Forgive me, gentle reader, if I add my two ha’apence worth to the millions of words that have been written about the Easter Rising commemoration in recent months. It seemed to me, as a Northerner who is a Dublin resident, that it was essentially a celebration of the birth of the 26-county Irish national state. The North – or Northern Ireland – was nowhere to be seen and rarely, if ever, mentioned. Only two weeks after Easter, at a marvellous (but invitation-only) event of poetry and music at the Abbey Theatre to mark the 18th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, was the North allowed to intrude.
Maybe this makes sense. Maybe the deeply divided North is still too raw, too sensitive, too subversive to bring into the commemoration of the foundational event of the modern European republic of Ireland. After all, even Pearse, Connolly and the planners of the 1916 Rising decided that it should take place in three provinces only. Because of concerns that any action in the North would provoke bloody retaliation from armed unionists, Northern volunteers were told to assemble at Coalisland and march to the Shannon to meet up with their Connacht comrades.
Contemporary Sinn Fein did their own thing and played little part in the official events over the Easter weekend. Overall the weekend was something of a triumph for the Fine Gael-led caretaker government and its various agencies: notably the defence forces who led the impressive Easter Sunday parade and RTE, which put together with admirable flair and efficiency a vast array of lectures, debates, concerts, street theatre, battle re-enactments, children’s shows and hundreds of other events on Easter Monday. The people of Dublin and Ireland (and large numbers of tourists) came out in their hundreds of thousands, determined to enjoy the spectacle and the feeling of collective well-being in the spring sunshine. And if it occasionally veered into excesses of sentimental nationalism (particularly the televised TV extravaganza Centenary on the Monday night), sure what harm for one day every century or so?
But visiting Northerners felt a little different. One northern friend from a nationalist background wrote to me afterwards as follows:
“The swell of pride that we first noticed – and shared, I should add – when we stood in Westmoreland Street watching the parade seemed to settle on the whole city as the day progressed. A sense of significance began to suffuse the events, even the frivolous and recreational. People would tell their children and grandchildren they had been in Dublin for the centenary. Was there an element of re-claiming the Republic after the humiliation of the banking collapse? I don’t know, but it was clear that while people were ready, more than ready, to criticise the recent failings of the Republic, this commemoration was to be shielded from criticism. No begrudgery here, thank you.
However there was another factor. Those of us from the North were left unsure whether we were part of this nation that was being celebrated. I listened again to Paul Muldoon reading his poem ‘One Hundred Years A Nation’ and wondered what nation came into existence a hundred years ago. Certainly as a title for a poem it works better than ‘Ninety-four Years A State’, but where do we fit in? My sense is of an impatience with the North and its bothersome arguments. It really would be neater if we weren’t here.”
Of course, unionists never do themselves any favours at times like this. There was a piece of unthinking vitriol from First Minister Arlene Foster, calling the 1916 leaders “egotistical…doing it to bring glory on themselves” (did she realise she was echoing Protestant Irish Republican Brotherhood leader Bulmer Hobson’s criticism of Pearse?). More thoughtfully, Alliance leader and Minister of Justice David Ford declined an invitation to go to Dublin because he felt “uncomfortable” about commemorating those who had used violence and from whom dissident republicans recently responsible for murdering policemen and prison officers still claimed inheritance.
The outspoken Northern Attorney-General John Larkin, a devout Catholic and representative of the old constitutional nationalism that has been so sneered at in the South, was tougher. He said in an interview for an interesting evangelical Protestant publication, 1916-2016 The Rising and the Somme: “Looking at 1916, you have individuals of huge moral worth, individuals capable of huge self-sacrifice, doing something that was profoundly wrong…The Rising wasn’t justified in terms of any of the traditional Just War criteria – there was no mandate for it.”
These are legitimate arguments, which have been rehearsed cogently and endlessly in recent months by historians (including Northern historians like Eamon Phoenix), journalists and others in the lecture halls, radio and TV studios and columns of the Republic’s newspapers. Contributions ranged from a powerful argument for the efficacy of violence in 1916 in the face of British government perfidy from UCD historian Ronan Fanning¹ to a passionate denunciation of that violence from the magnificent contrarian, singer and campaigner Bob Geldof². Former Taoiseach John Bruton made a sturdy but hotly contested case why Ireland would have become just as independent if the Rising had never happened³. The South is now a mature society that can debate these difficult issues openly with little rancour. It was particularly fitting that the final event of the week was a moving ceremony (led by acting Taoiseach, Enda Kenny) to unveil a memorial wall in Glasnevin Cemetery to commemorate all those who had died in Ireland in and after Easter Week: rebels, civilians (including 40 until now anonymous children), soldiers and policemen.
This new style of inclusive commemoration was indicative of an important and welcome change in the public ethos of the Republic, in evidence particularly since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. For it should be searingly obvious to anyone who cares about the well-being of Ireland, north and south, that the often fierce anti-British ethos of the Irish state and society during the first 50-60 years of independence was no way to begin to try to persuade the three quarters of a million Northern unionists – for whom Britishness is so central to their sense of identity – to contemplate some future all-island constitutional arrangement. That job of bringing about an Ireland united by consent is going to be difficult enough as it is, without starting from a position of congenital antagonism to all the unionists hold most dear.
It has also allowed people in the South a new freedom to speak out about relatives who were soldiers or policemen. For example, a member of my wife’s traditionally republican family was able to say publicly for the first time that his great-grandfather had been killed during the War of Independence by the IRA, who mistook him for one of his sons, an RIC man. “How sad that it became such a shameful thing to have been a policeman, and it is indeed great that at last both sides are being recognised and honoured for what they (mostly) were, ordinary people caught up in the tides of history who did what they did for good motives,” he said.
Overall the 1916 commemoration has been a good process for the Republic. On the one hand, questioning historical ‘truths’ handed down from one’s parents and grandparents is usually a liberating experience. On the other, a bit of pride in one’s country and in the idealism and courage of its founders isn’t a bad feeling either. It only makes me sad that, when it comes to both pride-inducing official ceremonies and mind-freeing intellectual argument, the North tends to get left out.
PS The Guardian‘s Irish correspondent, Henry McDonald, reminds us that 75 years ago more than 1,000 people died in two nights German bombing of his native Belfast (compared to 485 who died in Dublin in Easter Week), the vast majority of them civilians. It’s “worth not forgetting who was allied to the Nazis in Ireland at the time too”, he adds.
¹’Historian challenges Bruton over necessity of 1916 Rising, Irish Times, 18 September 2014
² A Fanatic Heart: Geldof on Yeats, RTE 31 March 2016 (second programme of two)
³’Home Rule could have led peacefully to independence’, Irish Times, 8 April 2016