This Easter, Dublin experienced the culmination of the commemorative activities planned for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. There was the traditional reading of the Proclamation in front of the General Post Office (GPO), the military parade, and a series of talks and seminars, held at various locations of historical and national significance. These celebrations form the latest culmination of a shifting attitude to the Rising’s commemoration in Ireland, born out of complex interactions of party politics, Irish nationalism, and wider events.
The current round of celebrations actually started in 2012, and has been partly or wholly sponsored by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is interesting to see how this government agency has approached the issue, encouraging the emergence of a more inclusive national narrative – one which incorporates the heroes and great deeds of ‘the other side’, as well as those that helped create the Republic. Thus, the commemorative cycle opened with the centenary of the 1912 Ulster Solemn League and Covenant, despite it being traditionally perceived as the nemesis of nationalism, the event that made Partition inevitable and ensured the defeat of the revolution in the North.
Such an approach is one of the outcomes of the political and cultural changes that have completely transformed the two Irelands since 1990, including not only the Peace Process in the North, but also the impact of the Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese presidencies in the South. Together, the two leaders spearheaded the emergence of a pluralist vision of the nation, championing minorities and diversity against the old nationalist mono-culturalism. This had an effect on the question of commemoration, which increasingly involved a public acceptance of the Unionist heritage. For example, under McAleese, celebrating ‘the Twelfth’ (the 12th of July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne) became an annual event at the Áras an Uachtaráin, with a reception for representatives of the Orange Order and historical reenactments of the battle. Then, the Queen’s visit to the Republic in 2011 had a momentous impact, which further encouraged a more ecumenical approach to the past. While official attitudes relaxed, there was also a parallel groundswell of local initiatives, driven by groups or private individuals aiming to reclaim the First World War as an ‘Irish’ war. It came with a sense of pride in the military record of the regiments disbanded in 1922, such as the Connaught Rangers or the Royal Munster Fusiliers (often represented by associations devoted to preserving and honoring the memory of these units).
In this context, the meaning of 1916 was bound to change. However, it had been steadily changing almost continuously since the Rising itself. In the 1920s, the commemoration consisted primarily of a Catholic Mass celebrated on Easter Sunday (rather than on the actual date of the Rising, the 24th of April) and attended by the survivors of the rebellion and their families and friends. For years it was a smaller-scale affair than Remembrance Day, which attracted large crowds throughout the 32 counties.
One of the reasons was that the Easter Rising presented difficulties for both main Southern political parties and their leaders. Though Eamon De Valera was a 1916 veteran, from the end of the Civil War (1923) he had moved away from revolutionary violence, and in 1926 established Fianna Fail as a constitutional republican party, increasingly ill-at-ease with the still-active IRA. The latter used the commemoration to assert the continuing legitimacy of armed struggle, something that De Valera could no longer contemplate. Therefore, from 1935 he started to reclaim the Rising for the state, with a GPO ceremony and an Irish Army parade, a military display whose aim was to seize the physical and political space hitherto occupied by the IRA. It was the first step towards a systematic and ruthless suppression of the group in the 26 counties, an operation completed by the early 1940s.
For the same reasons – a concern for the stability of democracy and state power against paramilitary activism – about thirty years later, another Fianna Fail government discontinued the military parade, as the government wanted to express their rejection of military answers to the Northern Irish question.
Equally complex was the attitude to commemoration displayed by Fine Gael, the other major political party. For decades neither the party founder, the 1916 veteran W.T.Cosgrave, nor his successors attended the annual GPO ceremony. They started to do so only in 1965, one year before the 50th anniversary of the Rising and in the context of thawing relations with Northern Ireland, which made violence look reassuringly obsolete. However within three years the onset of the Northern Irish Troubles again changed the approach to the commemorations, sparking off a series of strong Fine Gael reactions against militant nationalism because of its renewed relevance and popular appeal.
Fine Gael had to wait nearly fifty years before its moment to reinterpret the Rising finally came. This was in the aftermath of their victory in the 2011 election, which ensured that the party would be in office during the years leading up to centenary. However, what they did was in broad continuity with the line adopted by their Finanna Fail predecessors. Rather than making a new start, the Fine Gael-Labour government further encouraged a pluralist approach to the event, a development facilitated by Enda Kenny’s choice of Heather Humphreys – who once described herself as ‘proudly Presbyterian and proudly Republican’ – as his Minister for Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht.
Such a politically charged, but continuously changing tradition of government engagement with commemoration is fascinating for historians. In its practical effects, it has pitfalls, however it also has its advantages, particularly in the context of 2016. For a post-Catholic, increasingly multi-cultural Ireland makes it easier for historians to speak and write about the Irish Revolution through different frameworks of interpretation, from shifting the focus away from the anti-British dimensions of the revolution and towards its positive demands, to analyses that place the Rising within the context of rebellions and revolutions between 1917 and 1923. We could think of more examples, for both the Rising and the Irish Revolution deserve close scrutiny as an illustration of one of the most significant forces in the transformation of the era in which we live –one which, unlike state socialism, is not going to disappear soon – namely, the global rise of democratic nationalism.
Image credit: 1916 Commeration of the Easter Rising Wreath Laying at GPO by Irish Defence Forces. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.