Monday 11 December 2017

Marking 1916: an always problematic prospect

Ceremony: Paddy Cummings, left, and Terry de Valera, son of the former President, at the 90th anniversary. Photo: Martin Nolan
Ceremony: Paddy Cummings, left, and Terry de Valera, son of the former President, at the 90th anniversary. Photo: Martin Nolan

The commemoration of 1916 was ­problematic almost from the beginning. For the first ­anniversary, some recently released ­prisoners decided to commemorate it over ­Easter, rather than on the actual anniversary. However, a British government ­proclamation prevented any public displays in Dublin during Easter week, and so in 1917 unofficial events were staged. On ­Easter ­Monday, Helena Molony organised the raising of the ­Tricolour over the GPO, amidst much cheering and ­support, and it took until 6pm before the ­authorities managed to take it down. There was a reprinting of the ­Proclamation, and it was read at different locations connected to the Rising, and a tradition was established of linking the commemorations to Easter, the sites of battle, the Proclamation and the flag.

In the Irish Free State of the 1920s, tensions were high between those who supported the new state and those who questioned its legitimacy, and the anniversary of 1916 provided an opportunity to emphasise these differences. Commemoration became war by other means. In 1924, the government organised the first military ceremony to commemorate the Rising, and invitations were issued to the relatives of the leaders who had been killed. But only one - the widow of Michael Mallin - attended. In protest against the new State, the event was snubbed by those who preferred to cherish the memory of the idealised, lost republic. The following year, the government held a ceremony at Arbour Hill, and pointedly did not invite anti-Treaty TDs. Those excluded arranged an alternative commemoration march to Glasnevin cemetery, beginning a tradition of parallel events to remember the Rising.

The 10th anniversary was similarly contested. As part of the official commemoration, Great Brunswick Street was renamed Pearse Street. Éamon de Valera attended a rival event, and declared that "the homage of our appreciation is not enough", as long as "the task to which they devoted themselves remains unfinished".

With Fianna Fáil in power in the run-up to the 20th anniversary, some of these positions were reversed. There were serious disagreements over the idea of unveiling a sculpture, 'The death of Cúchulainn', in the GPO in April 1935, especially as the piece had not been originally designed with 1916 in mind. While Dev insisted the sculpture symbolised "the dauntless courage and abiding constancy of our people", WT Cosgrave refused to attend the unveiling because "the time is not yet ripe for an adequate commemoration of 1916", which would be accompanied by "generous national enthusiasm".

Plans for the 25th anniversary began two years in advance, and there were many debates about whether it should be a religious event, a military event, or both. De Valera had clear views about the kind of event he wanted in 1941. It was to be a one-day commemoration, "of a purely military nature", with aeroplanes, and so 20,000 soldiers, alongside the nursing service and firefighters, marched in what the Irish Independent described as the "largest and most spectacular military parade the city has seen". This was both a bold statement, and a rallying cry, in the middle of World War II, proclaiming Ireland's neutrality. While there were debates about whether the ideals of the Rising had been achieved, there was also recognition, brilliantly expressed by Seán Ó Faoláin, of the tension between "the definite principles of past achievement and the undefined principles of present ambition".

Following on from the events of 1966, and the outbreak of 'The Troubles' in the North, the commemoration of the Rising became more challenging than ever. The idea of a military parade was abandoned, and the 60th anniversary in 1976 was barely marked, with a republican parade in Dublin banned under the Offences Against the State Act. Similarly, the 75th anniversary in 1991 was a muted, almost embarrassed, affair. There was no official Fine Gael representative at the official ceremonies in the GPO, apparently because Gay Mitchell (or so he claimed afterwards) had forgotten to put his clock forward over the weekend. The official ceremony only lasted 15 minutes, some of the guests were accidentally locked out, and it reflected a general sense of confusion and awkwardness about 1916.

All had changed utterly by the 90th anniversary in 2006. Peace had been achieved in the North, the Celtic Tiger had scared off any insecurities about Ireland's self-worth or place in the world, and once again there was a military parade. The death of the tiger failed to shake off this new-found confidence. The centenary celebrations this year are a good reflection of our ability to engage with and debate our past, and not be afraid of it.

Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents Talking History on Newstalk

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