We all became Rising stars, for ours is still a story in the making
Despite reservations, Carol Hunt found a dignity and maturity in last week's commemorations which surprised her
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
It's probably not an over-generalisation to say that half the country has an Auntie Mary somewhere in the world. Last week, the Hunt Auntie Mary arrived over from Toronto to celebrate the centenary of the Rising with her Irish family. "Do they teach you all this stuff in school?" She asked my kids as they prepared to head into the festivities. Well, yes they did. Not only that but they were delighted to tell her that "real" soldiers, with a flag and a proclamation had arrived into all Irish schools, to tell them about the history of both.
And "real" soldiers they were too. For the first time in many a dark decade, Oglaigh na hEireann were able to present themselves in all their national pride and dignity as defenders, not just of our realm, but as the peacekeepers of many others.
They are the true successors of those first Irish volunteers. "I never knew we had so many soldiers," the husband muttered during that unexpectedly emotional parade last Easter Sunday. "And seemingly that's only the half of them". There was always the risk that a military gig would have a whiff, not so much of North Korea, but of the nationalist triumphalism as seen in the 50th year anniversary.
Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote that the 1966 commemorations were "an explosion of nationalist sentiment" that produced, "the greatest orgy of the cult of the Rising". Thankfully, the 2016 military commemoration was a very different hue of green. Our honourable role as world peacekeepers in the United Nations was front and centre. Old uniforms recalled the tragedies of the Congo and the heroism of the Lebanon among other major overseas deployments.
It seemed like a very long time coming, this centenary commemoration. By last September I had declared myself thoroughly fed up with the preparations and even debated leaving the country for the eventual week of festivities. The kids would be on holiday, maybe we could escape the clappy-trappy madness and escape somewhere where no-one knew who Padraig Pearse was. Luckily logistics, work and finances prevented that from happening and we had nothing to do last weekend but take part in what was going on all around us.
Come on, even the most cynical and revisionist among you will have to admit that it was great, wasn't it? There had been hints in advance that there was something different in the air. The embarrassment, sadness and shame of the years of the Troubles were, thankfully, not replaced with the hubris of nationalist jingoism.
This was no Christian Brother-style retelling of our national myth. There was, firstly, a rediscovery and a celebration of the achievements of the women who took part in both the Rising and the following struggle. My daughter - and indeed my son - understood very well - from all the civic debate around them - that Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne were not the only females who held positions of power and influenced events a century ago: Rose McNamara, Helen Moloney, Margaret Skinnider and Kathleen Lynn were just some of the other many women involved. By the time Bus Eireann put pictures of the women central to the Rising all over the city, there were a few disgruntled blokes asking if there had been any men involved at all.
One of the main questions that has separated historians, politicians and indeed citizens of this island for decades is, was it worth it? Was it an illegal coup initiated by an elitist minority? Would it have been better to wait for Home Rule to have been passed throughout the whole island? Was that even a possibility? Or would Ulster always have gone her own way?
For the first time, the tone of these questions, the context or climate in which they were being asked, seemed to change. Rather than aggressive nationalism and cynical revisionism talking past each other, we saw a new, mature arena of debate and discussion emerge. We talked, not just to persuade, but to listen and to understand. Or at least we tried to. Which is a very big start to a debate we should have had years ago, but couldn't.
And then there was the national broadcaster. Yes, like you, I leave paying my licence fee until the very last minute possible. And then only with gritted teeth and loud complaints. But by God, didn't RTE play a blinder last week? They must have been working on this for the past decade providing a veritable smorgasbord of documentaries, discussions and debates with a 1916 theme. (Favourites included Joe Duffy's haunting Children of the Revolution and Bob Geldof's presentation on WB Yeats, A Fanatic Heart, with a spine-tingling reading of Easter 1916 by Liam Neeson.) On Monday we strolled on to O'Connell Steet, en famille, to listen to Joe Duffy re-enact the bemusement of so many Dubliners at what happened on their main thoroughfare on that Easter Monday 100 years ago. It was dynamite stuff - if you'll excuse the pun - with relatives of those who had taken part, or been inconvenienced, or even those who helped themselves to the odd bit of looting, costumed and acting the part of their ancestors with passion and vigour.
My phone kept ringing; "Where are you? We're in Stephen's Green/Merrion Square/ Smithfield ... You have to come over, it's absolutely brilliant!". It was a great day out, wasn't it? Not just in our main cities and towns but all over the island. There seemed to be a general air of surprise, a bit of a feeling of, "how odd, we're really having a good day, and we're not drunk or deranged".
The sun shone, people were delighted to remember and reflect - not in that awful pseudo-paddy St Patrick's Day way - but in a manner which seemed eminently suitable to commemorate a revolution we still weren't sure should it have happened or not.
We're not too bad, you know, we said, surprised at our own competence, our growing maturity.
Bookending the events were the President and First Lady. Galway actress Sabina Coyne, our First Lady, played the part of Nurse Julia Grennan in RTE's seminal 1966 production of Insurrection, recently rebroadcast for the first time in 50 years.
During all these events neither the President or the First Lady put a foot wrong; Sabina, a wonderful example of a politically engaged feminist and a passionate west of Ireland woman, Michael D, a magnificently consummate orator, delivering his lines with sensitivity, intelligence and empathy. We could not have been represented any better. At that extraordinary production Centenary at the Bord Gais theatre (go, on you had a lump in your throat watching it, didn't you?) which was shown on RTE last Monday night, President Higgins said; "Tonight we celebrate, not only our rich cultural heritage, but also its contemporary expression, and the many creative ways in which we are telling our stories. For ours is a story still in the making".
We all need stories; poetry and prose, to tell us where we have come from and where we wish to go. They are the lifeblood of a nation. Paul Muldoon gave us his One Hundred Years a Nation. And Geldof discovered this when he told us how William Butler Yeats imagined a "new, proud, strong Ireland" and how, after centuries of colonial oppression, he "gave the people of Ireland back a story they could believe in and fight for". Ultimately, we learned that, in the hands of a master like Yeats, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword". And now that it's all over, I have to say, well done to all involved; you did a really great job, you made us proud. And by the way, my Auntie Mary had a great time.
Carol Hunt is a 2016 Seanad candidate on the NUI panel. Twitter: @carolmhunt