1916 centenary celebrations: A template for Civil War ceremonies

As the centenary of the 1916 Rising draws to a close, it is important to acknowledge that the apprehension that preceded the year’s flag-waving and cheers has proved unfounded.

What could so easily have been a festival celebrating blood sacrifice, doomed militarism, violence, and national and religious extremism was much more.

The centenary events celebrated community and asked questions that could not have been easily asked — or honestly answered — at the last great celebration of that event, in 1966. At this early moment, the celebrations must be judged a success.

It might be that the North’s decades of pointless sectarian bloodshed showed how the negative legacy of violence usually outweighs anything it achieves; it might just be that the credibility of those advancing a particularly melodramatic interpretation of history is so threadbare that it cannot be convincing.

The greener-than-green propagandists were muted because they no longer have a significant audience; the tribal militarism so evident in 1966 was not repeated; nor, thankfully, was the encouragement those celebrations gave to a new generation of violent nationalists; the positive and evolving relationships on this island were not jeopardised, though Brexit may strain that relationship in a way that has not be seen in quarter of a century.

There was a newfound openness that would have been premature in 1966. For example, Erskine Childers, who, a few years after 1966, became president, was censored because his views on commemoration did not chime with official Ireland.

He was not allowed to express those views in public. President Michael D Higgins, as his address at Béal na mBláth earlier this year showed, is not so constrained.

The events organised to recall the social objectives of the Rising were sobering. They, again, showed our spectacular capacity to imagine that promise is the same as delivery and that by just saying something will be so that it will be so.

This weakness is one of the greatest flaws in our national character. During the year, it was accepted that the social equity, support, and opportunity envisaged in the 1916 Proclamation remain largely aspirational.

Even if a great number of us are far better off than our ancestors were in 1916, a great, and possibly growing, number of us are not. The shaming food queues seen around the country in Christmas week confirm that in the most graphic way — as does the ongoing housing crisis.

The line given to patriarch Michael Moran in John McGahern’s novel Amongst Women still, tragically, rings true: “Sometimes, I get sick when I see what I fought for.”

At Béal na mBláth, President Higgins looked forward when he reminded his audience that the centenary of our Civil War is at hand and that its remembrance has the capacity to be destructively divisive.

Speaking about the atrocities, he said: “We must recognise them for what they were, on both sides: Cruel, vicious, uncontrolled, and, at times, informed by vengeance”.

As one historian joked this year, “1916 is the easy bit” — but this year’s celebrations also showed how to honour the past without clouding the future. Let us hope we can do that again.

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