Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.
Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.
A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.
It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they who “claimed the spirit of 1916”. Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift. From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.
In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.
The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.
Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.
No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa. Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.
A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.