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Remembering Easter 1916 in 2016

Remembering the Easter Rising has never been a straightforward business. The first anniversary of the insurrection, commemorated at the ruins of the General Post Office on Easter Monday, 1917, descended into a riot. This year its centenary has been marked by dignified ceremonies, the largest public history and cultural event ever staged in Ireland and, in Northern Ireland, political discord, and menacing shows of paramilitary strength. Over the past century, the Rising’s divisiveness has remained its most salient feature.

When the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, it rooted its legitimacy not in the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established its authority (and led to a bitter Civil War), or the general election of 1918 which saw a majority in Ireland vote in favour of the Republic, but the unmandated blood sacrifice of 1916. This did not prevent the widows of the Rising’s executed leaders from boycotting State commemoration of the event throughout the 1920s. Like other militant republicans, they regarded a partitioned State whose leaders swore fealty to the British Empire as an illegitimate entity.

Although Éamon de Valera’s anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil repudiated the Free State’s right to the ownership of the legacy of 1916, his party placed even greater emphasis on commemorating the Rising when it came to power in 1932. Despite their political differences, both regimes constructed a conservative vision of the most revolutionary moment in Irish history, one which played down the influence of radical impulses such as socialism, feminism and secularism. This was achieved by remembering 1916 within a Catholic perspective, with particular emphasis placed on the legacy of Patrick Pearse, whose powerful writings emphasised the idea of martyrdom.

The Irish State’s efforts to construct a usable memory of 1916 have often faltered. Against a background of improving North-South relations, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Seán Lemass’s efforts to project a modern civic patriotism in 1966 failed to displace decades of anti-partitionist grievance. In Northern Ireland, where the rebellion symbolised unfinished business rather than national sovereignty, the 50th anniversary was exploited by the rising Protestant demagogue Ian Paisley to inflame communal tensions. The troubles that followed further complicated the memory of the Rising as the Provisional IRA positioned itself as the heirs of the physical-force tradition sacralised in 1916. Against a background of sectarian violence in the North, the 75th anniversary in 1991 evoked little enthusiasm in the Irish Republic.

Image credit: The Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were buried in the old prison yard of Arbour Hill prison by Domer48. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In terms of its scale, popularity, and the extent of State involvement in the centenary, the parallels with 1966 seem the most apparent. There is one important difference, however: the desire to balance a celebratory remembrance of 1916 with a more sophisticated acknowledgement of the complexity of the historical event. Commemorations, as Roisín Higgins noted in her study of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, tend to celebrate ‘the dominance of one historical narrative and the defeat of another.’ For most of the past century, remembering 1916 in the Irish Republic meant forgetting Home Rule, the alternative future that most Irish people took for granted prior to Easter 1916, and overlooking Irish nationalist participation in the First World War. In contrast, the present Irish government’s decision to remember 1916 as part of a wider Decade of Centenaries, incorporating the Home Rule crisis, First Word War, and revolutionary violence that followed, has seen the political losers of the era reintegrated into the national narrative. Wider social developments, particularly the liberalisation of society following the collapse of Catholic authority, have contributed to this shift. Previously neglected fatalities of 1916 — such as civilians (who accounted for the majority of deaths during Easter week), policemen and Crown forces (many of them Irish) — are now being remembered. The involvement of women in the Rising has also received unprecedented attention, as have the radical social ideals of the revolutionary generation.

The most obvious continuity with earlier commemorations remains the State’s desire to fashion a usable memory of 1916. Remembering a revolutionary act of violence that aimed to destroy British rule in a manner intended to consolidate, rather than destabilise, the Peace Process has brought its own tensions, with the State’s commemorative programme initially criticised for evading the radicalism at the heart of the rebellion. In Northern Ireland, Unionists have declined to commemorate the Rising, while its remembrance within the nationalist community is dominated by Sinn Féin rather than civic organisations or the State.

Nor, unsurprisingly, has the shift from a republican to a pluralist memory of 1916 gone uncontested in the South. A memorial at the iconic Glasnevin Cemetery, which lists without distinction the names of the republican dead and British soldiers, has met with the opposition of 1916 relatives’ groups and republican organisations, including Sinn Fein, notwithstanding its opposition to a hierarchy of victims of the Troubles. The response of the government to such controversies provides a striking indication of the extent to which the times are changing. Asserting that ‘all lives are equal’, the minister responsible for commemoration, Heather Humphreys — a Presbyterian from an Ulster Unionist background whose grandfather signed the Ulster Covenant — confirmed the government’s intention to host a State event at Grangegorman Cemetery to commemorate the British soldiers killed in the course of suppressing the Rising.

Who knows what the signatories of the Proclamation would have made of all this? Many Irish people will see it as a testament to the self-confidence and maturity of an Irish State which now looks to its closest neighbour as an equal partner rather than former oppressor.

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