What exactly are we commemorating?

First published in the Sunday Business Post 22 April 2015
Confusion surrounds plans for the Rising’s centenary. Perhaps that is strangely appropriate

I don’t know what we are commemorating. Is it the execution of 16 men? Or the Easter Rising itself? The moment when the collective Irish mindset transferred expectations from Home Rule to independence? Or is it the Proclamation of Ireland as a Republic? “We have chosen to commemorate this time as marking the birth of our sovereign nation.” So said the Taoiseach at the launch of the 2016 Centenary Programme in Collins Barracks last week.

But the birth of our sovereign nation was Wednesday, December 6, 1922.


The date we have chosen to celebrate our ‘Independence Day’ is dependent on the equinox. The hour the sun shines directly on the equator so that the length of night and day are nearly equal. This is how the Easter calendar is determined – the Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It is not a fixed date.

The Easter Rising began on Easter Monday April 24. Easter Monday falls on April 6 this year and March 21 next year.

The official date of our Independence Day is all over the place which is probably appropriate. There remains a deep hesitancy about owning our history.

To commemorate the Easter Rising is to accept that violent revolution won peace. To acknowledge that Irish partition was a consequence. Those days in Easter Week when terrible beauties were born.

This hesitancy, uncertainty and apprehensiveness were evident last November when the government first launched its 1916 commemorative programme. The GPO was attacked for a second time in a hundred years. Water protesters blockaded the entrance and drowned out Enda Kenny’s voice with fists on windows.

The first draft confirmed the worst stereotype of Fine Gael. The showcase video of the launch beamed images of the monarchy and rugby stars, even Bob Geldof made an appearance, to the exclusion of the 1916 leaders and the Proclamation. The Irish language had an apologetic presence. “A shambles marks the centenary of the Rising that divided Ireland,” roared the Financial Times headline.

This official uncertainty of what it is that we are commemorating was revealed in recent documents released to RTE following a Freedom of Information request. Deleted from the leaflet launching the government’s programme of centenary events was a reference to ceremonies by the Defence Forces marking the 100th anniversary of the executions of the leaders. Also removed was a photograph of IRA volunteers from a Co Galway flying column and, in its place, a photograph of ruined buildings on O’Connell Street.

The consequences of violence rather than actual violence were to be commemorated. A historical ambiguity toward the use of force is psychologically ingrained in us.

The words given to describe conflict have always been restrained. The Second World War was politely referred to as “The Emergency”. The bitter and protracted conflict in the North that viciously tore a generation apart was gently described as “the Troubles”.

The language of the official programme reflects these reservations. “We will remember the events of 1916 in the full context of our history” it reassures us. A commemoration which will “be informed by a full acknowledgment of the complexity of historical events and their legacy”.

But what does that mean?

This dilemma about the legitimacy of the “birth of our sovereign nation” was aired at Notre Dame’s O’Connell House on Merrion Square last Wednesday. The Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Affairs officially announced its three-part
documentary on the Rising. Narrated by Liam Neeson, a man with a special set of skills, the $3 million production will be televised on PBS in the US, RTE and the BBC.

Carmel Naughton of Glen Dimplex asked why commemoration tended to focus on the deaths of those involved and not the lives they led. What about those who have been forgotten?

The contested narrative of Irish history forgets that revolution had already happened before the Rising started.

The name of Augustine Birrell has never been written out in a verse by Yeats. Birrell was chief secretary for Ireland between 1907 until shortly after the 1916 Rising. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Rising found him “primarily responsible for the situation that was allowed to arise and the outbreak that occurred.”

Birrell knew that Home Rule was inevitable and prepared Ireland for it by creating a native Irish governing class reflective of the religious and political character of the country. The man from Liverpool was responsible for the Irish Universities Act, 1908. The establishment of UCD gave Catholics their first university. The principles of an efficient and fair administration were pioneered by Birrell in advance of independence.

Birrell steered 56 pieces of legislation through parliament, resolving issues around education, agriculture and housing. The boring administrative work that achieved the conditions for democratic independence – and perhaps the reason why Ireland was one of the few nations established between two world wars to survive.

The programme of commemorative events is impressive, though there is no mention of administrative revolutionaries like Birrell, an Englishman. The full ceremonial paraphernalia available to the state has been made available. Five official wreath ceremonies – even a synchronised one – state receptions, official openings and exhibitions.

Maybe, in the middle of it all, we will figure out what it is we are commemorating.

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