Tuesday 25 October 2016

The legacy of 1916 should be to liberate, and not to denigrate, the Ireland of today

Published 14/01/2016 | 02:30

Actresses Sarah Greene, Ruth Bradley and Charlie Murphy pictured before a press screening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield for the launch of RTE’s 1916 drama ‘Rebellion’. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Actresses Sarah Greene, Ruth Bradley and Charlie Murphy pictured before a press screening at the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield for the launch of RTE’s 1916 drama ‘Rebellion’. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Who are the true inheritors of the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rebellion today? How should we commemorate 16 executed volunteers who espoused physical force? Further, how relevant is the Proclamation to the Ireland of 2016? Is it historical revisionism to equally acknowledge the innocent victims of the insurrection? What defines modern-day patriotism relative to 1916 republicanism? Should an Independence/Republic Day be set as an annual tribute to the founding fathers?

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Such questions generally are the basis of the contemporary arm-wrestle among politicians and historians. One would hope that all answers might espouse the principle of inclusion.

The Easter Rising now assumes a mythical significance, superseding all the other milestones of the Irish independence struggle. It wasn't until January 1919 that the actual Irish Declaration of Independence occurred. The Irish Free State was born in 1922 and an Irish Republic was only enacted in 1948. The precise date of the Rising was April 24, yet Easter Sunday this year falls on March 27. Easter brought its own symbolism where parallels between Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday and the fate of the executed martyrs could hang in the air.

Given the passage of time and the perspective of hindsight sentimentality, nostalgia, profound appreciation, reverence and awe are appropriate today for the selfless blood sacrifices of 1916 - but not outright worship.

Constitutional nationalism is discommoded by self-appointed violent Republicans, who sought no electoral mandate from voters. Redmondites and pacifist traditions still maintain we'd have won freedom from British imperialism without taking up arms. India did so in 1949, Kenya in 1966, both without bloodshed. Scotland didn't opt for it by referendum. Some 30 years of terrorism right up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998 corrosively divided nationalism. It really doesn't matter what your interpretation of history dictates - the Rising must be filtered through a prism reflecting multiple narratives. There's no monopoly of wisdom in interpreting history. History can't be re-written.

The cornerstone of the commemorations should be inclusiveness.

Ireland as a society, and economy, can't simply stand still. In embracing the 2016 commemorations we must not become hostages to history. Many cynics espouse only the failures of modern Ireland - repeatedly citing how Pearse, Connolly and Clarke would turn in their graves. It's arrant nonsense. Their critique contrasts the idealism of the Proclamation compared with our current shortcomings. Neither selective amnesia nor self-loathing should mark centenary celebrations. Our society is more materialistic, individualistic and gratuitously competitive. But endless self-flagellation denigrates the very real progress made over the past hundred years.

Nonetheless, our performance has been patchy. Our failures include generations of jobless emigrants, public services aren't accessible equally and bouts of fiscal insolvency.

One can look to other independent states such as Sweden (population eight million), which have many more indigenous multi-nationals. Yet the positives are also striking. Our public administration isn't corrupt. Our Foreign Direct Investment story is outstanding, built on a base with three exclusive ingredients: English-speaking population, Eurozone currency and stable, low 12.5pc corporation tax rate. This unique platform provides economic prosperity.

Let's be honest - cherishing the children requires cash. I prefer such realism to idealism. A 20th Century Ireland isn't remotely comparable to today's. Notions about fraternity, equality and liberty are fine in the abstract, but those generations still adopted repressive regimes, legalising religious ideology and restricting lifestyle choices.

Republicanism as celebrated in 1966 (50th anniversary) included blatant brands of sectarianism. I recall, as a Protestant child in national school, feeling excluded. Were your ancestors in the GPO at Easter 1916? If not, there was the unspoken suggestion that you were somehow less Irish. Pluralism wasn't something passed on or embraced by diehard nationalists from the 1960s, it was wrung out of Dev's conservatism. Battles to introduce contraception, divorce, and marriage equality were highly divisive and hard won.

"West Brit" was the lowest term of abuse. The notion of Irishness was limited and introspective. Its hallmarks included membership of the GAA, speaking Irish, voting Fianna Fáil and attending Sunday mass. Today's citizenship is multi-racial and aspires to gender equality and is infinitely better. We've ditched much of the intolerance from the past.

We're better placed to appreciate the full context and content of the Easter Rising in a dispassionate manner. The over-arching objective of all 2016 commemorative events should be to create maximum historical awareness and the widest appreciation of all the facts surrounding those bloody events.

All narratives (traditional and revisionist) should be amplified, including the forgotten role of Irish Volunteers founder Eoin MacNeill.

In 1998 (as Wexford TD) my diary was full with bicentenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion. Pikemen paraded in full regalia up and down every parish crossroads, unveiling an engraved rock. The permanent infrastructure of interpretive centres offers a more enduring living testament to the rebels of 1916 than pageantry can hope to provide. The GPO Witness History project, costing €10m, will transpire to be the best perennial expression of our veneration. The 2,000 community events allow more localised participation, creating childhood memories for future generations.

A permanent Independence Day in late April should be incorporated into the May bank holiday.

Let's drop the hypocrisy and the cant associated with national celebrations. Ireland is the "best small country in the world" to party and have the craic - this shouldn't be a source of national embarrassment.

The televised Rubber Bandits' most irreverent guide to 1916 was apt. Satire about the Irish psychosis of slagging and self-deprecating humour has its place, along with sombre wreath-laying ceremonies. And if people want to be bored by it all, that's fine too. Younger people, blissfully ignorant of history, are mainstream and shouldn't be admonished by modern day armchair Republicans.

There's never a wrong time to do the right thing; reconciliation by including Northern Unionists or commemorating collateral victims of the Rising is a mark of generosity. Over the next 100 years Irish society is guaranteed to become even more cosmopolitan. We're a tiny state of four million people, less than 1pc of the EU population. Our future aspirations shouldn't replicate the poetic rhetoric of the Proclamation, but transfer best practice of the equivalent modern democratic states. The true mark of a nation's maturity is to evolve from the insecurity of sovereignty.

The centenary commemorations should encompass respectful remembrance of all deaths, including the 40 innocent children, rebel women and North King Street civilians massacred.

Britain's cruel, merciless over-reaction and the context of conscription in 1918, needs to be explained in transforming public opinion subsequent to the Rising.

As we reflect on the ensuing decades, let's not become prisoners of the past.

The Ireland of tomorrow can't be mono-cultural, based on a narrow Gaelic Republican ethos; rather, a generous, open-minded, multi-cultural inclusivity to unify all traditions.

Dreams of an all-island state can only be realised by embracing all heritages equally.

Irish Independent

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