Wednesday 22 May 2019

Poetry, music to honour those who fell for freedom

Relatives and VIPs commemorate 1916 at the Garden of Remembrance

Heroes remembered: President Michael D Higgins bows his head as he lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance yesterday for all those who died in the Easter Rising Photo: David Conachy
Heroes remembered: President Michael D Higgins bows his head as he lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance yesterday for all those who died in the Easter Rising Photo: David Conachy
Patricia Treacy of the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland plays a haunting tune at the service Photo: David Conachy
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

"We seem to have lost; but we have not lost. To refuse to fight would have been to lose; to fight is to win. We have kept faith with the past, and handed on its tradition to the future."

The words of Padraig Pearse at his court-martial on May 2, 1916, rang out clearly in the Garden of Remembrance, untarnished by the passing of a century, read aloud by Muriel McAuley, the grand -daughter of Thomas McDonagh.

It was seismic, fighting talk - full of valour, timeless potency and undeniable logic - and to certain ears, remains scandalously dangerous.

The first of the official State ceremonies to mark the 2016 commemorations had a fitting sense of occasion, but also had a homespun feeling of simplicity that touched the heart through song and verse.

The last time guests stood at the Garden of Remembrance for an important civic ceremony was on the historic occasion when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland in 2011.

It is the spot where stood the old Rutland Square - where the Irish Volunteers movement was set up in 1913 and where many leaders of the 1916 Rising were held overnight before being taken to Kilmainham.

The site was fitted out as a Garden of Remembrance and dedicated in 1966 by Eamon de Valera to the memory of "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom".

Five years on from Queen Elizabeth's visit, this time, the occasion felt no less important - and no less moving.

Like then, there was pomp and ceremony, rows of invited guests and a host of dignitaries.

And like then, it was the hidden emotional undercurrents that were more interesting than the trappings, with the knowledge that while this was a historic occasion, it was also very much a living thing - part of the continued building of a still fledgling nation.

From all over the United States, some 35 relatives of Major John MacBride - the "magnificent rebel" executed after almost accidentally becoming involved in the 1916 Rising - assembled to attend the first of the State commemorative events.

Many of them had never previously met - some were even unaware of one another's existence before this trip.

"That's what this event has done for my family. It has brought us together," explained Anne MacBride from California.

The first official event had struck the "right note" said her brother Dan MacBride, from Utah - great-grandnephew of Major MacBride.

"The government did a wonderful, wonderful job of telling us what it was all about. We've been planning this since last March," he said.

"He's folklore for us," he said of Major MacBride.

"We grew up hearing wonderful stories from my father and came here in our father's memory to celebrate Major John's life."

The clan spoke touchingly of their pride in receiving the official invitations to the 2016 commemorations, and they intend to go to "everything" over the Easter weekend.

As the official arrivals of dignitaries began, one thing was striking.

It seemed there is to be no political 'swagger' about the commemorations, but instead a welcome and unforeseen humbleness, enforced by the absence of an actual government, as yet to be agreed through talks.

And so acting Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys and acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny all but sneaked into the Garden of Remembrance yesterday, taking their places alongside former members of government in an even less enviable place - with Alex White, Aodhan O'Riordain and James Reilly, who had not even retained their seats.

There were no such complications with the arrival of President Michael D Higgins, accompanied by wife Sabina in a jade green coat and a nod to 1916 in the form of a fittingly befeathered hat.

Also present were Deputy First Minister of the North, Martin McGuinness, Dublin Lord Mayor Criona Ni Dhailigh, acting Tanaiste Joan Burton, acting Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

After inspecting the guard of honour, the President took his place at the top of the Garden, and the Island of Ireland Peace Choir - formed as a symbol of reconciliation after the 1998 Real IRA Omagh bombing - sang the haunting folk song, The Parting Glass made famous by Liam Clancy.

The familiarly sorrowful lyrics amid the solemnity of the occasion felt even more moving than usual.

And then it fell to civil servant, Feargal O Coigligh, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to provide the official welcome to the event. Next, Muriel McAuley took to the podium to deliver Pearse's stirring words.

Around 1,000 guests were assembled in the garden. Only those with an invitation were allowed in and hundreds more clustered around the gates outside.

There was silence as the formal part of the ceremony began, with acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny inviting the President to lay a wreath to mark the sacrifice of the patriot dead.

In the middle of it all, a plastic poncho arose, billowing in the air - an ugly and yet oddly spiritual 'ghost' as it swirled in front of the sculpture of the Children of Lir, before being discreetly snatched down by an army officer.

There was a stirring rendition of The Proclamation, a piece of music composed especially for the occasion by Patrick Cassidy and performed by solo violinist Patricia Treacy.

And then Theo Dorgan read aloud a poem he had composed for the occasion, In the Garden of Remembrance:

"To escape the pull of memory

as difficult as for a swan

with wings of bronze

to lift over silent water

and gain the sky.

Somehow the thing is done,

gravity cancelled by force

of art, by will,

and the swan soars.

These braids of air

spiralling from each wingtip,

how else to read them but

as lines drawn up from clay,

some new script made from the old."

In it lurked the pain caused amid the fallout of the Rising and the troubled foundation of the State - and the redeeming sacrifice which permitted future generations to forge our own identify, free from the yoke of the past.

Ailbhe Ni Ghearbhuigh's poem, Cuimhne, which was read aloud next, again turned to the natural metaphor of swans, but this time was slightly more bleak in its view of the present Ireland, as it recalled the children's 300 years of captivity, ending:

"As for us, the generation of freedom

with our watered-down


our songs only half-way recalled

a few feathers of memory survive

in that tender place, a mottled patch."

A minute's silence saw an elderly man in the relatives' benches doff his cap amid a moving gesture of respect.

There was only the sound of the wind in the trees - and the rustle of the plastic ponchos.

The silence was brought to an end by a lone pipe's lament.

And then the Last Post sounded, followed by the raising of the national flag to full mast, fluttering proudly in the strong breeze.

The Reveille was played, followed by the national anthem - and the relatives knew the words.

As the ceremony ended, the President left and the family occasion came to the fore.

Padraig Pearse's great-nephew, now an elderly man himself, said that he had been very pleased with how it went.

"It was a lovely ceremony. It was just the weather," he lamented.

However hail, rain or shine, he will be at the GPO for the main event today, he said.

Catherine Murphy TD said she was there as a relative rather than in an official capacity.

Her grandparents Liam Murnaghan and Margaret Martin had both fought in the 1916 Rising, at the Four Courts garrison, she revealed.

Orphaned, her grandfather had been brought up in an institution which, although it was cruel, had given him two enduring gifts - the love of Irish and the ability to play the violin.

"Because of that I particularly enjoyed the violin today," she said.

Sunday Independent

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