt, Redmond, and those this paper has long championed, Tone and Armour.