I benefit from the bloodshed of 1916, but still I will not celebrate it

The civilians of 1916 did not deserve their deaths any more than the 35 who died in Brussels, writes Victoria White
I benefit from the bloodshed of 1916, but still I will not celebrate it

I’M not going. I don’t feel right about the 1916 ‘celebrations’ and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

The insurrection caused the deaths of more than 485 people, including 184 civilians. One in five of those who died was under 19. Those civilians did not deserve their deaths, any more than the 35 who died in Brussels this week, and they were mourned no less.

I thought that a far more nuanced approach would be taken to the centenary than that which is planned. But, no, it’s ‘the good old days’: boys on bicycles in flat caps and pedal-pushers, ladies in big hats, the usual clichés of ‘period drama’ from advertisements for HB ice-cream and James Joyce’s Bloomsday.

We are encouraged to enjoy ‘the fun’ of a family day out, on Easter Monday. You can choose from music on the bandstand of St Stephen’s Green or a ceilí at Earlsfort Terrace or a magical carousel at Smithfield, or an exhibition of vintage cars and motorbikes, buses, and even a steam engine, in Merrion Square.

I love Dublin, my city. I love any good opportunity to celebrate it. But 500 lives were lost in this bloody insurrection, and it paved the way for a vicious Civil War that claimed 2,000 lives, and was followed by the tragic partition of the country.

1916: For regular updates on news and features (as well as twitter action action as it may have happened 100 years ago) to mark the revolutionary period follow @theirishrev HERE

A minute’s silence would be a more appropriate way to ‘reflect’, as RTÉ keeps telling us we’re doing. Then, there might be some hope that we’d ‘reimagine.’ I listen to the endless publicity on radio and TV and I recoil. It’s not nice to feel out of step with the national mood.

I love my country. I’m grateful that I live in the Republic of Ireland. I wouldn’t like to be a ‘British subject’ and have to listen to the House of Lords on the radio, or be faced with a vote on leaving the EU, or be swamped in media that is obsessed with immigration, or live in a less-equal society (yes) that is eight points lower in the UN Development Index than Ireland (yes).

That doesn’t have to mean the sacrifice of 485 lives was worth it. I didn’t ever get a chance to make that choice or vote for an alternative in the patient, pacifist resistance, as suggested by Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. The fact that I feel I benefit from what happened on Easter Monday, 1916, does not mean that it is hypocritical to disavow it. Particularly considering what followed. Not only the War of Independence and the Civil War, but also partition. When I read that there’s a sign outside the town of Strabane, which says ‘The revolution is unfinished’, I agreed.

Which is not to say that I think it was worth fighting for 30 years, either for or against partition, with the loss of a further 3,532 lives. I don’t think the removal of the border between North and South is worth the loss of a single life. But I still think its creation, by the militarism of the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, among others, was a tragedy.

Roads going nowhere. Irish nationalists marooned in an Apartheid state. Donegal isolated from the rest of the country and from its natural capital, Derry City. Border check-points between the two biggest cities on the island.

Everyone, on both sides of the border, has lost through partition. Except the smugglers. My teetotal granny became an avid smuggler when the border was established, and she sure had the bloomers for it. Everything that could be smuggled was smuggled with glee, which says everything about the level of respect my God-fearing granny had for the border.

She was a Presbyterian from Stranorlar, in East Donegal. Her family had lived in the same, small town for 300 years. They were simple tenants who took a massive gamble and moved from lowland Scotland to lowland Donegal, around 1610. One of my aunts told me they took their gravestones with them.

Discriminated against by the Crown, in both Britain and Ireland, they clustered together in the ‘Laggan’, or flat-lying area of East Donegal, and slowly built their churches. The first Presbyterian meeting-house in Stranorlar was built in 1709, and the first gravestone for one of my ancestors dates from 1721. The local history prepared by Ian and Mark Knox, for the centenary of the new church, in 2006, includes a photograph of the pupils at the Robertston Church of Ireland School, in Stranorlar, in 1942. The same names are represented as appear at the start of the history. I counted nine of my relations among them.

Very few are left now. They have gone to Canada and Australia and America, and they have gone across the border. Casually googling my planter family one night, I came across another woman googling the same family and discovered distant cousins living in the North.

The shutter had come down between us. My granny’s centuries of Scots-Irish history, the Huguenot roots which fed her shirt-making venture, her self-reliance, and belief in education for women, her particular traditions in baking and preserving, none of it was wanted this side of the border.

What partition meant to communities, such as the Presbyterians of Stranorlar, Co. Donegal, is silenced history. Imagine the shock and outrage they must have felt when they learned that the border was to shift them into the Free State? And all over again, when the Boundary Commission recommended, in 1925, that they be moved back into the UK, a recommendation that was ignored by both sovereign states?

My grandfather was the headmaster in the Robertson School, where he met my granny, a fellow teacher. They were Irish: they trained in Dublin. They bought their wedding-ring, which I wear, in Derry. They had cousins, the McCalls, who ran the Model Farm in Cork.

They could never have imagined that the border would come down like a blade. They could never have imagined, either, that they would be asked to learn Irish. I remember the bitterness with which this was recalled, but much digging has not yet dug up exactly what happened to them — did they leave their jobs or was some fudge cooked up?

Eighty-six percent of Donegal Protestants surveyed in 2001 were loyal to the Irish State — as opposed to 9% claiming loyalty to the North. But I don’t believe many Irish Protestants will celebrate 1916, a fact that has been whispered in several conversations I have had with other Protestants.

It is the first time I have ever identified myself in any way with ‘the tribe’. And it’s not good. But I can’t deny what I feel, which is that the military campaigns that opposed each other, and which created the Irish State, have left behind two amputee states and do not deserve to be celebrated this weekend.

Enjoyed this? Then check out our dedicated micro-site, developed in collaboration with UCC, to mark the revolutionary period HERE

More in this section