Heroic sacrifice for a nation still hangs in the air
President reflects at the graveside in Arbour Hill
The bodies of the executed had arrived at Arbour Hill “still warm and dripping with blood before being hurriedly buried into an open common grave”.
Silence fell upon the little military church as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s words hung in the air.
Graphic, yes, but also deeply and searingly tragic.
The century fell away and we suddenly seemed to see their remains before our eyes – heroic, indeed – but also sorrowfully and tangibly real; their deaths had occurred in our name, leaving an eternal legacy
of gratitude. And the concrete foundations of a Nation.
The First Lady, Sabina Higgins, appeared to wipe two tears from her eyes as she sat in the church for the ceremony, contemplating the depths of this very human sacrifice.
A hundred years to the very day had passed since that first blow was struck.
A log from Dublin Fire Brigade showed the urgency that had begun to build from lunchtime of that fateful Easter Monday – which had fallen late that year.
At 12.39, an ambulance was called to Dame Street; a minute later, another to Benburb Street; just one minute again and another was summonsed to Kildare Street – 11 ambulances were called in the first hour as the emergency escalated.
At Arbour Hill yesterday, politicians, relatives, Defence Forces, the Judiciary and the Diplomatic Corps had gathered once again to commemorate 1916, all of the military flourishes immaculately honed.
But while, yes, this was indeed “another” 1916 ceremony and “another” wreath-laying, it felt very different in tone to many of the events in 2016.
It was more special, more emotional, said many relatives afterwards.
The event also finally offered photographers an opportunity to capture Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin crossing paths – on the 58th day since the election – as they shook hands and appeared to share a guarded joke.
But it all looked too forced to be real.
Bishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, in welcoming the guests, said that the commemorations have drawn us to reflect on what it is to remember.
Remembering also helped us to discern the kind of people, society and nation that we want to hand on to our children and grandchildren, he said.
The links to the past at the event came in all forms, emotionally, and more prosaically.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin showed some humble pieces of silverware to the congregation – the chalice and paten used at the wedding in Kilmainham between Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford just seven hours before Plunkett’s execution, and a vessel used to bring holy communion to the leaders in jail.
The priests had been deeply touched for the rest of their lives by their encounter with the leaders, Archbishop Martin said, revealing how Pearse had stretched out his hand to one priest saying: “Oh Father, the loss of life, the destruction, but please God it will not be in vain.”
And the archbishop called on all Irish people never to betray the ideals of 1916 and to challenge “the darkness of poverty and exclusion, of hatred and violence, of self-centredness and apathy”.
There was a minute’s silence after President Michael D Higgins laid the wreath and stood in reflection at the graveside.
Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, who attends Arbour Hill every year, said he has been enjoying all the Centenary commemorations, having also been at the GPO.
Recalling the 50th anniversary events in 1966, he said “this was done on a much bigger scale”, with better planning.
Among the relatives in attendance was Con Colbert from Raheny in Dublin, whose uncle and namesake was among the 1916 leaders executed and buried at Arbour Hill, without a coffin and covered with quicklime.
He had been a quiet man, by family accounts. “Gentle but determined,” said Con, who was at the GPO for the State commemorations.
But the event at Arbour Hill “topped them all”, he added.
“It was very special,” said Michael McGinley, whose father Hugh fought in 1916.