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Riots to revisionism - how celebrating 1916 has divided Ireland over the past century


O'Connell Street during the commemoration in 1966

O'Connell Street during the commemoration in 1966

Sean Lemass receives his 1916 medal in 1966

Sean Lemass receives his 1916 medal in 1966

O'Connell Street during the 1966 commemoration

O'Connell Street during the 1966 commemoration


O'Connell Street during the commemoration in 1966

When the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising arrived, there were plans to inscribe a violent Patrick Pearse poem called 'Invocation' on the wall of Dublin's new Garden of Remembrance.

Taoiseach Sean Lemass thought that this was a seriously bad idea.

In a note to his civil servants, he described himself as "disturbed by the fierce and vengeful tone of the poem, which was entirely appropriate to the circumstances of 1916 but will be less so to those years after 1966".

Since Lemass (inset, receving his 1916 participant's medal in 1966) had actually fought alongside Pearse in the GPO he could hardly be accused of not being a red-blooded republican himself.

But his caution illustrated a crucial point about the dangers involved in remembering 1916.

Every single commemoration has said more about the time in which it took place than the Rising itself - and that is set to be true of 2016 as well.

Pearse and his fellow rebels fully understood this. After all, the whole point of their 'blood sacrifice' was that it would fail at first but then act as an inspiration for future generations.


Sadly, however, commemorating the Rising has often been a tense and bad-tempered business - because different political groups have used it to further their own interests.

The warning signs were there from as early as Easter 1917. Some Dubliners wore black armbands, while tricolours were defiantly flown over the GPO and Nelson's Pillar.

A riot broke out on O'Connell Street as youths pelted police with stones from rubble that had still not been cleared up.

By the time Ireland was able to legally celebrate 1916, civil war had poisoned the political atmosphere. In the 1920s it became common for W.T. Cosgrave's Free State government and Eamon de Valera's anti-Treaty forces to organise their own separate events.

After Dev came to power, he showed no shame in turning Rising commemorations into a Fianna Fail-only zone. When he unveiled a statue of Cuchulainn at the GPO in 1935, complete with an open-air mass and parade of 7,000 soldiers, Opposition leaders were kept off the invitation list.

This caused a lot of anger and the Silver Jubilee celebration in 1941 was relatively low-key, partly because it took place in the middle of a world war.

By this stage the standard methods of paying tribute to 1916 had been clearly established.

There were special coins, stamps and medals for the surviving combatants.

Catholic ceremonies were often involved, quietly ignoring the fact that many of the rebel leaders had been agnostic or hostile to the Church.

In keeping with the conservatism of 20th century Ireland, the Rising was remembered as a military revolution rather than a social one.

The Cuchulain statue features just one paragraph from the 1916 Proclamation, focusing on the need to end British rule with no mention of that document's feminist or radical credentials.

For the Golden Jubilee in 1966, everything went into overdrive.

A huge programme of State events was organised, including parades across the country, school essay competitions and a floodlit pageant in Croke Park.

RTE set aside a whole week for programmes about the Rising, including the groundbreaking drama Insurrection by Hugh Leonard, which ran for eight consecutive nights.


Away from all this triumphalism, however, storm clouds were gathering up north. Sinn Fein attracted a large crowd for their own parade in Belfast, which included a gawky 17-year-old barman called Gerry Adams.

Meanwhile, Ian Paisley organised a loyalist service at the Ulster Hall to give thanks for the Rising's defeat.

Within a few years, the Troubles in Northern Ireland had changed everything.

As Belfast went up in flames, southern politicians were terrified of doing anything that might give comfort to the Provisional IRA.

The annual GPO parade was quietly dropped in 1970 and six years later it actually became illegal under the Offences Against the State Act.

Sinn Fein held a rally of 10,000 people anyway, which led to scuffles with gardai on O'Connell Street.

The State did hold an event at the GPO for the 75th anniversary in 1991, but it was a pitiful affair with no speeches and lasted just 12 minutes.

That year celebrations organised by the artists' group 'Reclaim the Spirit of Easter' were extremely successful - proving that 1916 still had great public appeal.

Gradually, the Northern Peace Process made it respectable to be an Irish nationalist again. Bertie Ahern, who kept a portrait of Patrick Pearse in the Taoiseach's office, restored the GPO parade in 2006.

"I was determined to take 1916 back from both the IRA and the revisionists," he wrote. He also established a Centenary Committee to make the 2016 commemoration bigger and better.

It may not work out that way. The Government's plans have been disappointingly bland, with its promotional video slammed by the historian Diarmaid Ferriter as "embarrassing, unhistorical s**t".

Sinn Fein are organising their own parallel exhibition with a greener tinge at the Ambassador Theatre, while in Belfast the PSNI has warned that dissident republicans might mark the occasion by trying to kill someone.

The Easter Rising will be remembered for a long time to come - but we may never be able to agree about what it meant.