Thursday 5 December 2019

1916 celebrations: A terrible bust-up is born

The Easter Rising centenary celebrations are said to be in danger of paralysis, but marking the rebellion has always been hugely contentious.

Privates and Corporals in the Irish Defence Forces must retire after 21 years of service
Privates and Corporals in the Irish Defence Forces must retire after 21 years of service
Easter Rising commemorations in 1942
Eamon de Valera

Damien Corless

It happened almost a century ago, but the Easter Rising remains a very touchy subject. The Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan is reportedly "furious" that the focus of the centenary commemorations has shifted on to the possible participation of the British royal family, while Senator Fiach Mac Conghail has spoken of "commemoration anxiety" leading to "commemoration paralysis".

The fact is, however, that anxiety and paralysis are nothing new when it comes to marking what was, for all the undoubted heroism of the blood sacrifice, an act of violence.

Eleven months after the end of the Civil War, the rulers of the new Free State were faced with the business of marking the anniversary of the insurrection that had set the ball rolling on the creation of that State.

Instead of presenting an opportunity for national celebration, the forthcoming event highlighted the open wound dividing those in power from the Anti-Treaty losers in the Civil War.

The government issued invitations for the official commemorations to the relatives of the executed rebels. Only the widow of Michael Mallen, second-in-command of James Connolly's Citizen Army, accepted.

While government ministers led the ceremonies at Arbour Hill, Éamon de Valera brought his dissenting faction to the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery. Much the same scene was played out in 1926, with De Valera stealing some of the thunder of the official 10th anniversary commemorations with the foundation of his Fianna Fáil party two weeks earlier.

Firmly installed in power in 1935, De Valera decided to erect Oliver Sheppard's 1911 bronze statue of The Dying Cuchulain in the GPO to landmark the epicentre of the Rising.

A huge row erupted as Fine Gael charged Fianna Fáil with attempting to hijack credit for 1916, not least by rewriting the guest list to exclude Pro-Treaty attendees.

With the rest of the world at war in 1941, the silver jubilee was muted, although some within the government rather optimistically talked up the military parade down O'Connell Street as evidence that Ireland was ready and able to see off any would-be invasion force, be it British or German.

A small edition of special coins was printed off for presentation to veterans of the Rising, with Taoiseach De Valera receiving the first. A number of commemorative stamps were also issued, including a darkly militaristic one known as The Gunman, depicting a Gulliver-sized insurgent armed with a bayoneted rifle standing sentry above a Lilliputian GPO.

The Golden Jubilee in 1966 brought more coins, more stamps and more hijack claims as the State finally felt sufficiently distanced from the events of 1916 to really paint the town red. In some parts, the notion of painting the town was taken literally.

As an orgy of pro-republican and anti-British vandalism swept the land, the residents of Dún Laoghaire woke up one morning to find their shopping streets covered in graffiti. The assortment of republican slogans scrawled around the town centre included, "Hitler Was a Good Fellow".

As Easter approached and the carnival spirit hotted up, greasy tills rang ceaselessly as the 1916 industry slipped into top gear. Nearly one million commemorative 10 shilling coins were minted, by the Royal Mint in London, featuring Padraig Pearse's profile on one side and an image of Cuchulain's GPO statue on the flip.

English newspapers that were no friends to Irish nationalism made no qualms about cashing in on the party. The Daily Telegraph serialised the Rising exploits of De Valera while The People ran a pictorial tribute headlined, "Six Days To Death".

Sticklers for detail pointed out that the British troops featured in The People's souvenir supplement were, in fact, Irish Free State soldiers fighting in the Civil War of 1922-23, and that one photo – captioned, "A rebel leader brandishes his revolver as he cries 'To your positions'" – was from a Michael Collins election rally.

As Easter week approached, Kilkee Town Commission voted to make the patriotic gesture of enacting all its business in Irish.

One member even stormed out protesting: "I don't know a damned thing you are talking about". It quickly emerged that he was not alone. The inaugural meeting as Gaeilge lasted 21 minutes instead of the customary two hours.

Perhaps inevitably, despite the passing of a full half-century, there just had to be some re-enactment of the hostilities of the Civil War. It happened, appropriately enough, at the GPO where the Presidential viewing stand had been erected for the passing of the Easter Parade.

As President De Valera took his seat, the TV cameras captured the wide open spaces in the VIP seating around him. Frenzied scenes ensued as prominent persons were shooed in from the margins to fill in the blanks.

In the aftermath, Fine Gael and Labour expressed their disappointment that Fianna Fáil had snubbed them by failing to send out invitations. The relevant government department, Defence, subsequently issued an apology.

When the 75th anniversary came around in 1991, with the bloody legacy of 1916 being played out daily on the streets of Northern Ireland, neither of the Civil War sides was in any mood to party.

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