Friday 30 September 2016

Richard McElligott: Finally, we have remembered 1916 in a way that is measured and inclusive of all our history

A turning point

Richard McElligott

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

Members of the Defence Forces carry the flags of the garrisons which participated in the 1916 Rising across O’Connell Bridge. Photo: Conor McCabe
Members of the Defence Forces carry the flags of the garrisons which participated in the 1916 Rising across O’Connell Bridge. Photo: Conor McCabe

Yesterday witnessed the largest single day of commemoration of any event in the history of the Irish State.

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The 1916 centenary commemoration represented the centrepiece of Ireland's Decade of Centenaries. It has been meticulously planned over the past five years. In 2011, an Expert Advisory Group was established to assist the Government in planning the State's commemoration. It consisted of some of the foremost academics on modern Irish history and sought a tone for the events which would be "inclusive and non-triumphalist, ensuring authenticity, proportionality and openness". The culmination of these efforts was the Easter Sunday military parade in memory of all those who died in the attempt to break British rule in Ireland in the spring of 1916.

Since the mid-1920s, Easter Sunday has represented Ireland's national day of commemoration. Yet in contrast to the respectful and open manner which characterised yesterday's celebrations, for much of the past century the commemoration of 1916 has been divisive and contentious. Perhaps this was inevitable. Since 1923, various groups have sought to claim the sole inheritance to 1916 for their own political designs. After all, every major electoral party in the Republic has a direct link with the Rising and up until the 1960s, Ireland's political class was dominated by its veterans.

Indeed, as Professor Mary Daly, a member of the Expert Advisory Group, noted, formal state commemorations of 1916 have often been characterised by reluctance, discord and embarrassment.

Following the Civil War, the 1920s saw national events to mark the rebellion monopolised by anti-treaty Republicans. The Cumann na nGaedheal government, the victors of that bitter conflict, tended to draw back from the difficult legacy of 1916. Republicans used Easter Sunday to honour not only the rebels of Easter Week but the memory of all those killed in the fight for the Republic between 1916 and 1923, using the annual November 11 Armistice day celebrations as their template.

The first serious attempt by an Irish government, in this case Fianna Fáil, to gain control over the direction of the 1916 celebrations was in 1935. Their plans led to rancorous debate in the Dáil.

Jayden Smith (5) from Crumlin at the Easter Sunday 1916 Commemorations in Dublin. Pic: Justin Farrelly.
Sheila O’Leary (94) from Clontarf, whose father Thomas Byrne fought in the GPO in 1916, pictured with his medals, on O’Connell Street, Dublin awaiting the 1916 Centenary Parade. Picture: Maxwells
The guard of honour from the 28th Infantry Battalion from Donegal before the wreath laying ceremony in The Garden of Remebrance on Saturday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sabina Higgins, wife of president Michael D Higgins places a wreath at the graveside of Countess Constance Markievicz during a ceremony on Saturday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Nial Ring. Photo: Tony Gavin
Finna Fail leader Micheal Martin was at the wreath laying ceremony in The Garden of Remebrance on Saturday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rupert Flood with his daughter Aoife, wife Roisin, father Tony and mother in law Ruth. Roisin's great grandfather was James Connolly. Photo: Tony Gavin
President Michael D Higgins arrives to inspect a guard of honour from the 28th Infantry Battalion from Donegal before the wreath laying ceremony in The Garden of Remebrance on Saturday. Photo: Tony Gavin
President Michael D Higgins inspects the guard of honour from the 28th Infantry Battalion from Donegal before the wreath laying ceremony in The Garden of Remembrance on Saturday. Photo: Tony Gavin
Members of the Defence Forces pictured at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Parade on Dame Street, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Grace Nic Mhathuna (6) from Dublin on O’Connell Street, Dublin awaiting the 1916 Centenary Parade. Picture: Maxwells
Sheila O’Leary (94) from Clontarf, whose father Thomas Byrne fought in the GPO in 1916, pictured with his medals, on O’Connell Street, Dublin awaiting the 1916 Centenary Parade. Picture: Maxwells
Acting Minister for Defence Simon Coveney and Members of the Defence Forces at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony at the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Easter Sunday Wreath-laying ceremony in Kilmanham Gaol. The ceremony took place in the Breakers Yard on the site where the 1916 leaders were executed. Picture: Maxwells
President Michael D. Higgins laying a wreath at the Easter Sunday Wreath-laying ceremony in Kilmanham Gaol. Picture: Maxwells
Acting Tanaiste Joan Burton at the Easter Sunday Wreath-laying ceremony in Kilmanham Gaol. Picture: Maxwells
Ms. Moira Schlindwein (nee Reid) whose father fought in 1916 in the GPO, pictured awaiting the parade at the GPO, O’Connell Street. Picture: Maxwells
People watch the centenary Easter Rising Parade at Cuffe Street in Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Members of the Defence forces pictured during the centenary Easter Rising Parade at Cuffe Street in Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
A reflection of the GPO in a spectators glasses on O’Connell Street, Dublin awaiting the 1916 Centenary Parade. Picture: Maxwells
Chief Superintendent Frank Clerkin (left) and Assistant Commissioner Jack Nolan (right) are 'photobombed' at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Parade. Photo @GardaTraffic
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
The flyover on O'Connell Street for 1916 Centenery parade Picture issued by the Defence Forces Photos taken from Cassidy's Hotel
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
The flyover on O'Connell Street for 1916 Centenery parade Picture issued by the Defence Forces Photos taken from Cassidy's Hotel
The flyover on O'Connell Street for 1916 Centenery parade Picture issued by the Defence Forces Photos taken from Cassidy's Hotel
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
The flyover on O'Connell Street for 1916 Centenery parade Picture issued by the Defence Forces Photos taken from Cassidy's Hotel
The 1916 Centenery Parade passing by the Garden of Remembrance. Pictures issued by the Defence Forces Pic taken from Cassidy's Hotel
The flyover on O'Connell Street for 1916 Centenery parade Picture issued by the Defence Forces Photos taken from Cassidy's Hotel
Aerial shot of the 1916 Centenery Parade from Westmoreland Street onto O'Connell Bridge Picture issued by the Defence Forces Images taken from roof of the Blood Bank on D'Olier Street
Garda Mounted Unit prepare for Easter Sunday Commemoration Parade. Photo @GardaTraffic
Flyover at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Photo: Maxwells
Flyover at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Crowd at the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade from O’Connell Bridge, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony and Parade at the GPO, O’Connell Street, Dublin. Picture: Maxwells
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Peter Kelleher reads the Proclamation pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
President Michael D Higgins pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
President Michael D Higgins lays a wreath pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
People watch the centenary Easter Rising Parade at Cuffe Street in Dublin. Picture credit; Damien Eagers
Members of the Defence Forces file past the GPO pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Members of the Defence Forces file past the GPO pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Members of the Defence Forces file past the GPO pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Watching the parade pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Scenes at as thousands attended military parade in Dublin. Some to line streets of capital for Easter Rising commemorations. Pic Stephen Collins/Colllins Photos
Joan Bates and her daughter Barbara, from Kilbarrack, Dublin, enjoy the parade. 1916 Rising 100th Anniversary parade. O'Connell Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Members of the Army Ranger Wing pictured this afternoon on O'Connell Street for the Easter Rising 1916 Centenary Commemoration. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

The pro-Fine Gael newspaper, 'United Ireland', bemoaned the government's attempts to make political capital out of the event, chastising: "It is always unseemly, if not indecent, for political parties to engage in a figurative scramble for the bones of the patriot dead."

The official ceremony, which introduced a military parade past the GPO for the first time, was extremely partisan. Taoiseach Eamon de Valera refused to invite any opposition parties to attend.

After 16 years of Fianna Fáil governance, the accession to power of John A Costello's inter-party coalition in 1948 offered an opportunity for others to use the commemorations to enhance their own 1916 legacy at the expense of the 'Republican Party'.

Following the decision to declare Ireland a formal Republic, Costello's government deliberately chose Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, as the moment it officially became so. A major military parade was held outside the GPO, the intention being to both differentiate this celebration from past events orchestrated by Fianna Fáil and also to explicitly link the new Republic with that which had been proclaimed in 1916.

Despite being invited, Fianna Fáil boycotted the state ceremony. De Valera argued that 1916 should not be publicly celebrated by the new government as long as the 'national task' (i.e. the reunification of the island) had still not been achieved. Of course, this was glaringly hypocritical. On such a basis, Fianna Fáil should never have overseen any commemoration of the Rising either.

The return of de Valera to power in 1951 marked the end of attempts to focus 1916 commemorations on Easter Monday. Celebrations reverted back to Easter Sunday and have been staged on this day ever since. The jubilee commemoration of 1966 was the last hurrah for State-sponsored 1916 events for over a generation, though few could have foreseen the reasons why.

The explosion of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland led Jack Lynch to abandon official commemorations in 1972, effectively conceding control to modern republican bodies like Sinn Féin. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, successive Irish governments, like southern society at large, brooded over the potential glorification of the political violence of 1916 against the backdrop of the IRA's campaign. Commenting on the small ceremony held to mark the 75th anniversary in 1991, the Irish Independent noted that the Government "find themselves venerating those who used violence in 1916 while denouncing those who do so today".

The success of the Peace Process has brought about a rehabilitation of the commemorations. In 2006, Bertie Ahern revived the state celebrations using the event to showcase Ireland as a prosperous modern democracy. Critical and public reaction to its dignified tone was overwhelmingly positive.

A DECADE on, the commemoration of 1916 has broken free of the ghostly grasp of those dead generations which for so long sought to usurp or disrupt its legacy. The 2016 Easter weekend has been about reflecting all facets of this most pivotal moment in Irish history. It has been a mature, thoughtful and overdue national conversation around the significance of those six days and not an exercise in glorification or demonisation.

The day before Pearse ordered the evacuation of the GPO, 538 Irishmen were killed in an horrific German gas attack at Hulluch in northern France. Today, on a peaceful stretch of the Liffey stands the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, a monument erected to them and their 49,000 brethren who perished in the Great War. It lies within 850 metres of Kilmainham Gaol, the site of the 1916 leader's executions. Over the past century, the distance between these two key sites of memory in Irish history has been geographically insignificant but ideologically profound.

Easter 2016 has shown that Ireland can remember the part played by its fallen in France in the story of the Irish nation with the same reverence as the Easter dead in Dublin.

Dr Richard McElligott is a lecturer in Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent

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