Heather Humphreys: 1916 commemorations belong to all
‘Given my background as a Protestant and an Ulsterwoman, who is a proud Irish republican, I appreciate the need to respect the differing traditions on this island’
‘In 1966 there was an understandable focus on the seven signatories of the Proclamation. In 2016, the role of the signatories will still be central to our historical reflection but 50 years on we must widen our perspectives to include the others involved in 1916, and in particular the women.’ Above, a Garda stands on duty outside the GPO next to a poster of the Irish Proclamation during Easter Rising commemorations in 2006. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
In a letter to her mother dated May 2nd, 1916, Katie McGrane, an 18-year- old office worker in the GPO, who was originally from Magheracloone, Co Monaghan, described the streets of Dublin city centre in the aftermath of the Rising. “Some said Moore Street and St Stephen’s Green were full of dead people lying around. It was hard to get bread. One day, we were out and we saw one man lying shot dead on the street and a bag thrown over him. I believe the streets around the Pillar were full of people shot and in some places they were nearly a week lying without being buried.”
Personal accounts such as McGrane’s bring history to life and life to history.
In commemorating the Rising’s centenary, the Government will not shy away from the harsh realities of conflict or seek to glorify bloodshed. Rather we will, together as a nation, respectfully and inclusively remember that pivotal event in our history, which set in motion a chain of events that led to our independence.
A century on, the Rising still prompts passionate debate and discussion. Much of the debate, in this newspaper and elsewhere, has focused on how and whom we should commemorate.
Since my appointment as Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht last summer I have consistently stated that I want the commemorations to be inclusive. I speak of inclusivity in its most basic form: quite simply, 1916 belongs to all of us.
Ireland has changed dramatically since 1966, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rising. We have evolved into a mature democracy, no longer tied to a single narrative of our history. We are more than capable of accommodating – indeed welcoming – a diversity of views on the historical events of the 1916 period.
Look ambitiously to our future
That is why Ireland 2016 will be a radically new and different kind of commemoration. It is an open invitation to everyone, of all ages,
here and overseas, to join in as we commemorate the Rising, to reflect on our achievements over the last 100 years and to look ambitiously to our future.
Ireland 2016 will include a rich education programme, to be rolled out to every school across the country. One theme will challenge our young people to take a fresh look at the Proclamation and its ideals. We will also encourage school students to reconnect with our national flag, and fully understand its origins and meaning. Our national cultural institutions will help us share the stories of the Rising.
A major exhibition of 1916 material will open in the National Museum, while the National Library is developing a major online resource, which will include thousands of letters and artefacts from the seven signatories and others.
Much, much more is planned – in our universities; through our local authorities; through an investment programme in seven major projects connected to the Rising, including the GPO and Kilmainham Gaol; with Irish language groups; through the arts and our national theatre; and through our Embassies overseas.
In 1966 there was an understandable focus on the seven signatories of the Proclamation. In 2016, the role of the signatories will still be central to our historical reflection but 50 years on we must widen our perspectives to include the others involved in 1916, and in particular the women. Never again will we airbrush out the significant contribution of the women who helped us achieve our freedom.
These women were trailblazers at a time when they didn’t even have the vote. Women such as
Margaret Skinnider, who was shot and injured while in command of five men during Easter Week but who was later refused a pension because of her sex.
Women such as Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who was the last woman standing in the GPO and who risked her life to carry a white flag of surrender to the British forces.
The men and women of 1916 had a democratic and an equal vision for Ireland, and we must be equal and democratic in honouring all those who made that vision a reality.
At some point in our lives we all take stock; 2016 is a chance for the Irish nation to take stock. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reflect on the kind of Ireland that we have and the kind of Ireland we want to bring about; and it is an opportunity to reflect on the kind of society we aspire to achieve.
Given my background as a Protestant and an Ulsterwoman who is a proud Irish republican, I appreciate the need to respect the differing traditions on this island.
Over the past 100 years we have, I believe, grown as a nation that values and embraces our differences as a positive symbol of diversity rather than a negative source of division. In 2016 we should not be afraid to celebrate how far we have come and to challenge ourselves to consider what we want for this republic in the future. Heather Humphreys is Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht