SO, it was great, wasn’t it? Dignified, solemn, peaceful. A great atmosphere in the city. A day to be proud of, as we commemorated 1916 and all it means to us. The President laying wreaths in all the places that matter, the Taoiseach making dignified speeches, everyone inspecting guards of honour while looking appropriately solemn, the relatives of those who died in 1916 savouring their moment and their special memories. A day to relive the past, without undue questioning, and to do honour to those who sacrificed for Ireland.
Well, it was all that, I can’t deny it. But to be honest, I did find myself wondering as I watched, why is it necessary for the centrepiece of the 1916 celebrations to be such a military occasion? I know it’s impressive to watch smartly turned out soldiers marching in perfect step and doing all the things that soldiers do. But we’re not a military nation. It’s not what we do.
It is what other countries do, of course. I happened to be in Moscow a few years ago, on the annual day when Russia celebrates its victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany (if you’re there, you’ll go a long way to find any reference to anyone other than Russia being involved in that war).
It was the 65th anniversary, and the tanks were rolled out in their thousands. For hours, enormous military planes droned overhead and what looked like massive inter-continental missiles rolled by on huge trucks. The really odd thing was the number of pieces of memorabilia on street corners commemorating ‘Uncle Joe’. Stalin, it seems, still occupies a soft spot in a great many Russian hearts.
Personally, I’ve never understood why we would ever feel the need for these full military honours type celebrations. Throughout most of our history, we have consciously set out to see ourselves, and be seen, as peacemakers in the world.
When Irish soldiers and sailors have been deployed abroad, as they have been many times and always with distinction, it has been for humanitarian purposes. I imagine, for instance, that the last time some of the sailors who marched down O’Connell Street on Sunday saw action was in the Mediterranean Sea, helping to rescue terrified families from a terrible end.
So I have to admit, even though I don’t want to be sour about it, that I thought the whole thing was incongruous. If what we’re about was celebrating 100 years of nationhood, I’m just not sure that military parades, no matter how solemn and impressive, are the way to go about it.
The plan, of course, was commemoration on Sunday and celebration yesterday. So Sunday was given to the military to organise, and yesterday to RTÉ. Live music on the streets, more solemn and soulful occasions in places like Kilmainham Gaol, and a gala concert featuring (according to the RTÉ website) songs “that have become part of the Irish psyche”.
As I’m writing this, I haven’t seen what’s described as this “truly modern telling of the story of our foundation as a Republic and the struggles and sacrifices of those who built the country we have today”. (I’m quoting RTÉ’s producer for the occasion). But I’m sure it will be great too.
And then, when it’s all over, can we get on with it? Next Friday will be the 1st of April. Could we maybe have a little ceremony announcing the beginning of the next 100 years, and maybe spend the weekend thinking about where we’d like to go with that? (If you’re not happy about starting the next 100 years on April Fool’s Day, we could move it to the following Monday — that would give us all a week to get over the solemn commemoration and the mighty craic of celebration.) There are lots of reasons to be proud of where we’ve got to. We’ve made endless mistakes along the way, but as we turn 100 (and let’s not get involved in argument about when nationhood began) we’re a country that is, by and large, at peace.
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For most of my lifetime that wasn’t the case — a significant part of my professional lifetime, for instance, began around the time that two little boys died at the hands of the Provisional IRA in Warrington. Jonathan Ball was three, the other boy Tim Parry was 12 — his parents suffered the double tragedy of being asked for permission to turn off his life-support machine after he had struggled for a week from terrible brain injuries.
That was in 1993, and already thousands of lives had been lost in the Northern Ireland conflict by then. Warrington was one of the turning points that drove a peace process that had been under way for some years by then, and a fragile but sustained peace eventually came.
And we are now, in addition to finding peace, a much more open and inclusive society than we ever were in the past. I’ve lived through endless and often vituperative argument about social change in Ireland. Over the years the debate has become calmer and more civilised, and it was surely a remarkable way to celebrate our 99th year of nationhood that we became the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality by a popular vote of the people.
So where to now? What would we like to achieve in the next 100 years?
What about putting some flesh on the bones of the Proclamation? What about beginning to make it real? That would involve a commitment to spending the next 100 years setting out to make Ireland a republic in reality as well as in name. It means recommitting ourselves (or maybe committing ourselves for the first time) to notions like solidarity and equality.
In 1916 we had hungry children. We have them still. In 1916 we had tenements. We have them still. In 1916 our hospitals were characterised by overcrowding. It’s still a phenomenon.
The big difference now is that we can afford to do something about these things if we prioritise them. Throughout the first 100 years that hasn’t always been the case, but it is now and will be into the medium term future.
That’s why it’s fascinating to watch as the first government of the next 100 years begins to take shape. Fascinating, and depressing. All the signs are that what’s going on now is an awful lot of jockeying for position. So far, we have seen nothing from either of the two biggest parties in the Dáil that sets out a coherent set of priorities in the light of the general election result.
I hope, at least, as they sat in the reviewing stands over the weekend and reflected on where we’ve come from, that our leaders formed some sense of resolution about where we need to go. If they didn’t, and the game playing carries on into a political crisis, we won’t exactly be off to the best possible start for the next 100 years.
If in a fortnight’s time or so they’re still divided by the cultural and political history that they sat and commemorated on Sunday, you would really have to wonder what we’re celebrating after all.