Wednesday 24 April 2019

There is something liberating in finally owning our history after so much struggle

'There was an honesty, with parents demonstrating to the children: ‘This, for better or worse, is where we have come from. This is who we are’'
'There was an honesty, with parents demonstrating to the children: ‘This, for better or worse, is where we have come from. This is who we are’'

Shane Coleman

When James Connolly and Pádraig Pearse watched the Tricolour being hoisted over the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916, they shook hands and Connolly apparently said: "Thank God, Pearse, we have lived to see this day."

One hundred years on, many watching the commemoration at the same spot on Sunday would have experienced similar emotions.

There is always a danger of reading too much into events, of exaggerating their importance. But there was a real sense over the weekend of a nation and a state that had come of age; one that was entirely comfortable in its own skin.

While academics and commentators have debated long and hard about the morality of 1916 and its legacy - making for some fascinating discussion - the public, you suspect, have moved on.

The hagiography of the State's early years, which culminated in the 50th anniversary celebrations, is a distant memory. But so too is the dark period when any appreciation of the deeds of the men and women of 1916 ran the risk of one being branded a 'fellow traveller' and, for many, the Tricolour was a distant, remote flag of convenience.

There was a feeling with this centenary commemoration of a nation that had finally got the balance right when it comes to marking 1916.

The hundreds of thousands of people who attended events almost certainly weren't agonising over the morality of what happened a century earlier. There was no glorying in blood sacrifices - far from it - but neither was there much tolerance among people of the trite, simplistic 'terrorists' label attached to those who fought 100 years ago by some.

Instead, people embraced the reality that the Rising had happened and that our independent state was conceived, if not born, at that point. And, for that reason, it must be properly marked. Not just recalled, by the way, but passed on to future generations.

There was an honesty on display with parents demonstrating to the children who accompanied them onto the streets: 'This, for better or worse, is where we have come from. This is who we are'.

For a nation and a State that has struggled with its sense of self and identity over the decades, there was something extraordinarily liberating about that.

It was a celebration, even though people are reluctant to use that word. Not a celebration of a bloody rising per se, which people are fully aware cost hundreds of lives (including, as Joe Duffy documented in his hugely important 'Children of the Revolution', 40 children). But a celebration of, and a pride in, ourselves as a people and a nation.

There is a complexity about the events of 1916 that makes a balanced analysis of what happened very difficult. Yes, it was fundamentally undemocratic, but so was the British rule that was being opposed - at times a brutal regime that presided over a city where just four out of 10 children living in the tenements could hope to celebrate their 10th birthday.

There was a shocking and hugely regrettable loss of life in the Rising. But it represented only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands pointlessly lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme a few weeks later.

That complexity is now acknowledged by the majority of people in a way that it wasn't in 1966 or, on the opposite extreme, in 1991, when an embarrassed nation chose to look away rather than mark the 75th anniversary of the single most seismic event in our history. We have come a long way in those 25 years. Obviously, by far the most important difference has been the ending of the Troubles. The presence of Martin McGuinness on the viewing stand at the GPO was something that would have seemed impossible in '91. Nobody disputes that there is only one Óglaigh na hÉireann today.

We have a more mature attitude today to our past, and to what used to be referred to as 'the national question'. The historical obsessions and hang-ups, while perhaps not completely gone, have been hugely diluted. Britain is now our closest ally and friend, the people with whom we have by far the most in common. And it was this quiet self-confidence, and sense of being at ease with ourselves as a nation, that was so wonderfully on display in recent days. It's been coming for some time. The Good Friday Agreement; the Ireland v England game at Croke Park; and the visit of Queen Elizabeth were all staging posts on what has been a sometimes torturous journey.

On Sunday, as the military band played Amhrán na bhFiann, just yards from the spot where the rebels had belted out 'The Soldiers' Song' a hundred years previously, it felt like, finally, we had arrived at our destination.

Contrary to the much abused cliché, about the 1916 leaders spinning in their graves over how their Republic had turned out, you sensed Clarke, Pearse et al would have approved.

Of course, as President Michael D Higgins pointed out, every democracy is a "work in progress". We as a people, and our Republic, are far from perfect - but which country is? But the President also added that it was up to every citizen to take responsibility to build that better Republic. Based on the civic-mindedness, national pride and maturity on display in recent days, we have never been better equipped to do so.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

Irish Independent

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