Our capital is almost en fête and many, many champagne events are planned around the country. A brutal and initially destructive event will be marked by everything from sombre, thoughtful memorials to green-and-orange face painting and something like a mix of Pamplona’s bull run and fleadh cheoil na hÉireann.
The aesthetic, straight-laced idealists who led the Rising might not be entirely comfortable with the carnival, but they would surely rejoice that we can, because of their efforts, celebrate as an independent people in an independent Republic.
It is appropriate that the Rising be marked in myriad ways as there are myriad interpretations of it and many, many responses to it, one as valid as the other. Though it might be hard to imagine it this weekend, the anniversary is not an occasion for universal celebration. Very many people on this island believe that the thousands of deaths, the dreadful Civil War, partition, and unbridled bigotry that followed 1916 were, and unfortunately are, far too high a price to pay for what we have achieved — or might yet achieve.
However, those achievements have been considerable and stand as testimony to those whose life’s work was the establishment of this Republic, even if they would have vehemently opposed some of the liberal, pluralist initiatives enacted by the Dáil over recent decades. They were, after all, products of a specific time and place. Even a document as splendidly optimistic as the 1916 Proclamation could not have anticipated the great social changes of the last century.
This weekend we can take considerable pride in what has been built on the foundations laid 100 years ago. We have achieved what generation after generation of Irish nationalists could only have dreamt of. And there can hardly be better testimony to that freedom than the enthusiasm with which we persistently bemoan the lost, never-achieved idyll described in the Proclamation.
The counter argument, the balance sheet showing what has been achieved in this State since the 1920s, is best done by comparison. That comparison should be made against the 200 or so countries recognised in today’s world rather than against the almost impossible nirvana anticipated in the Proclamation.
There are many grim and dangerous societies — Mexico and its uncontrollable drug wars; Zimbabwe’s near- permanent famine because of an insane despot’s unending corruption; the Pakistan and Afghan borderlands where the rule — and protection — of law is entirely notional. The citizens of these unfortunate countries live in conditions we cannot imagine and, despite humanity’s great advances, their lot is almost indistinguishable from the everyday ordeal their great grandparents’ imagined was a life.
Our situation could hardly be more different. By this yardstick, this is a hugely successful country. That assessment stands even if the failings, and there are far too many, shaping the lives of vulnerable citizens are recognised. We, at least, have the ability to resolve those difficulties, but those dysfunctional countries neither have the capacity nor the will to do so.
We take our enduring democracy for granted despite the occasional threat — most recently from the Provos’ 30-year terror campaign. Only a handful of democracies established in the early 1920s survive and there are barely a dozen countries with a longer history of unbroken democratic rule. Many of the states established around the time of our Civil War failed because they became either communist or fascist. Despite our proclivity for extreme and empty gestures, we resisted the pull of those inhuman ideologies.
That democracy is sustained by a political system that has many flaws. It is, despite elections, hardly accountable. Its capacity to deliver is questionable but it is, despite perception and some exceptions, far less corrupt than many peer systems. Out of 168 countries or territories reviewed by Transparency International, Ireland is among the 20 least corrupt.
There is certainly more corruption here than in countries where honesty is routine — yes, some exist — but it is pristine compared to most countries. We have a legal system that, by and large, works, even if the reforms urged by the troika have not materialised. The weakened Legal Services Bill seems a lost opportunity in this regard.
A majority of Irish people have a visceral and open-hearted enthusiasm for education. Ensuring something approaching universal access to the opportunities it provides is an expectation largely delivered. More than half of Irish people under 35 have third-level qualifications, the highest ratio in Europe and one of the highest in the world. This, despite many counter arguments, makes this one of the most equitable societies in the world. Fact not fiction.
Comparatively, we have a low crime rate. There is a commitment to volunteerism and participation in civil society that shows we have a good degree of trust in society’s capacity for community-based achievement. We are, as the co-operative movement showed long ago, very aware of the benefits of social solidarity. Anyone who has not lived and worked abroad may underestimate how civil, how warm this society is. The rudeness, the abrasiveness found in many other countries is utterly alien to our nature and is one of the reasons we enjoy such a high quality of life which is seen in survey after survey considering the happiness of nations.
It is also one of the reasons we have attracted so much very welcome foreign investment. It is a quality we take as a given but one we should work to protect. We are at ease with the intimacy of great national art and cherish creativity in a genuine, soulful way. This week’s bombings in Brussels are almost unimaginable in Ireland — despite our sad history of bombing each other. For the most part, the new Irish are treated with warmth and civility.
There is not a viable constituency ready to support anti-immigration policies and the recent election campaign is proof of that. At a moment when Europe is riven by a refugee crisis, not one candidate with a realistic ambition of being elected tried to exploit the issue. That indicates that our folk memory of the terrible pain of forced emigration still cuts deeply and that makes us almost unique in Europe.
There are parts of our public life, especially our health service, that need urgent and transformative attention, but these seem structural rather than cultural issues. They are doable.
It would be wrong, and out of character, to be smug about what this small nation has made of the opportunity given it, but considerable self-congratulation is justified as long as it is tempered with the acceptance that the Republic imagined in 1916 is still very much a work in progress.