- 25 Mar 16
This weekend, it is 100 years since the rising of Easter 1916. The memory of those momentous events has inspired us to thing again about the idea of the Republic, and what it means. But it is the future that really counts – not the past. By The Whole Hog
On that fateful day, what was it like to be a child? A partner? A farmer? A racegoer headed for Fairyhouse? What was it like to be a volunteer? Just an ordinary citizen going on manoeuvres?
To scramble out of bed not knowing what the day would bring? Glory? Blood, sweat and tears? Death? Martyrdom? The end...
Picture it. Hear it. Smell it. You rise early, nervous. There’s fear and foreboding, perhaps. Excitement too. Cold water, hard soap. A slice of toast, or porridge maybe, and a cup of strong tea. Where’s your jacket? Trousers? Bandolier? Throat choking. Baffled children. A stammered farewell. Who knows when? Take care! Yes, yes. We meet at 10. And then what?
Then what, indeed. Why, then you take over the city, that’s what. And everything changes in the country that you think of as home...
Of course, we now live in a media-saturated world. Since TV cameras and photo-journalists brought the war in Vietnam into every American parlour, coverage of events like these has grown – despite the efforts of Governments to control it. So, we have seen revolution after revolution. We have watched the smoke and dust rise and the statues fall here, there and everywhere.
But creation myths are like comets. You don’t often get a good look at one. That’s why, despite all we know and all we’ve seen, on its centenary, the Easter Rising has been much examined, debated and analysed. And why not?
GENERATION OF TERROR
Every worthy in Ireland has a view. We’re coming down with seers and prophets. And, you know, everyone sees what they want to see, hears what they want to hear. Visionaries see visions. Poets find poems. Soldiers hear explosions and marching feet.
Some salute the ambition, bravery and heroism of those who took on what was then the biggest empire of all, in what was the first (perhaps) great anti-imperialist blow of the 20th century – after which, the empires began to crumble. Which they did. But there are those who see it differently too, who regard their forebears as part of that very empire and who look on the Rising as an act of treason.
Others focus on the original proclamation, intuiting, perhaps, that, amid the welter of dust and smoke, this allows the clearest and purest picture of what it was all about. But many also use the proclamation to flay us all, for the perceived failures of our State, our society and our politics, and to castigate us for how far we have deviated from the ideals it espoused – but (mostly) to advance their own views on how Ireland should be reformed, even revolutionised.
Of course, idealism and fanaticism inhabit closely related universes, so there is also residual discomfort over a generation of terror in Northern Ireland and, as we speak, the echoes elsewhere of that terror in the fundamentalist zeal of Islamic State. Like nationalist rhetoric, the notion of the caliphate has a chilling clarity and charisma. Everything is simple there. But the rest of us must live messier, more pragmatic, equivocal lives.
INCLUSIVE AND DEMOCRATIC
The thing itself, the Rising in all its grand ambition and heroic failure, is in there somewhere. It’s all of these things and none and much, much more – and what we are doing, or trying to do, now combines celebration, critique, re-evaluation and re-imagining. That is no bad thing.
Where earlier anniversaries started from a received faith (nationalist and Catholic) we have long outgrown this. In turn we’ve reclaimed the Easter rising from the gunmen – and that’s good. But there’s a deep sorrow there too at how badly it all went wrong – because within a few years everything was compromised, divided and so much was ruined too.
We know plenty of the thoughts and intentions of those who set out on that strange journey towards the centre of Dublin, on Easter Monday 1916. Pearse. Connolly. McDonagh. Clarke. Plunkett – and more. They wrote them, and spoke them, and usually with great clarity and communicative force. We can recognise many things too in what they thought and said – and not just because it all happened on our streets, but because their core ideals, and the language in which these were expressed, encompassed the American and French revolutions as well as a broader anti-imperialist school of thought, from which first they drew and to which, in turn, they added.
We can identify with much of this, especially the evident concern that underpinned their thinking, to build an inclusive and democratic republic. Yet, they weren’t all on the same page either, as became horribly clear in due course.
Furthermore, while they may well have had grand ambitions for a great, prosperous and morally compassed future for Ireland, they weren’t thinking of our world as we know it today. How could they? For that reason we should be careful about how we read the Rising and how we use words from a century ago in our modern discourses.
VIBRANT MELTING POT
It was of its time. It was a start. It changed everything – yet that change took its own course from the very next day onwards. But that was all in the unknowable future, wasn’t it? In truth, we can only truly understand something like the Easter Rising in the context of its own time. All the rest is what the survivors made of what was left after the bullets and the bombs and the executions stopped.
There is still much to be gleaned from those momentous events. One must acknowledge the emphasis on the experience of ordinary people of all walks of life and persuasions, and in particular works such as Joe Duffy’s history of the children who died. That is a story that needed to be told.
But we live in the present not the past. The world around us isn’t what they had in mind – but it’s what we’ve got. It is what we make of it that really counts.
Ireland is the most globalised country in the first world and the Irish are found everywhere on earth. Not only that, but Ireland is also home to a substantial and growing immigrant population, to whom the Foggy Dew and the Sean Bhean Bhocht mean little or nothing.
Dublin, in particular, has become a vibrant multi-cultural melting pot. More than half of those you’ll meet on O’Connell Street any day are what might be called foreign. Parnell Street east has been reinvigorated by an influx of Chinese and Korean restaurants and Moore Street, itself the focus of efforts to preserve the 1916 rebels’ last redoubt, is full of African, Asian and eastern European outlets. We are no longer as isolated or as mono-cultural as we were for so much of the 20th Century. And it is brilliant.
We celebrate the past and rightly so. But it is the future that beckons. When the party’s over, that’s where we must turn.
• The Hog