by John O’Hara
Last weekend saw the official launch of the country’s celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising, with the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Fenian leader, Jeremiah O’Donavan Rossa. With over forty events planned to celebrate the momentous occasion in Irish history, it seems that we are now ready to accept our history, regardless of the violence and the bloodshed.
In America, they have created a whole tourism sector from their history, whether it is their battle for Independence or the civil war that ripped their nation apart. They make millions each year, as they celebrate their glories and their failures, their successes and disappointments. In this country, we seem scared to acknowledge our past, that we should keep it locked away in case it could somehow be repeated. The Easter Rising commemorations will at last see us move on from this sense of reluctance about our past to finally celebrating our history.
O’Donavan Rossa is a controversial figure to be commemorating and many were surprised that the anniversary of his funeral would be marked with a state commemoration, with the president and an Taoiseach in attendance. O’Donavan Rossa was an integral member of the IRB and was an organiser of an armed rebellion in 1865 against the British, for which he was charged with high treason and sentenced to life in prison. His release was agreed on the basis that he was exiled to New York for the remainder of his life and it was there that he plotted the bombing campaign of Britain, which earned him the nickname ‘dynamite.’ He was the first Republican to put forward the idea of bombing economic targets in Britain.
As an historical figure, ambiguous would be a mild way to describe the Skibbereen shop-keeper. Michael Davitt described him as a ‘buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics.’ His ultra-militant stance was frowned upon by many and his Brooklyn bombing school was a contentious issue among republicans, who were trying to garner sympathy with British politicians.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who paid tribute to ‘dynamite’ gave a short speech, where he said, “his funeral remains one of the pivotal moments in Irish history and was an occasion that would be hugely instrumental in shaping the future of our nation.” This type of celebration must sit uneasily with Kenny, who will understand the irony and hypocrisy of slagging Sinn Fein about their past every time he has difficulty with a question in the Dail and then celebrating a man who espoused the same ideals as those in the Provisional IRA. It is important to note his words in that he said that it was his funeral that was a pivotal moment in Irish history and not his life or his actions. It is a clever distinction, that will allow him to say that he does not condone his actions, but rather was commemorating the historical significance of his funeral, which in many ways led to the Easter Rising. Kenny will know that he represents a party, which has many members that will have difficulty in celebrating the Rising, most notably, former Taoiseach, John Bruton, who has written extensively about the rising, calling it a mistake.
Bruton maintained that Home Rule would have been given to Ireland after WWI, as promised but the reaction of unionists in the North to the possibility of Home Rule, meant it was a non-runner from the beginning. In fact in 2012, unionists celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, which was in response to the possibility of Home Rule and saw Carson and his comrades arm themselves in the event that it was pushed through by Whitehall. Irish politicians will be cognisant of the effect that the celebrations will have north of the border, where unionists will see celebrations as an affront to their culture and heritage. It was the 50th anniversary celebrations that stoked the lingering tension in Northern Ireland in 1966, with unionists outraged that The Rising was allowed to be celebrated across the six counties. It was at this time that a young, enthusiastic reverend by the name of Paisley came to the fore, organising ‘Thanksgiving’ commemorations to celebrate the defeat of the rebels in 1916. There is a fear that with the ongoing issues at Twadell over marching rights and the flag issue at City Hall, Belfast could become a battlefield in 2016, as Republicans remember 1916.
The fact is that the majority of political parties on this island were formed through bloodshed. The Labour Party have used Sinn Fein’s past as a stick to beat them with since they took power, while casually ignoring the clear links between their party and the Official IRA. Fianna Fail, also critics of Sinn Fein, have no problem in celebrating their militant past, but refuse to equate it with the armed struggle in the six counties during the Troubles. And not forgetting Fine Gael, who often remind people that they are descended from the famous Michael Collins, who was no stranger to armed conflict in the pursuit of Independence. And this is why the state have tried so valiantly to repress our history during the past number of decades. They find it impossible to celebrate the armed struggle of the past, while trying to explain to the public that it is different to the armed struggle of the modern era. It is a tricky balancing act and they are trying to organise a series of celebrations that will be respectful, without glorifying violence and angering the other traditions on the island.
O’Donavan Rossa’s death in 1915 in Staten Island at the age of 83 was masterfully exploited by the IRB for propaganda purposes and they ensured that his body was repatriated to Ireland for burial, where over 5000 people attended and heard the rousing oration delivered by Padraig Pearse that ensured that the event will always have a seminal place in Irish history. The famous speech was re-enacted at the graveside. “The fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”. It was this speech that is thought to have set the tone for the events that were to follow in the city, just a few months after.
It was interesting to note that Sinn Fein organised their own event to mark the milestone in Irish history, while ignoring the state commemoration. Their event had a speech from Gerry Adams and their own re-enactment of Pearse’s graveside oration. This is one of the main problems with celebrating historical events, with everyone having a different version of what happened or the significance of the main players. Eamon O’Cuiv, who is the grandson of one of the Rising leaders and former President, Eamon DeValera, says that Sinn Fein are undermining the Rising programme with their own parallel events. Sinn Fein will be doing their best to illustrate to the public that they, along with the Provisional IRA were merely continuing the long held tradition of armed struggle, thus giving them more credence with voters. The main political parties are scared that the celebrations will give Sinn Fein a chance to re-write history, but they also have to acknowledge the role that armed struggle played in this country’s independence.
Sinn Fein will argue that they have been celebrating the anniversary of the rising for the past 99 years and that they are simply carrying on their own tradition, but for the good of the country, everyone should be united in one agreed programme of events.
Many were worried when the first video associated with the commemorations was launched last year, which drew almost universal criticism for its farcical take on the celebrations. Inexplicably, the video had images of The Queen of England, David Cameron and Ian Paisley, while there was no mention of any of the signatories of the proclamation, the pivotal document, which was read aloud from the portico of the GPO by Padraig Pearse, declaring Ireland’s independence from Britain. This was seen as a total white-wash by state authorities and public opinion against the video was overwhelming, which has forced Kenny and Fine Gael to take a more active lead in remembering those that paved the way for an independent Ireland.
There will not be many more celebrations in 2015, but the country will have to prepare itself for a year of commemorations next year, as we remember the 1916 Rising and those who fought and died. The rising itself is a controversial subject among historians, who will say that the leaders of the rising had no mandate to go to war while others are critical of the timing of the Rising, with Britain in the middle of a world war, where troops were being decimated in the trenches across Europe.
In fact, it should be noted that public opinion was against the members of the IRB and the Citizen Army, until British authorities made the decision to execute the leaders of the insurrection, which ensured martyr status for those that died and it also heralded a new beginning for armed struggle in Ireland.
The majority of the casualties recorded during the event were civilians with 116 people losing their lives during the fighting. It was an event that ended in abject failure, but like Pearse’s graveside oration at O’Donavan Rossa’s funeral, the event itself has paled in significance when compared to the effect it had on the Irish psyche and is now seen as the most important milestone in our quest for independence. Never before had Ireland stated that it was a free and independent country and the proclamation set out the goals and beliefs of the visionaries who put their names at the bottom of it.
The rising led to the war of independence, which would ultimately result in the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland and these are events that will all have to be celebrated in the coming years, creating further problems for those who wish to ignore our bloody past. The civil war anniversary will be an event that will cause considerable problems, with both sides vying for public opinion, 100 years on.
The fact that the very first celebration of the event was divided does not ogre well for next year, where we will see state commemorations, Sinn Fein commemorations and possibly commemorations from relations of those who fought and died. This will result in chaos around the country and especially in Dublin, where there is potential for trouble with the continuing protests about austerity and water charges added to the mix. The Gardai will not have the required resources to attend multiple events and with anarchists keen to replicate the actions of their 1916 heroes, there is a possibility of violence on our streets.
Similarly, across the border there are fears that the celebration of martyrs who fought and died for freedom will ignite the same desire among Republicans, who are still living under British Rule. The other problem in Northern Ireland is that unionists will do everything in their power to disrupt any celebration that is linked to republicanism and this could lead to trouble, especially in flashpoints like Ardoyne, where tensions are running high between loyalists and republicans.
But no matter what the outcome, it is clear that you cannot run from your past. If anything, we should be using this anniversary as a chance to learn from our mistakes. Our history might be saturated in blood, but it is our history and it should be respected and celebrated by everyone but with a view to never repeating the actions of the past. We should use 2016 as another stepping stone, finally removing ourselves from the shadows of the past, moving forward to a new Ireland, an Ireland of equals, where all traditions are respected and violence plays no part in the political system.
The battles of our past are over, they should never be forgotten, but it’s time for post-war Ireland, where we can showcase our unique history, celebrate it and make it part of our tourism trade.