Easter Rising 100 years on: The view from Nelson’s Pillar

President Michael D Higgins lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA
President Michael D Higgins lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA
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It has been described as the greatest cultural festival Ireland has ever staged. Tens of thousands of expats and tourists have poured into Dublin to take part in events to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising: the ill-fated rebellion against British rule that continues to grip the public imagination.

Yesterday, a ceremony “to remember and honour those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom” was held in the city’s Garden of Remembrance. Wreaths were laid, a piper’s lament was played and the Irish national flag was raised.

Devastation on Sackville Street as seen from the Nelson Pillar in 1916. Picture: PA

Devastation on Sackville Street as seen from the Nelson Pillar in 1916. Picture: PA

Tomorrow, there will be more wreath-laying at six sites seized during the six-day insurgency. But the high point of the celebrations will take place today when half a million people attend a parade through the city centre. At 10am, thousands of members of the Defence Forces and descendants of the rebels will process along a 4.5km route, pausing at noon outside the General Post Office where – 100 years ago – Padraig Pearse, read out the Proclamation of Independence. Here, there will be a minute’s silence, followed by the National Anthem and a fly-past by the Air Corps.

All this could be seen as overkill, the glorification of violence; and, to a degree, it is. Those who took part in the uprising have long been venerated as heroes and the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic. But this year, for the first time, efforts have been made to remember all those who died: the British soldiers, the police officers, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire; and to explore the complexities of an event which has been mythologised for a century.

In April 1916, when the uprising took place, it had little popular support; it was only after 16 of its leaders were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol – Scots-born James Connolly was famously shot while tied to a chair because of his injuries – that a more positive narrative began to take hold. Soon the rebels were transformed from a ragtag band of misguided idealists to martyrs whose sacrifice paid off when – via two wars and the divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty – the country became a Free State (1921/22) and then a Republic (1937).

This simplistic story – that the rebels were heroes who freed their country from the British yoke – is the one that has been told for generations. The idea they legitimised terrorism was rarely interrogated. If the Easter Rising did cause conflict it was its ownership, not its meaning that was contested, with Sinn Fein, Fine Gael (the pro-Treaty party) and Fianna Fail (the anti-Treaty party) all trying to gain credibility by association.

When, shortly before the 50th anniversary, the IRA blew up Nelson’s Pillar, a statue of the English admiral that overlooked the GPO building, some people joked it was because “he was the only fecker who could see exactly who was in there at the time”. They were pointing out that, after the uprising, everyone claimed to have taken part, even though, at the time, most people opposed it.

The 1966 celebrations perpetuated the myths, which was unsurprising given that the only Easter Rising commandant not to be executed, Eamon de Valera, was by then the country’s president. Though the Troubles were already brewing, there was no suggestion that the rebellion had been anything other than a force for good.

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In 1991, the 75th anniversary – which took place against the backdrop of the Brooke/Mayhew talks – was viewed as something of an embarrassment; there were no official commemorations, but no reassessment either, with the past swept temporarily under the carpet.

The 100th anniversary, however, has seen a dramatic shift in approach. Already there have been books, documentaries and symposiums questioning some of the accepted “truths”. Historians have taken pains to present the uprising within the context of the First World War and to point out that those who organised it had no mandate. While 2,000 rebels were involved in the Easter Rising, 200,000 Irish men enlisted in the British Army and fought on the Western Front (only to find themselves on the wrong side of history when they returned). The ongoing war also helps put the reaction of the British state in perspective. At a time when men were being slaughtered all over Europe, executing 15 rebels who had “committed treason” was not as disproportionate as has been suggested.

In her book, The Seven, Ruth Dudley Edwards explored the lives of the signatories of the proclamation, portraying them as a disparate bunch in the grip of identity crises. Other books and exhibitions have focused on the Protestants and women whose part in the Rising has been underplayed, and on the 40 dead children written off as collateral damage.

No aspect of the Easter Rising has gone unchallenged; Dudley Edwards, for example, has called the seven “a cabal within a cabal within a cabal”, while Irish journalist Olivia O’Leary believes the independence they secured – chained as it was to the Catholic Church – proved detrimental to women. The state too is more aware of the sensitivities around the anniversary; effort has been made to take unionist opinion into account and to accept that history is necessarily subjective.

This shift in attitude may be limited, but when you consider that, in the 1980s and 90s, those who wore poppies were being spat at, it’s still remarkable. So what does it tell us about the country today?

According to Irish journalist Peter Geoghegan, now based in Glasgow, this change is a recent development. “I left school in 1998 and even at that stage it was very much a non-revisionist history of Ireland [that was being taught], “ he says. “When I was in primary we used to be taken to Kilmainham Gaol and told these men were the founding fathers, the guys who bought our freedom.

“It’s all very different now. There are polyphonic voices talking about what the Rising means. It is far more capacious and multifarious than it was even 20 years ago.”

Geoghegan believes this more relaxed approach is the result of Ireland’s sense of itself as a modern western democracy that has shed its hang-ups. “In general, there is a confidence in the story of Ireland, and where Ireland is now, so there isn’t the same need to maintain the origin myths; to police them as heavily,” he says.

As with many historic events, the way in which the story of the Easter Rising has been framed is almost as interesting as the insurgency itself, revealing much about the preoccupations and mores of the times. Take how it gained an almost mystical resonance through being infused with religious imagery. Much of this was by design; Pearse saw himself as a Christ-like figure making a blood sacrifice and the organisers chose Easter because they understood the story would have more potency if it was cloaked in Catholic iconography. But later events heightened the impact. As the writer Brian Morton said in a recent book review, if the Rising evoked Christ’s death and resurrection, then the image of Connolly tied to a chair was its Pieta.

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The speed with which this version of the Easter Rising became inviolable can be seen by the rioting which took place at the Abbey Theatre at the première of Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough And The Stars shortly before the 10th anniversary in 1926. The play’s criticism of the jettisoning of socialist principles in favour of blind patriotism and its undermining of Pearse angered audience members, who stormed the stage.

In 1966, the jingoism of the 50th anniversary celebrations in Dublin (and unofficial events in Belfast) fed into growing unrest in Northern Ireland. Earlier this year, former first minister David Trimble said the sight of thousands of armed men in the uniforms of the old IRA marching down O’Connell Street had “spooked sections of the unionist community” and given the Rev Ian Paisley a credibility he might otherwise have lacked.

“It’s worth recalling that before Easter 1966, [Paisley] could only muster protests against everything from tricolours flying in Belfast to ecumenical conferences that ran into the hundreds,” Trimble said in an interview. “On Easter Sunday, 1966, Paisley organised a counter-demonstration against the 50th anniversary of the Rising and this time 5,000 people turned up. It was his first major protest and from then on he built his power base.”

Just how problematic the prevailing nationalist narrative had become by 1991 could be seen in an interview Gerry Adams gave journalist Suzanne Breen. In it, he asked: “Would any of the men who signed [The Proclamation of Independence] have signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement? Would Tom Clarke [one of the leaders] have extradited Dessie Ellis [a former IRA prisoner who jumped bail and fled to New York])? No way would those people be involved in talks about talks, rolling devolution, Atkins’ round-table conferences and the whole litany of Sunningdale-Darlington.” Adams was exploiting the rebels’ memory to justify Sinn Fein and the IRA’s refusal to compromise.

So what of this year’s celebrations? Is there a risk they too could be exploited by dissidents like the New IRA, who earlier this month murdered a prison officer in a car bomb attack?

Those in charge of the commemorations in Dublin have recognised the need to be inclusive from the beginning. Earlier this year, culture secretary Heather Humphreys said she had personally met with members of the unionist community to discuss their approach. It helps that the government has also developed a programme of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in July.

Nevertheless there have been controversies. In 1966, Fianna Fail was accused of hijacking the celebrations; this time it is Sinn Fein’s turn. The party caused a stir when it hired the Ambassador Theatre on O’Connell Street to present its take on events. “Sinn Fein think they own the Easter Rising,” one commentator on the website of the Irish News posted under the story. Meanwhile, the descendants of some of the rebels have threatened legal action to prevent the planned unveiling of a memorial wall in Glasnevin Cemetery which honours all those who died in the Rising: 58 rebels, 262 civilians, 107 British soldiers and 13 police officers.

As always, however, there is greater hostility in Belfast where, on Friday, a statue of James Connolly was unveiled on the Falls Road. First Minister Arlene Foster has refused to attend today’s parade or any other commemoration of an event that “gave succour to violent Republicans”, although she is going to a debate. The unionist community’s acceptance of the nationalist community’s right to celebrate its heritage is tempered by a fear that such celebrations poison the minds of the young.

“In the north there won’t be any debate within unionism about the Rising at all and there will be a very hagiographic view within nationalist communities,” says Geoghegan. He accepts dissident groups will try to exploit the myths to stir up trouble, but doubts they will pose a major threat.

The progress that has taken place in the south has come in phases. It took until the 1980s for members of Fianna Fail to attend memorial ceremonies for Michael Collins (the Easter Rising rebel murdered after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty) or for members of Fine Gael to attend Fianna Fail commemorations at Kilmichael (the scene of an ambush in which 17 auxiliaries in the Royal Irish Constabulary and three IRA men were killed).

A more significant change came in 2011, when the Queen visited Ireland for the first time. Some were annoyed, but it was an important symbol of normalisation. In 2013, Prince Edward laid wreaths at Glasnevin Cemetery and the following year, Ireland laid its first wreath to honour war dead at the Cenotaph in London.

Ten months ago, the referendum on gay marriage – which saw rainbow flags waved as the country delivered a Yes vote – demonstrated how Ireland has been transformed. It has a way to go; there are die-hard Catholics who won’t shift an inch on abortion and die-hard Republicans who will always hate “the Brits”. As it prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, Ireland is not a country that has escaped its past, but it is at least one which is prepared to confront it; and to let go of some of the myths it has cleaved to for so long.