Richard McElligott: Public interest can be harnessed to apply aspirations of Rising to our modern society
Published 26/03/2016 | 02:30
In the months following the Rising, the writer James Stephens published 'The Insurrection in Dublin', one of the most vivid eyewitness accounts of the rebellion.
Having been present in St Stephen's Green when the Rising broke out, Stephens was curious to get a sense of his fellow citizens' reactions and he spent most of Easter week travelling around Dublin city centre, constantly listening to people's discussions. He observed one reaction which in retrospect was extremely significant.
By the Wednesday evening, he detected that a feeling of pride and growing respect for the rebels was coming to the fore. As Stephens put it, there was "almost a feeling of gratitude towards" the Irish Volunteers for "holding out for a little while, for had they been beaten on the first or second day, the city would have been humiliated to the soul".
Many others also began to observe this reaction, not of approval of their actions per se, but more a general admiration for the rebels' courage. This was, of course, drilling into a deep historical well for, as Stephens concluded, "being beaten does not greatly matter in Ireland, but fighting does matter".
For the past four years, I have had the pleasure of lecturing the 'Uncovering 1916' course run by UCD in conjunction with the National Library of Ireland. The course provides members of the public with an overview of the Rising and its profound impact on Irish history.
Over the years, the demand for places has grown substantially as passion for the history of the period has awoken. At a time when the future of history as a compulsory subject in our education system is under threat, anniversaries such as 2016 afford historians the chance of connecting with the public and helping them appreciate the complexities which drove the 1916 rebellion. As I often remind my students, history, like life itself, is never black and white but coloured in shades of grey.
On the commemorations, the main message I have imparted to my students is that the ways in which the Rising is remembered in 2016 tell us far more about Ireland today than about our country a century ago. Commemorations will always reflect the present more than the past. They are also very susceptible to hijacking by any number of groups for their own designs. In fact, an examination of the history of the 1916 commemorations in itself can chart the entire subsequent course of Irish political history.
The Free State government, on account of their victory in a Civil War which had so bitterly split the nationalist movement, tended to shy away from the difficult legacy of 1916.
With the ascent of Fianna Fáil to power, 1935 was the first real attempt by the State to gain control over the direction of 1916 celebrations as the party sought to claim the sole right to the 1916 inheritance. With the accession to power of the first inter-party government and John A Costello's declaration of the Republic in 1949, Easter Monday was designated the new day of commemoration in an attempt to differentiate their celebrations from those overseen by Fianna Fáil. However, once Eamon de Valera returned to power, the State commemorations switched back to Easter Sunday.
The defining commemoration of 1916 for an entire generation was the 1966 Jubilee celebrations. Sean Lemass used the occasion to promote Ireland's image as an inclusive, progressive, modern democracy. Yet the outbreak of the Troubles would lead Jack Lynch to abandon State commemorations in 1972.
Southern politicians struggled to explain why violence in pursuit of a united Irish Republic was justified in 1916 but immoral after 1969. Lynch's decision effectively conceded control of 1916 commemorations to republican bodies such as Sinn Féin for the next 30 years.
The success of the Peace Process allowed the government to again direct the official commemorations. During the 90th anniversary in 2006, Bertie Ahern sought, in the wake of the Good Friday agreement, to reclaim the legacy of 1916 from republican elements. With the normalisation of politics in the North and the now closely fostered relations between Britain and Ireland, 2016 offers us the chance to commemorate the Rising in a more comfortable, inclusive and open manner.
Of course, the centenary year also brings the danger of overwhelming people with too much history. There is a fear that every minor character or tenuous link will be dissected to such an overblown degree as to leave people cold towards the event itself.
Another worry is that the events of Easter week will come to dominate Irish history in the popular memory. For decades, any sense that we were actively involved in the Great War and that 210,000 of our countrymen fought in that terrifying conflict seemed to be lost under the tsunami of literature on the Rising. It is worth remembering that from April 24-29, 1916, more Irishmen were killed serving with the British Army on the continent than were killed in Dublin.
So what will the Ireland of 2016 take from the centenary of the most important event in its modern history? In ways, the build-up to 2016 has seemed like an eternity and yet, as Easter Monday approaches, the centenary seems to have been relegated by an increasingly frantic search for our next sovereign government. Following a general election dominated by our political leaders desperately trying to convince a doubting public that each has the competence to lead our economy, my own thoughts turn back to the Proclamation.
Its authors were not sacrificing themselves for an economy. They fought for an ideal, a sovereign state that would guarantee "equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens … to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts".
That is something I would hope we will reflect on as we pass through this centenary year. When Patrick Pearse proclaimed the formation of the Irish Republic, he evoked a vision of what an independent Ireland could be. In many ways, it is that vision which continues to hold people spellbound. Those who took to the streets on Easter Monday fought for a new and better Ireland. These ideals, so powerfully articulated by the men and women of 1916, seem to have been lost in the intervening decades.
The centenary and the intense public interest it has evoked give us all the opportunity to cast an eye backwards as well as forwards. While mindful of the flaws and failings of what was attempted, we can still seek to apply the aspirations of Easter 1916 to our modern Republic.
Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He teaches the 'Uncovering 1916' and the 'Irish War of Independence' courses, which are being hosted by the National Library of Ireland.