In the run-up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, John Waters warned of “ominous interventions from various luminaries seeking to displace the Easter Rising from its pedestal as our central mythology of freedom”. He singled out former taoiseach John Bruton as a serial offender in this regard. However, it was the pro-Rising academic the late Ronan Fanning who stole the limelight with his call, at a Fine Gael gathering, for a “shameless celebration” of the rebellion, asking the government to “unwaveringly lead the nation at home and abroad in unabashed celebration of the seminal moment of the birth of the Irish Republic”, asserting that the “birth certificate of this State … is stained with blood”.
“Ominous interventions” and “unabashed celebration” aside, the state commemoration struck a chord with the public and was widely praised. John Downing of the Irish Independent hailed it as a “triumph”, adding: “We have come some way from beer-bellied bowsies belting out ‘Come Out Ye’ Black ’n’ Tans’ in supposedly supporting national identity.” Stephen Collins in The Irish Times wrote that the commemoration encouraged pride in national independence and open discussion about the Rising. Roy Foster said it allowed Irish people to be “quizzical and interrogative without being triumphalist”. Arts and Culture minister Heather Humphreys was “overwhelmed” by the way people throughout Ireland embraced the official centenary programme. “[They] took it on and created it for themselves and the legacy of what has been achieved this year will be felt for generations to come.” Paddy Cullivan, who toured the country with his one-man show The 10 Dark Secrets of 1916, equally was struck by the extent of grass-roots involvement: “Despite what official Ireland thinks of 1916, the country is fascinated by it. Some community events, where people dressed as Connolly and Pearse and re-enacted key moments, were brilliant. It showed that people have a deep interest in history.”
The centenary year also was marked by sharp differences of opinion over the legality of the Rising. The Republic’s former attorney general Paul Gallagher argued that it lacked any legitimacy whatsoever. “You cannot assert and claim a power to dictate the lives of other people in the way which these people did,” he said. The current Northern Ireland attorney general, John Larkin, took a similar view: “The 1916 Rising was a product of a secret revolutionary society, and an adventure that lacked any democratic or constitutional legitimacy.” Fr Seamus Murphy SJ criticised the Rising’s leaders for their attempt “without authority from the living Irish people, as opposed to the imaginary authority of the dead generations, to establish a new state and themselves as its government with power to start a war and execute citizens.”
But the Rising’s supporters were adamant that it was perfectly legitimate, with a mandate derived from history. James Connolly Heron, founder of the 1916 Relatives Centenary initiative, stated the case for rebellion. “There has been a questioning in recent times as to the justification of our fight for freedom, as if the fight for people’s freedom from conquest requires justification. We are led to believe that home rule would have arrived in time – if only we had waited. There are those who argue a mandate is required before one can rise up and resist oppression. To resist slavery by all means at one’s disposal hardly requires a mandate: it requires a response. It requires immediate action.”
The centenary also prompted some criticism of religious aspects of the Rising – the timing of the action for Easter, referencing Christ’s “death and resurrection”, not to mention the constant recitation of the Rosary at the GPO and other rebel garrisons. Complaints were made too about the centenary organisers’ efforts at inclusion, and they were accused of equating the Battle of the Somme with the Rising, thereby deflecting attention from those who willingly sacrificed their lives solely for Ireland.
In addition, exaggerated claims were made of socialist and feminist dimensions to the Rising, ignoring the fact that by 1916 James Connolly had subordinated his socialism to nationalism. Likewise, when Louise Gavan Duffy, who opposed the Rising, nevertheless presented herself at the GPO in order to help, PH Pearse directed her to the kitchen. What united the seven male signatories of the Proclamation was neither socialism nor feminism but separatism.
Home Rule was frequently mentioned in despatches. The aforementioned John Bruton argued that Ireland could have achieved “better results” if it had followed the Home Rule path and not resorted to armed rebellion. Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuiv promptly dismissed this view as “delusional”, and claimed that, but for the Rising and War of Independence, Britain would not have permitted Ireland to have its own army or foreign policy.
While it can never be known if an exclusively constitutional approach would have led to independence, the possibility cannot be ruled out. But even the suggestion of such an outcome is anathema to those for whom physical force is an article of faith. And that article of faith has been incorporated into the official orthodoxy of the Rising.
Early critics of the orthodoxy were themselves taken to task by its upholders. The likes of Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty and George Russell (AE) were denounced by Dan Breen as “moderates”, “gasbags” and “renegades ”. (“Anti-national” was another epithet thrown about, as if nationalism was a condition of nationality.) Republicans attempted to close down O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre, ostensibly because of the depiction of an unfurled tricolour in a public house but in reality because the play, in their view, insulted the memory of the “patriot dead”. And Fr Francis Shaw’s critique of republicanism for Studies, originally intended for publication in 1966, didn’t see the light of day until 1972.
There were no reports of censorship last year, and the host of books published to mark the centenary included some outstanding works of scholarship. RTÉs programmes on the Rising were distinguished in the main by hagiography and piety, while its major television drama series Rebellion simply didn’t rise to the occasion (Bob Geldof’s two-part series on WB Yeats, however, was excellent). TG4 followed its affiliate’s example; TV3 went through the motions. Newspaper coverage generally was better, more objective and less deferential.
“Our central mythology of freedom” survived the centenary year, even if it was called into question as never before. And it will face further interrogation in the future as a new generation of historians subjects it to further analysis. For now, however, it holds sway and Taoiseach Enda Kenny is proud to identify with it. He sees the Rising as the “central formative and defining act in the shaping of modern Ireland”. Furthermore, he considers the centenary year to have been such a success that he has called for it to be re-enacted “over the next 100 years”.
So is the praise merited? Certainly the ambition of the centenary year programme was fully realised, and with some aplomb. The highlight of the year was on Easter Sunday, when it was established beyond doubt that the title Óglaigh na hÉireann belongs to the body that led the march past the GPO in Dublin, and not to bogus armies that parade in balaclavas. This was a timely affirmation of the legitimacy of the state, so bitterly disputed by various republican factions, and a real cause for celebration.
It should be a cause for concern, however, that the notion of “unfinished business” continues to ignite extremism. It is sobering to consider that, even after such atrocities as the Birmingham, Enniskillen and Omagh bombings, there are people still determined to play with fire. As recently as last December, for example, three men were convicted, in separate trials, of bomb-making offences. All three are adherents of republicanism, two resident in the Republic, the other in Northern Ireland, and range in age from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties. In January a policeman survived a murder attempt in Belfast. And arms dumps continue to be found, on both sides of the border.
Easter Week 2017 will mark the first commemoration in the promised second century of state ceremonial. An Taoiseach, in his keynote address on that occasion, could usefully iterate the following home truths. Firstly, the War of Independence ended in 1921, since when the Irish state has been at peace with its neighbours (notwithstanding a lengthy North-South cold war and intermittent Anglo-Irish tensions). Secondly, only the state, through its properly constituted defence forces, has the right to wage war on behalf of the Irish people. Thirdly, constitutional arrangements on this island can only be changed through consent and by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
These points need to be restated given the existence of an armed nationalist minority that refuses to accept the current dispensation. This minority is consumed with hatred of the Northern state, is contemptuous of the Republic and despises the Good Friday Agreement, while its zealots regard the 1916 Proclamation as a licence to kill.
An address by our head of government, as outlined above, would not, of itself, eliminate zealotry. There is a need to tackle ambivalence towards political violence among sections of the public – a tall order certainly, but such violence should be isolated so that it can be seen for what it is. There also is a need to dispense with “our central mythology of freedom”, dispel the related notion of “unfinished business”, and face up to the realities of the Rising, warts and all. This will entail a difficult, even painful, process, given that the mythology in question has by default become “part of what we are”. But the conflation of past and present needs to be ended, and the distinction between 1916 and today clearly understood. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the use of physical force a century ago, there is no longer the slightest justification for political violence in Ireland.
Patrick Gillan was a member of the Workers’ Party and, later, Democratic Left.