The commemoration of 1916 is fraught with conflicting motivations and possibilities. The activity of relatives of those involved made me consider my own feelings.
My father Dick Humphreys served in the GPO during Easter week. This was understandable as he had attended Patrick Pearse's school, St Enda's, and was influenced by his uncle, Michael O'Rahilly, a father figure, as his own father died when he was seven.
He was 20 when he joined the battle. His actions could, as those of so many young men swept to war, be ascribed to youthful enthusiasm as well as to the patriotism of a family bred on the history of English oppression and Irish failed revolutions.
Like others appalled at the way events progressed after the War of Independence, he took no part in the Civil War.
It is difficult to imagine a worse series of events (in addition to the first World War) than those between 1913 and 1923: the arming of two parts of Ireland for a civil war, the Rising with Irish patriots killing Irish policemen and Irish men in the British army, the War of Independence and, worst of all, the Civil War, its needless instigation and atrocities. And the inevitable civilian deaths.
Given the way world politics evolved since then it is difficult to argue that this was the only, or best, way to achieve the Free State and independence.
This does not absolve the British of responsibility – the executions of the 1916 leaders, the handling of the 1918 elections, the threat of conscription, the Black and Tans, and general behaviour as an occupying force, were major contributors to the tragedy.
The Rising was a coup by the IRB within the Volunteers. Whether intended as a blood sacrifice (of mostly other people's blood) or as a genuine revolution, its lack of resources ensured it was doomed. The small group of insurgents did not even represent the earlier Irish Volunteers, the majority having followed Redmond, never mind the nation as a whole. The Proclamation was not signed by the leadership of the Volunteers, but by the Military Council, set up secretly by the IRB.
It inevitably involved the killing of civilians, police and soldiers. It was carried out by people of a religious disposition but fulfilled none of the attributes of a “just war”. Pearse’s religious language – reference to blood as “a cleansing and sanctifying thing” and use of martyrdom symbolism – though reflective of the time, is nauseating in itself, while resonating with current terrorism.
Those who complain that the ideals of the Proclamation have been betrayed by Irish governments could read it again and consider whether the sentiments, admirable as they are, matched what the authors were doing. The first Rising fatality in Dublin was apparently James O’Brien, a Dublin Metropolitan Police constable, shot by Seán Connolly in the attempt to occupy Dublin Castle. What would O’Brien have made of cherishing “all the children of the nation equally”?
Connolly was killed soon after. Which one of these two Irishmen should we commemorate? Either? Neither? Both?
The easy acceptance of violence perhaps concerns me most – that killing can be done by any group which feels it speaks for the nation.
So if we are essentially commemorating the action of misguided idealists who started a path to disaster, where does that leave us? The national story/myth is so strong we cannot ignore it, nor probably rewrite it.
We have established as our national heroes men and women who represented an idea and a moment which the nation could count as its founding event. Maybe because education has been controlled by nationalist parties, there appears to be little objection to the story as it is told.
Loss of civilian lives
Ironically, the centenary is encouraging a recognition of those who were not in the republican mainstream.
My interpretation does not give any cause for particular pride of place to families of those involved in 1916. The concept of sharing the glory of one’s ancestors is as rational as sharing their guilt. I am wary of celebrating the participation of a relative in the questionable beginnings of our national story which contributed to violence up to the present day and possibly beyond. Too many lives were unnecessarily taken in 1916 to be comfortable with sharing responsibility.
How can the loss of civilian lives be condoned? Atonement might be a more appropriate sentiment; I would rather not participate as some sort of military parade passed, or attend commemorative/ celebratory receptions which ignore victims of the conflict.
As it happens 1916 marks the start of our national journey it is a remarkable success story. It is very far from perfect but has succeeded, despite the once oppressive national ethos (and its Catholic equivalent), in becoming an open, stable, democratic, and vibrant society.
If the events are to mark where we are, what we have become, and how we progress from here, relatives have no greater role than anyone else.