Yesterday witnessed the largest single day of commemoration of any event in the history of the Irish State.
The 1916 centenary commemoration represented the centrepiece of Ireland's Decade of Centenaries. It has been meticulously planned over the past five years. In 2011, an Expert Advisory Group was established to assist the Government in planning the State's commemoration. It consisted of some of the foremost academics on modern Irish history and sought a tone for the events which would be "inclusive and non-triumphalist, ensuring authenticity, proportionality and openness". The culmination of these efforts was the Easter Sunday military parade in memory of all those who died in the attempt to break British rule in Ireland in the spring of 1916.
Since the mid-1920s, Easter Sunday has represented Ireland's national day of commemoration. Yet in contrast to the respectful and open manner which characterised yesterday's celebrations, for much of the past century the commemoration of 1916 has been divisive and contentious. Perhaps this was inevitable. Since 1923, various groups have sought to claim the sole inheritance to 1916 for their own political designs. After all, every major electoral party in the Republic has a direct link with the Rising and up until the 1960s, Ireland's political class was dominated by its veterans.
Indeed, as Professor Mary Daly, a member of the Expert Advisory Group, noted, formal state commemorations of 1916 have often been characterised by reluctance, discord and embarrassment.
Following the Civil War, the 1920s saw national events to mark the rebellion monopolised by anti-treaty Republicans. The Cumann na nGaedheal government, the victors of that bitter conflict, tended to draw back from the difficult legacy of 1916. Republicans used Easter Sunday to honour not only the rebels of Easter Week but the memory of all those killed in the fight for the Republic between 1916 and 1923, using the annual November 11 Armistice day celebrations as their template.
The first serious attempt by an Irish government, in this case Fianna Fáil, to gain control over the direction of the 1916 celebrations was in 1935. Their plans led to rancorous debate in the Dáil.
The pro-Fine Gael newspaper, 'United Ireland', bemoaned the government's attempts to make political capital out of the event, chastising: "It is always unseemly, if not indecent, for political parties to engage in a figurative scramble for the bones of the patriot dead."
The official ceremony, which introduced a military parade past the GPO for the first time, was extremely partisan. Taoiseach Eamon de Valera refused to invite any opposition parties to attend.
After 16 years of Fianna Fáil governance, the accession to power of John A Costello's inter-party coalition in 1948 offered an opportunity for others to use the commemorations to enhance their own 1916 legacy at the expense of the 'Republican Party'.
Following the decision to declare Ireland a formal Republic, Costello's government deliberately chose Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, as the moment it officially became so. A major military parade was held outside the GPO, the intention being to both differentiate this celebration from past events orchestrated by Fianna Fáil and also to explicitly link the new Republic with that which had been proclaimed in 1916.
Despite being invited, Fianna Fáil boycotted the state ceremony. De Valera argued that 1916 should not be publicly celebrated by the new government as long as the 'national task' (i.e. the reunification of the island) had still not been achieved. Of course, this was glaringly hypocritical. On such a basis, Fianna Fáil should never have overseen any commemoration of the Rising either.
The return of de Valera to power in 1951 marked the end of attempts to focus 1916 commemorations on Easter Monday. Celebrations reverted back to Easter Sunday and have been staged on this day ever since. The jubilee commemoration of 1966 was the last hurrah for State-sponsored 1916 events for over a generation, though few could have foreseen the reasons why.
The explosion of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland led Jack Lynch to abandon official commemorations in 1972, effectively conceding control to modern republican bodies like Sinn Féin. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, successive Irish governments, like southern society at large, brooded over the potential glorification of the political violence of 1916 against the backdrop of the IRA's campaign. Commenting on the small ceremony held to mark the 75th anniversary in 1991, the Irish Independent noted that the Government "find themselves venerating those who used violence in 1916 while denouncing those who do so today".
The success of the Peace Process has brought about a rehabilitation of the commemorations. In 2006, Bertie Ahern revived the state celebrations using the event to showcase Ireland as a prosperous modern democracy. Critical and public reaction to its dignified tone was overwhelmingly positive.
A DECADE on, the commemoration of 1916 has broken free of the ghostly grasp of those dead generations which for so long sought to usurp or disrupt its legacy. The 2016 Easter weekend has been about reflecting all facets of this most pivotal moment in Irish history. It has been a mature, thoughtful and overdue national conversation around the significance of those six days and not an exercise in glorification or demonisation.
The day before Pearse ordered the evacuation of the GPO, 538 Irishmen were killed in an horrific German gas attack at Hulluch in northern France. Today, on a peaceful stretch of the Liffey stands the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, a monument erected to them and their 49,000 brethren who perished in the Great War. It lies within 850 metres of Kilmainham Gaol, the site of the 1916 leader's executions. Over the past century, the distance between these two key sites of memory in Irish history has been geographically insignificant but ideologically profound.
Easter 2016 has shown that Ireland can remember the part played by its fallen in France in the story of the Irish nation with the same reverence as the Easter dead in Dublin.
Dr Richard McElligott is a lecturer in Modern Irish History at UCD