Friday 30 September 2016

Dermot Bolger: The 2016 party included all who wished to be invited (unlike the 1966 events)

Dermot Bolger

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

Participants in the RTÉ Reflecting the Rising event take a break on the merry-go-round in Smithfield on Easter Monday. The 1916 commemorations in Dublin last weekend had a sense of democratic inclusion, and celebrated forgotten figures – from revolutionary women to the children who were killed in the Rising. Photo: Maxwells
Participants in the RTÉ Reflecting the Rising event take a break on the merry-go-round in Smithfield on Easter Monday. The 1916 commemorations in Dublin last weekend had a sense of democratic inclusion, and celebrated forgotten figures – from revolutionary women to the children who were killed in the Rising. Photo: Maxwells

Because this is an Irish revolutionary event, there is, naturally enough, a split about what date the anniversary should properly be marked on. But the 1916 commemoration events that occurred last weekend have proven such a resounding success that I wonder how far back did the government planning start.

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In relation to the military parade, most people would date this to the 90th anniversary in 2006, when a dress rehearsal was mounted. But I now suspect that the planning goes back to 2000 and may explain one of the Millennium's most shadowy events. This is the People's Millennium Forest, where Coillte planted a sapling in the name of each household in the State.

The locations were always mysterious as people struggled to locate where their individual tree was planted. But its ecological intent is now obvious. All these new trees were presumably intended to compensate for the equally large number of trees cut down to provide paper to print the feast of books published over the past six months exploring every ramification and personality involved in the Rising.

This insurrection shook an empire to its foundations, but thanks to the People's Millennium Forest, at least it won't have entirely deforested a planet. Yet, despite all these millions of words, painstakingly written by everyone in good faith, nothing encapsulated the egalitarian aspect of the Rising better than one segment of RTÉ's innovative and original programme 'Centenary', broadcast live from a Dublin theatre.

This was when the text of the Proclamation was read aloud by a relay of Irish voices from across the globe. The flow of words remained constant, but accents and locations constantly changed to encompass an entire Irish people, whether in Clonakilty or Cologne, Mallow or Moscow. The recital linked Irish people living here with second or third generation Irish emigrants, many of whose families needed to leave due to the economic failures of governments in the 1950s that were still dominated by 1916 veterans who never managed to implement many of the Proclamation's promises.

But this reading was not a moment for recriminations. It felt more like an act of reclamation - of ordinary Irish women and men of all ages and nearly all accents (though accents of the new Irish were conspicuously absent in favour of embracing the diaspora) taking back ownership of that Proclamation from factions who for too long tried to claim exclusive inheritance of it.

The beautifully choreographed opening segment of 'Centenary' ended with WB Yeats's words emblazoned across the stage: "A terrible beauty is born." But watching programmes such as Joe Duffy's moving account of the children slaughtered in the crossfire, I remembered the words of another Irish writer. I thought of them also during the fine documentary about Boss Shields, a young Protestant actor who fought with extraordinary courage in the GPO, and realised, with extraordinary foresight, in Frongoch Internment Camp that the conservative Ireland being hatched there held no room for free-thinkers like him.

Although numerous names were evoked last week, I suspect that no speaker mentioned Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, but it was the name of this central character in James Joyce's bewildering 'Finnegans Wake' who kept entering my head. The proprietor of a Chapelizod licensed premises, who spends the entire novel asleep, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker's name is perpetually conjured and distorted by Joyce until it is condensed down to his initials HCE, which we realise stand for "Here Comes Everybody".

Nobody thought to emblazon 'HCE' across the GPO's portico, but this sense of inclusiveness existed on the streets last weekend, a sense that 'Here Comes Everybody' caught in Easter Week, people remembered in their rightful place at last.

I had a sense of citizens engrossed by their past but not imprisoned by it. This feel-good factor was not universal and discordant voices were determined to be heard - as is their democratic right. Undoubtedly, other events will be staged by those who believe that they also serve who only launder fuel and smuggle cigarettes. But while these voices will make themselves heard, the noise generated will not mean they will represent any silent majority.

For some people, these celebrations meant nothing. This is also a valid response, brilliantly encapsulated by Sean O'Casey when his masterpiece, 'The Plough and the Stars', provoked self-righteous outrage in 1926. "'The Ireland that remembers with tear-dimmed eyes all that Easter Week stands for makes me sick," he wrote. "Tears may be in the eyes of the navvies working on the Shannon [electrification] scheme, but they are not for Ireland."

Anyone facing eviction last weekend or any parent who only sees their children when that highly educated generation Skypes them from abroad has earned the right to disassociate themselves from self-congratulatory events. And being a free people also means that people are free to be resolutely indifferent.

But the queues outside the National Museum 1916 exhibition in Collins Barracks suggest that most people are far from indifferent and there is huge interest in this chaotic rebellion that was a catalyst for independence. In 1966, Yeats's phrase would never have been emblazoned across a stage: The government officially decided to exclude the voices of Yeats and O'Casey from all public events.

Instead, that 50th anniversary saw a pageant in Croke Park, which climaxed with four boys holding aloft plastic letters to spell out the name 'ÉIRE'. Unfortunately this pageant occurred during a torrential storm, with actors blown off their feet and a fake British armoured car demolished by a gust of wind. The writer Ferdia MacAnna recalls being the fourth boy in that procession - and how another gust broke off the bottom of the huge 'E' he held aloft so that "it appeared that the glorious, heroic Blood Sacrifice of 1916 had culminated in the birth of the republic of EIRF."

But RTÉ did give us another TV extravaganza in 1966, with Hugh Leonard's 'Insurrection'. Colm Tóibín recalls the unbearable emotion and seeing his mother cry at watching Connolly being carried out to be executed.

The final dramatic episode of 'Insurrection' was followed by the Western 'The Virginian', with both programmes becoming juxtaposed in smaller children's minds - one young viewer remembers how for years he confused the Proclamation's seven signatories with the Magnificent Seven, so that "Yul Pearse and Patrick Brynner become one."

Fifty years on I don't think any child will mix up Pearse with Yul Brynner. In this centenary, Pearse is being seen in all his human contradictions, not as a saint but a complex human being. Similarly so many other parts of the canvas left blank in 1966 have been filled in with forgotten figures - from revolutionary women to dead children - finally allowed to be seen in their own light.

Irish Independent

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