Rising tide of 1966
Fifty years ago at Easter, Ireland marked the Golden Jubilee of the Rising in spectacular style - with crowds of 200,000 thronging the centre of Dublin. Kim Bielenberg captures the atmosphere of that spring and talks to participants in the celebrations
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
To the young soldiers marching down O'Connell Street, taking the salute from the 1916 veteran, President Éamon de Valera, it was a day of swelling pride and great ceremony.
To 10-year-old schoolboys like Ferdia Mac Anna, in that spring of 1966, the 1916 Volunteers took on the heroic qualities of cowboys in Western movies.
Scenes from the Rising were turned into dramatic gunfights in RTÉ's hugely popular drama, Insurrection.
"The signatories of the Proclamation were Ireland's version of the Magnificent Seven," says Mac Anna as he looks back on the chilly and windy spring of 1966.
Others recall teenage girls of the era treating posters of the signatories like those of pop stars. In 1966, Pearse and Connolly were up there on the walls as pin-ups alongside the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks.
Fifty years ago at Easter, Ireland marked the Golden Jubilee of the Rising in spectacular style - with crowds of 200,000 thronging the centre of the city for the main event - and hundreds of survivors of the Rising in attendance.
Veterans, some of whom had occupied the GPO, walked with their heads held high in long overcoats with medals gleaming from their lapels in the parade. Most wore hats and many smoked pipes.
There were pageants, parades, art exhibitions, commemorative stamps and TV programmes in a country that was at a crossroads - still devoutly Catholic but enjoying a period of economic boom in a new age of TV.
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, a dominant figure from that era, was still able to exert his authority, banishing other religions from the blessing at the opening of the Garden of Remembrance on Easter Monday. The Church of Ireland Archbishop George Otto Simms was literally locked out, when he arrived three minutes late.
The Catholic church, so long a dominant force, may have have had a grip on official proceedings, but it was showing chinks in its armour elsewhere. During that week, there were rumblings in the papers after young Trinity student Brian Trevaskis went on the Late Late Show and called the Bishop of Galway a "moron".
In the pages of the Irish Independent, a young Gay Byrne was taken to task for not reining in the impertinent student, who dared to insult a bishop.
The hype over the 50th anniversary was not as prolonged as the events surrounding the centenary, but the atmosphere was every bit as intense and controversial. And the prelude, the obliteration of Nelson's Pillar by republicans in an explosion the month before, caused an air of nervousness.
There were protests linked with Rising commemorations, rival ceremonies by republicans - many of whom did not recognise the State, and even a hunger strike by disgruntled Irish language activists who were blocked by gardaí from picketing the Dáil.
Twelve men and one woman went on hunger strike for five days claiming "the ideals of the men of 1916 have not been realised and there is nothing to celebrate".
Two politicians dominated the ceremonial events in Easter 1966 and both had participated in the Rising. President De Valera was almost blind at the age of 84, but walked with a confident swagger, exuding a certain regal charisma in his top hat and medals. If you look carefully at the RTÉ film footage, you can see an army officer behind him steering the half-blind head of state in the right direction as he walks.
De Valera was not shy about glorifying his own role in the Rising, and was at the centre of the big occasion. His biographer Professor Ronan Fanning says: "He was remorseless in trying to make political capital out of 1916."
In the celebrations, the Taoiseach Seán Lemass was a much more diffident and cautious figure. He was not someone who liked to glorify the past and his role in the Rising.
UCD historian Professor Diarmaid Ferriter says: "He didn't like the flag waving. He had quite a lot of reservations about the commemorations."
Prof Ferriter believes Lemass's own family experience may have shaped his attitude to violence. He accidentally shot dead his baby brother Herbert when he was a teenager, and his brother Noel was killed in the Civil War.
Lemass was also keen to project an image of a country that was modern and forward looking, rather than dwelling too much on the past.
He saw the dreams of 1916 being fulfilled by building on sound economic foundations through industry and trade, rather than harking back to De Valera's idealised rural vision of cosy homesteads.
When foreign journalists planned to visit for the 50th anniversary, Lemass wanted them taken to ESB power plants and the hi-tech new studios in RTÉ rather than historical sites.
Privately, he said: "'We have to forget the Ireland of the Sean-Bhean Bhocht and think of the Ireland of the technological expert."
He may have had reservations, but Lemass had to go along with the commemorations and could not control all the events.
Dubliner Mick Sheehan was a teenage officer cadet in the Army at the time, and recalls his role marching in the main parade, and also forming a guard of honour in the Garden of Remembrance, with enormous pride. Lieutenant Colonel Sheehan, who later served in the Lebanon and the Balkans, says: "Perhaps I was innocent, but I was imbued with great patriotic fervour at the time.
"As we marched down O'Connell Street, we saw ourselves as the successors of the Irish Volunteers who had fought in 1916."
Lt Col Sheehan remembers one scene vividly as he formed part of the Guard of Honour.
"There was one of the old veterans lying on a stretcher, and at one point he came to attention and saluted.
"There was a great sense of patriotism and buzz about the whole thing."
For many young people at the time, the real impact of the Rising commemorations was not in the parades but on television, with the screening of the RTÉ series Insurrection over eight nights starting on Easter Sunday.
The series, written by Hugh Leonard, was a punchy, fast-paced drama that told the story of the Rising like a modern day news programme, with Ray McAnally as the anchor.
Leonard described the project as "a near-as-dammit, full-scale reconstruction of the Rising, involving months of filming and weeks of studio work… At the beginning, the entire project seemed as gallant and as doomed as the Rising itself."
According to the historian Cathal Brennan, it proved to be a popular and commercial hit, and was sold to foreign TV stations.
Among the huge cast was the young actor Sabina Coyne, who played the role of nurse Julia Grennan.
Now Sabina Higgins, the wife of the President, she remains proud of the programme.
She told Review this week: "I am so glad that the people now have the opportunity to watch the TV series again. The docu-drama was so effective at portraying the actual events of Easter 1916 on a day-to-day basis. It was a great privilege to be there when it was made."
In the striking final scene, Pádraig Pearse is quoted: "If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed."
There is a volley of shots and Ray McAnally finishes the programme with the words: "The insurrection is over, or is it?"
Was this incendiary in its effect? According to Brennan, it is hard not to watch the clips except through the prism of the Troubles, which broke out in the North soon afterwards.
Leonard, later expressed the fear that Insurrection had led to the growth of IRA terrorism in the following years.
During the spring of celebrations, orgnaisers hoped to attract young people with spectacular pageants in Croke Park, where historic scenes were re-enacted such as Bryan MacMahon's Seachtar Fear, Seacht Lá, produced by the GAA and Tomás Mac Anna's state-sponsored Aiséirí.
MacAnna's son, the writer Ferdia Mac Anna, played a few parts in the Aiséirí pageant and recalls chaotic scenes as gale-force winds blew some of the props away.
"The British artillery was made of cardboard and was floating over Hill 16. I was part of a crowd carrying letters spelling out 'Republic of Éire'.
"I was the second E in Éire, but the wind blew off the bottom half of my letter. So it was the Republic of ÉIRF."
The young Mac Anna was bitterly disappointed to be paid with a commemorative coin that could not be spent on sweets and comics
The pageant left a deep impression on Bertie Ahern, who said in his autobiography that it had an impact on his political beliefs and was the highlight of 1966.
Helen Litton, a granddaughter of GPO veteran James O'Sullivan and grand-niece of signatory Tom Clarke, was a student at the time and attended the Seachtar Fear, Seachtar Lá pageant.
"The main thing I remember about it was that it was utterly freezing and we almost died of the cold."
According to Litton, not all the relatives were happy with the way the commemorations were organised.
Kathleen Clarke, widow of Clarke, was constantly annoyed that Pearse was always given pride of place above her husband. Mrs Clarke said of Pearse at the time, "he knew as much about commanding as my dog".
Some republicans, Labour supporters and Fine Gaelers complained about being excluded from the official celebrations, and many invitations to ceremonies somehow went missing.
Overall, the commemorations succeeded in capturing the imagination of the public, but the controversy surrounding them continued long afterwards.
The Labour politician Conor Cruise O'Brien later argued that the events of Easter 1966 inspired militant republicans in the belief that the methods of 1916 - 'violence, applied by a determined minority' - could bring about unity. It was not an outcome that Lemass would have wanted.
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