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In 2016, official Ireland trusted artists. Please do it again

Most striking about the official cultural commemoration events of 2016 is how unofficial they have been. Reverence has been notable by its absence, as has cynicism

On Easter Sunday, there was a military parade past the General Post Office in Dublin, just as there had been for previous major anniversaries of the 1916 Rising. And after the parade the dignitaries were bussed up the Liffey quays to join 1,100 singers and an avant-garde poet rapping about the prehistory and afterlife of the idea of the Irish nation.

To put it mildly, this was not like previous anniversaries. Nor was it quite like anything one could easily imagine in any other country – the solemn conventions of military honours deliberately counterbalanced by a wild and surreal, sometimes moving, sometimes mocking, artistic performance, each of them given its due place as part of a state’s way of marking its own foundation.

Brave as it is, this centrality of art in the centenary programme is entirely appropriate.

More than 50 years ago, Edward Kenny, in his preface to the memoirs of his aunt, the actor and revolutionary Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, noted in some wonderment of the period around 1916 that “It is a matter of history that this period produced both an Irish national theatre and an insurrection; what may not be so immediately apparent is the link between the two.”


Kenny pointed to the human connection between politics and culture, referring to “the young enthusiasts of those years, the homogenous elements making up the nationalist clubs of the period, and providing the impetus necessary not only for the foundation of a theatre but for the building of a nation”.

What seems remarkable in 2016 is not that Kenny should have made this connection but that he should have felt it necessary to say that it was not “immediately apparent”. If nothing else, the 2016 centenary commemorations have made the inseparable intertwining of the political and the cultural patently obvious.

In the memoir itself, Nic Shiubhlaigh – suffragette, member of the original Abbey acting company and a participant in the Easter Rising – vividly evokes the cultural ferment of the early 20th century: “Dublin bristled with little national movements of every conceivable kind: cultural, artistic, literary, theatrical, political. I suppose a generation arriving amidst the bickerings of parliamentarians, of Parnellites and anti-Parnellites, had turned from politics and begun to seek a national expression elsewhere.

“Everyone was discussing literature and the arts, the new literature that was emerging. Everywhere, in the streets, at ceilidhs and national concerts, anywhere that crowds gathered, one met enthusiasts, young people drawn from every side of the city’s life, leaders or followers of all the little clubs and societies that were appearing every day.”

Rebellious energies

This idea of a generation disillusioned by mainstream politics and throwing its rebellious energies into both art and radical nationalism is at the core of perhaps the most significant historical work to have emerged during the centenary of 1916, Roy Foster's Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923. In it, there is a photograph of the cast of a production of Douglas Hyde's play An Pósadh (The Wedding) at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1904.

Of the five people in the picture, two (Hyde and Seán T O’Kelly) would become presidents of independent Ireland, one (Sinéad Flanagan) would marry a future taoiseach and president (Éamon de Valera) and two (Peadar Macken and Michael O’Hanrahan) would die in the Easter Rising, one in action, the other executed. They were all players in more senses than one.

It is entirely fitting, then, that the centenary commemoration programme has placed artistic events front and centre. Fitting, but nonetheless still startling. What has been most striking about the official cultural programme for 2016 is how unofficial it has been. Reverence has been notable by its absence – and so has cynicism.

Perhaps for the first time in its history, the State gave artists the floor and left them to their own devices, trusting them to come up with responses to 1916 that would somehow hit the right note. Implicit in this trust is the embrace of a literal revisionism. Art, if it is any good, is always a re-visioning of the given materials, in this case the Rising and its legacy.

Thus, on Easter Sunday, after the military parade, the nation settled down to Paul Muldoon chanting and rapping One Hundred Years a Nation, to music by Shaun Davey played by the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra and sung by 1,114 choristers. It was moving and respectful. It was also strange and, at times, scathing, Muldoon naming "bloody assassinations" and "the bomb's abominations", the transformations of Ireland from "turf banks" to "banks that lay offshore", from dolmens to "the choke-/hold of the Holy Romans", from "the Islands of the Blest" to the "kitchen island", from monks to "gombeen financiers" and "ghost estates".

He even got breast-enhancement surgery into a chorus where we might have expected words to make the breast swell with patriotism (“we sighed for the augmented breast”). And all of this was balanced with a new kind of call to arms, not a suggestion that the dead of 1916 require more blood to be shed in their honour but a cry for “passion and compassion” and a request to “engineer a new civility”.

Was ever an official celebration of a state’s foundations so far from chauvinism or complacency or self-congratulation? There is surely something marvellous in a culture that can poke fun at itself, acknowledge its own idiocies and lament its own murderous tendencies, and literally rhyme (as Muldoon did) “celebration” with “tribulations”, even while standing up for itself before the world and proclaiming its pleasure at being an independent nation.

And this has been the dominant spirit of the centenary cultural events. There has been an embrace of the complexity of Irish identities and the ambiguity of our relationships to history.

Ambiguous figure

It does not seem at all accidental that it is the most ambiguous figure of the Rising, Roger Casement, who has been of most interest to artists this year. Colm Tóibín and Donnacha Dennehy's The Dark Places, the Hugh Lane Gallery's fine exhibition centring on John Lavery's long-neglected painting of Casement's trial, Owen Roe's reading of Bernard Shaw's unused speech for Casement to deliver to the jury, and Fearghus Ó Conchúir's The Casement Project – as well as works by others, including myself and Una Mullally of this parish – explored the multifaceted nature of Casement's personality and legacy, from his homosexuality to his pioneering human rights investigations, from the body politic to the politicised body.

If Casement symbolically replaced Patrick Pearse as the most magnetic figure of the Rising, it is because his doubleness is deeply attractive to a culture that has become more comfortable with, and more interested in, mixed feelings. By giving cultural events such prominence, the official centenary programme acknowledged that, to adapt a phrase from Brian Friel's Translations, "confusion is not an ignoble condition".

It is okay to have mixed feelings about the way the State has turned out, and indeed about the Rising itself. Pride and sorrow, admiration and regret, respect for idealism and questioning of its effects, are not mutually exclusive. The new civility that Muldoon called for perhaps already exists, at least to the extent that most people are capable of holding more than one thought about the Rising in their heads at the same time.

And that civility embraces a sense of humour. One of the most successful of the artist projects commissioned for the centenary, Rita Duffy's The Souvenir Shop, was very funny. It turned public and private memory of historic events into an emporium of objects for sale, from Countess Markievicz dress-up dolls (ball gown or military uniform?) to Lady Lavatory and Imperial Palaver soaps and Black and Tan boot polish. But, for Duffy, humour is rooted in genuine wit, the exploration of the ironies and uncertainties of attitudes to history.

It is safe to say that the State would not have imagined even a decade ago that things like this could be central to the official celebrations or that, if by some freak circumstance they had become so, they would not have been met with howls of outrage.

Official trepidation

Even coming into 2016, there must have been some official trepidation about how all of this playfulness and ambiguity and challenging exploration would go down. But it has, by and large, gone down extremely well. And this is surely in itself something of a milestone in the way we think about Irish identity.

Identity, it turns out, does not have to be static and humourless and defensive. Ours is well able to rhyme celebration with tribulation, to rethink and reimagine itself, to embrace history not as a crushing imperative but as a set of possibilities, some realised, some lost for good, some waiting to be recouped if we have the imagination to grasp them.

One thinks again of a crucial distinction that WB Yeats made on the 10th anniversary of the Rising in 1926 when much of the public was up in arms over Sean O'Casey's disobliging, challenging play The Plough and the Stars. Yeats told a Dublin audience that there is a difference between national pride and national vanity.

An immature nation, he suggested, was exceedingly vain “and did not believe in itself . . . and it wanted other people to think well of it, in order that it might get a little reflected confidence”.

But “the moment a nation reached intellectual maturity”, it became proud rather than vain, and “with pride came indifference as to whether people were shown in a good or a bad light”.

The 1916 commemorations could have been an orgy of national vanity, but they have instead been an expression of national pride. That would have been impossible if the State had not had the courage to invite artists on to the stage without worrying about what light they would choose to throw on the nation’s character.

Is it too much to hope that the chief legacy of 2016 will be a new pride in our artists and a new understanding of what the imagination means to a republic?

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer