1916 commemorations: Why Rising to the occasion is not easy

ONCE UPON a Celtic Tiger time, I attended a Fianna Fáil Cairde dinner. This was in 2006, at the height of the bubble. The dinner was an annual knees-up for friends of the Soldiers of Destiny.

1916 commemorations: Why Rising to the occasion is not easy

Many of the tables were taken by developers, who were at the frontline of the march of a nation towards economic abyss.

A notable feature of the evening was the menu. Not the grub, so much as an illustration.

This being Fianna Fáil, you might have expected Eamon de Valera’s mug. He, after all, had founded the party from the ashes of the violent and turbulent decade that began with the 1916 Rising and which ended in a civil war as brutal as the Brits had ever been.

Fianna Fáil depended hugely on his cult of personality during the early decades of the new State, and even right up until the ’60s.

But at the Cairde celebration of a booming country shaped to a large extent by this party, the iconic image on the menu was Padraig H Pearse, who was dead a decade before the party was formed.

Why celebrate a man who lived for the country, when it’s far more satisfying to pin your colours to the mast of one who had died gloriously, and was buried in romantic myths?

Last week, at the second time of asking, the Government announced its plans to commemorate next year the centenary of the Rising. At this launch, the executed leaders actually got a mention.

The theme was commemoration, rather than, as was the case at the first launch, last November, it being an occasion to flog Ireland as a place to do business.

This change of tack may well be a reaction to plans announced by both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for their own commemorations.

As with the Rising itself, different agendas are at work. The political parties appear to be asking not what they can do for 1916, but what 1916 can do for them.

At a time of political upheaval, and with the more immediate issue of a pending general election, the centenary presents an occasion for all to warp the Rising around election posters.

Beyond the political parties, the commemoration — and all its attendant baggage — could be an opportunity to examine prevailing mythologies.

In the last week, there have been tortured debates on radio and TV over how to commemorate, whether to commemorate or celebrate, and the biggie: Whether the country has lived up to the ideals of the proclamation.

As for the proclamation, a few notable points have gone missing in the myths.

The country most certainly hasn’t lived up to its aspirations, but it is doubtful that even those who formulated the document would have ever attempted to do so, had they lived.

James Connolly’s vision for Ireland was far removed from that of many of the other leaders.

The conservative country, in thrall to the Church and vested interests, that emerged from the ashes of Civil War would have been anathema to him, but that doesn’t apply to many of the others.

If Pearce or Plunkett had engaged in a new, democratic free state, would they have dealt with the overweening power exercised by the Church any differently than Cosgrave and DeValera did?

Much has been made of the Proclamation’s inclusion of “Irishwomen” in its opening sentence. Would any of the leaders have really striven in a post-colonial state to ensure that women had equal rights? Would they have done any more “to cherish all the children of the nation equally”?

As it was to turn out, none of them had to deal with that messy business.

The spectre of the “blood sacrifice” as a central plank of the leaders’ intent should be proofed for mythology in the coming year.

Connolly, by all accounts, wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff, and while Pearse apparently was, it has passed into mythology that this notion informed all their actions.

Sacrificing oneself for a cause can be noble, but the Rising resulted in 485 deaths, most of them civilians who had no interest in sacrifice.

The other issue that could do with a little airing is the effect the proclaimed ideals of the Rising had on the Civil War.

Those who took up arms against the fledgling Free State did so on the basis that the Anglo Irish Agreement fell short of the Republic that had been proclaimed on the steps of the GPO.

Did the high, some might say impossible, aspirations of the Proclamation ultimately lead to brothers turning their guns on each other?

None of which is to take from the bravery and honour of those who led, and participated in, that tumultuous event.

But they were real human beings, rather than the mythical figures they became once the firings squads’ shots had rung out.

A visit to the 1916 Exhibition, in Dublin’s Collins Barracks, illustrated the flesh and blood of those figures.

There is a cheque signed by Pearse, showing his financial struggles in attempting to keep his school, St Enda’s, afloat.

There is a gold medal Eamon Ceantt had won for playing the uilleann pipes a decade before he fought and before he was marched out to his death.

There is the tunic worn by Liam Mellows in Easter week, another man who died in front of a firing squad — in his case, six years after the Rising, and manned by his former comrades — and who had settled for something less than the ideal.

More stark than any of that is the death certificates of those who were executed, including a handwritten section that says they died through “shooting by order of field general court martial”, a human touch to the documents that would convey brave men into the pantheon.

Examination of the mythology would be timely, but it remains to be seen whether the country has the stomach for it in the coming year.

The John Bruton school of opinion on the Rising has it that it was a waste of human life, ahead of what would have been the inevitable granting of Home Rule.

This opinion carries the implication that the leaders were profoundly anti-democratic, an idea that has some merit, but ignores the context of the time.

At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional view of the Rising as the actions of a band of men prepared to give up their lives to drag a slumbering nation into throwing off the shackles of imperialism.

This view implicitly relegates the lives of the overwhelmingly civilian casualties to an acceptable cost of awakening the nation.

Somewhere in the middle the myths thin out. Let’s hope, in the coming year, that we can look in a grown-up manner at what it was all about, and how, if at all, it served to shape the last century on this island.

READ MORE MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Kildare Fire: Safety concerns arise from Celtic Tiger ashes

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