This weekend saw one of the first of many celebrations to mark the centenary of events that culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916.
The Howth gunrunning, when a modest 900 rifles, relics of the Franco Prussian war of 1870, and 29,000 rounds of ammunition were brought to Ireland by Erskine Childers, best-selling spy novelist and socialite skipper of the Asgard, to arm the Irish Volunteers who had sworn to defend the idea of Home Rule for Ireland. This was an attempt to counter the earlier, April gunrunning at Larne when a far, far greater quantity of munitions — 25,000 rifles and something between 3m and 5m rounds of ammunition — were openly landed to arm the Ulster Volunteers.
These, and the other events that will be marked in very different ways and for very different reasons on both sides of the border, are the history of our island but, if those facts cannot be changed, then how they are used today can be — and may yet be.
In that context, it is important we do more than cheer the marching bands in 2016 or celebrate the unquestioning, non-inclusive nationalism that shaped the 1966 events. Maybe enough time has passed to allow us to consider how well or otherwise we have used the opportunities that flowed from 1916. Have we made the best of the great possibilities independence presented? The answer, unfortunately, seems obvious enough and that feeling is strengthened when a warning from one of the 1916 leaders, James Connolly, is recalled: “The worship of the past could become a tactic to reconcile people to the mediocrity of the present.”
In that light, it would be more than unfortunate if the 2016 celebrations are as one-dimensional as those of 1966 were when the militarism of 1916 was almost as celebrated as the achievement it, at least in part, facilitated. Those celebrations were vividly green. Though entirely legitimate, it is unlikely that they encouraged a sense of harmony or co-operation, or even possibility, across the island. Indeed, they must have had, along with appalling social injustice, been influential in the radicalisation of Northern nationalists who were politically silent — even if through no choice of their own. The unquestioning nature of those celebrations, the sense that the most important challenge facing a people — self determination — had been achieved and that hardly anything of importance remained undone dominated public consciousness.
In the intervening half-century, our economy has been destroyed several times. Forced emigration has been a constant drain and heartbreak. Many of the great institutions of establishment of Ireland have seen their power and influence slip away because of corruption and dishonesty. They have not been replaced by any institutions or individuals driven by the kind of idealism and ambition that was at the very core of 1916. We seem hog-tied by an absence of civic or social commitment or ambition. The blood sacrifice of 1916 must be marked, but the best way to celebrate it would be to move beyond its militarism and try to rekindle the nation-building ambition and civic commitment it hoped to make everyday in the struggle to make this a better, fairer society, one everyone and every tradition on the island could be proud of.
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