The best and worst of ourselves? 

Thoughts on Easter 2016

Easter Sunday, March 27th 2016. A day that I had looked forward to since I was old enough to realise the significance of the date.

I was born in 1988, a few months after the orgy of violence that occurred during two funerals in Belfast which left five dead and scores injured, and a few weeks before the Ballygawley bus bombing killed eight British soldiers. The broadcasting ban was at its height. The likes of Gerry Adams were being dubbed in ridiculous actors’ voices by the likes of Channel Four, there was no sign of him at all on RTÉ. The very acronym IRA was whispered in front of us children in the early nineties like a dirty word. The older boys in the schoolyard would play a chasing game called ‘IRA’. Us younger children cowered at them, a latent fear bred by the Six One news on a daily basis; Warrington, Castlerock, Shankill. One of my most vivid memories of childhood was sitting in my kitchen at home watching RTÉ. The weather forecast, after the news, just before seven had ended. My mother and father drank tea and ate some left over Christmas cake at the table by the front window. The screen cut back to the news room. A man spoke on the phone, Charlie Bird, he said that he had just been told that the IRA Ceasefire was over. Minutes later, news of a massive bomb in London. My father cried ‘Oh Lord, no!’ and put his head in his hands. The peace, which had emerged in August 1994, was over. A hopelessness fell over these islands again.

By the Grace of God, and the hard work of politicians in Dublin, Belfast and London, peace in Northern Ireland came a lot sooner than it seemed it would that January evening in 1996. For right, or for wrong, the devastating decades of the Troubles were viewed in the same continuum as the Easter Rising. In the prism of the past few weeks, the 75th Anniversary Celebrations in 1991 seem extraordinarily apologetic and low key. The days of the military parade had ceased in 1971. So Mary Robinson and Charlie Haughey led small scale ‘celebrations’. The Proclamation was read, the tricolour hoisted, a bit of awkward standing around. The ceremony was over in minutes. It was reported that 600 people were in attendance. For the seven surviving veterans of the rising, all in their nineties, it was the last recognition of their contribution to Irish freedom. 90 year old veteran of the Rising, John Flynn, was not permitted into the GPO as he was not seated 15 minutes in advance of the launching of a commemorative stamp. 

The seven veterans of the Rising in attendance at the 75 th Anniversary celebrations. Seated (L to R) John Flynn, James Henry, Bill Hogan, William Hogan. Standing (L to R) Michael McMahon, Sean Clancy, Christy Doyle. 

The near-total removal of the armalite from Northern Ireland, coupled with the flourishing of the economy in the Republic led to a slow rehabilitation of the memory of the Easter Rising. The Bertie Ahern led government of the mid-2000s announced that the 90 th Anniversary of the Rising would see a revival of the military parade on Easter Sunday as the country began to prepare for the Centenary of the Rising in 2016. 

An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, lays a wreath in the Stonebreaker's Yard, Kilmainham on Easter Sunday 2006

120,000 people, 200 times more than fifteen years earlier, thronged the streets of Dublin to witness the nation’s first military parade in a generation. Acknowledging the tense atmosphere in the preparations for the parade, the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, noted that there was only one Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Defence Forces are our Defence Forces and are the only successors of the Volunteers’. The grandson of the man who established the Volunteers in 1913 also noted the fact that the Army were, and always had been, the only legitimate army of the state.

The ten years since 2006 saw the final normalisation of Anglo-Irish relations which culminated in the visit of Queen Elizabeth II which saw her lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to men and women who fought and died for freedom from the Kingdom of her grandfather, George V. Her son, the future King of England, visited the site where his mentor and grand-uncle was killed in a bomb attack. Such milestone events were clearly on the minds of the early planners of the 2016 celebrations, as was the legacy of the 2013 ‘Gathering’. The official commemoration launched last year with an embarrassing 80 second promotional video that featured, in its opening salvos, Queen Elizabeth II, David Cameron and the Rev. Ian Paisley. Padraig Pearse or James Connolly failed to get a look in. Diarmuid Ferriter described the video as ‘embarrassing unhistorical shite’. He was not wrong. 

The 'Ireland Inspires 2016' video was hugely criticised for its lack of reference to the Easter Rising, and for being shamelessly similar in style to the 2013 Gathering. The biggest issue I had with the video was a sequence from which this still is taken. As people walked up Grafton Street, speech bubbles with the corporate logos of Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter magically appeared over them. Coupled with a teen-pop soundtrack it struck a desperate tone to connect with a younger generation, my generation presumably!

The omens were not good. The newly appointed Minister with responsibility for the Easter commemorations was only in the job a few months before controversy erupted surrounding her handling of the appointment of John McNulty to IMMA. The handling of the government’s plans for Moore Street also left a lot to be desired.

However, by the time I rose from a fitful night’s sleep on Easter Morning Sunday and pinned an old War of Independence Volunteer medal to my jacket things had certainly taken a turn for the better. Any fears of a Gathering Mark-2 type event had been allayed. I took the surprisingly empty (it had departed from Drogheda an hour earlier) first commuter train from my home in Portmarnock to Tara Street Station, and sprinted towards my intended viewing point on O’Connell Bridge. This would be the closest mere mortals such as myself would be allowed to the epicentre of the event outside the GPO would be allowed, and I was in luck to settle myself just at the barriers on the half way point of the bridge. As the hours passed by the crowds gathered until they were nine or ten deep. The flat perspective not giving anyone much idea of the crowds that thronged the junctions of the Quays with D’Olier Street and Westmoreland Street. The most remarkable element of the crowd was its sobriety, both figuratively and literally. This was not the same crowd that stood here the week before for St. Patrick’s Day. There was an acquiescent hush amongst the hundreds; chat, yes, excitement, yes. But everything was calm, everyone respectful. I had expected at least some form of retrograde Republicanism, but there was none. The height of belligerence came when someone, as the crowds watched events live in Kilmainham on a big screed positioned at O’Connell Bridge House (the Heineken Building!), loudly pointed out that Enda Kenny was the acting-Taoiseach.

The minute of silence after the reading of the Proclamation was perfectly observed; surely the quietest Dublin City Centre had ever been. The subsequent re-raising of the tricolour and rendition of the national anthem will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to have been there. It was one of those rare non-sporting events when one sings Amhrán na bhFiann and it is entirely appropriate to be proud, to shed a tear.

One arm of the state that had taken a great deal of criticism in the run up to Easter week was the national broadcaster. Despite a promising start, the much heralded Rebellion fell far short of expectations. Personally, I found Insurrection a far better piece of television, albeit being televised for the first time in a half-century. In their crusade to give equal air-time to all perspectives, Ruth Dudley Edwards, John Bruton and Kevin Myers were wheeled out to give their takes on the illegitimacy of the Rising. As someone who sees himself as a balanced historian who believes that some form of Irish state would have materialised peacefully had the Rising never taken place, the rehashing of this trio’s theories added little but frustration and noise to the debates.

But Easter Monday represented RTÉ’s finest hour. The dual success of their Reflecting the Rising programme of events and the remarkable Centenary concert in the BGE Theatre showed that our TV license is been put to good use after all, even if it does mean a summer of repeats of Reeling in the Years and Francis Brennan’s At Your Service. Centenary showed Ireland at its best, but perhaps more importantly did not shy away from Ireland at its very worst.

In a montage that showed the great contradictions of Ireland since the Rising events such as the visit of JFK, the Special Olympics World Games, the passing of the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum were all juxtaposed alongside references to Ann Lovett dying alone in a Longford field giving birth, Michael O’Briens harrowing contribution of the treatment he received at the hands of the Rosminians in Ferryhouse. All the while Luke Kelly asked ‘What died the sons of Róisín? Was it greed?’ The acknowledgement of the wrongs, the injustices meted out by the State, or those trusted by the State is, historically, quite an un-Irish thing to do. But for RTÉ to do so on such a celebratory platform is truly within its brief as the public service broadcaster.

The commemorations will die down now for a while. After events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme there will be little until November 2018 and the Centenary of Armistice. The years after that will be no doubt be tricky. The Rising lasted a single week, its events remembered into a single weekend. The War of Independence lasted two and a half years. It left over 2,000 people dead, tens of thousands wounded. The bar has been set high for a solemn and balanced flag raising, as opposed to flag waving, commemorative programme of events. Planning for the 2019-2021 will need to begin now.

And as for the Civil War…..