Papers from a conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006, organised
by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society
When I read in the paper the statement by the Taoiseach that the Government intended restoring the military parade in Dublin to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, I found myself unable to prevent a wry smile forming on my face; you see, I still retained clear memories of the remarkable experiences of those brave souls who dared commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Rising just fifteen years before.
In early 1990, a group of concerned citizens, aware that the government seemed determined to ignore the anniversary, decided to take steps to insure that the event would be properly celebrated. I decided to sign up to this initiative which took as its title ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter’. My own reasons for taking this action were both personal and complex. For many years I found myself dismayed by an intellectual atmosphere that had been allowed to develop that appeared to me to be driven by a kind of self-loathing. Certainly, as a reaction to the conflict in the North, many southern politicians and ‘thinkers’ constructed a whole new way of seeing Ireland and the Irish! There was a time when Unionism was seen as a bullying, discriminating, and occasionally violent force, which, with British support, oppressed the nationalist people in the North. Now, however, nationalists were portrayed as negative, uncooperative and recalcitrant while hard line unionists were lionized by a sycophantic Dublin media. In this scenario, the British played the role of a benevolent and frustrated neighbour attempting to separate two feuding delinquents. This process of self delusion, once begun, led to some quite startling conclusions.
Anyone who still clung to the point of view that branded British imperialism in Ireland as either a fact or a bad thing was dismissed as old-fashioned, narrow minded, and, of course, soft on violence.
The British occupation of Ireland down the centuries was once seen as exploitative and repressive. However, according to ‘responsible’ historians, this British presence in Ireland should be seen as an act of benign generosity. We should accept that the United Irishmen were fanatical bigots and the 1798 rebellion was a sectarian blood bath; that the famine was simply an accident of nature and that the resultant human catastrophe was not the fault of those who controlled the country and its resources, namely the British. The Fenians were violent bunglers; Parnell was a dangerous subversive who toyed with unconstitutional methods; and the Easter Rising was an unnecessary, even ungrateful, orgy of violence, as the British were on the point of ceding national democracy. Anyone who still clung to the point of view that branded British imperialism in Ireland as either a fact or a bad thing was dismissed as old-fashioned, narrow minded, and, of course, soft on violence. I attempted to parody such guilt ridden attitudes in a series of images titled ‘Pages from Irish History’. One image, based on a nineteenth century English engraving, depicted a couple of rustics and carried the caption: ‘In 1847, two Irish peasants discuss the benefits of a low starch diet’. They were shown as part of an exhibition in Kilmainham Jail in 1991, where artists were invited to question Irish identity.
In the 1980s, those who were engaged in the creation of this anti-national bias were greatly assisted by Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, the most draconian piece of political censorship operating in Europe at the time. The strict application of Section 31, namely the banning of interviews with spokespersons from named organisations, would have been bad enough, but the real situation was much worse than that. The practical operation of Section 31 extended way beyond simply excluding spokespersons, since the guidelines imposed a blanket ban on all members of named organisations irrespective of the subject of the interview. Inevitably, this blanket ban had ludicrous consequences. On one occasion, RTÉ broadcast mass from a church in Belfast. One of the readers of the lesson was a member of Sinn Féin. After the broadcast, back at the station, there was an investigation into this ‘dangerous’ breach of the order. Because of the activities of the Stalinist thought police, who prowled the corridors of Montrose, few broadcasters were prepared to risk the hassle involved in trying to piece together a programme on a ‘difficult’ story, so the story remained untold. This is the explanation why all the programmes on serious issues, such as the unjust jailing of the Birmingham Six and the Guilford Four and the bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, were made by British TV companies and not by our national broadcaster. This practice quite naturally led to the unconscious development of the most insidious kind of information control possible, self-censorship. Everything that could be viewed as nationalistic was deemed suspect. No more rebel songs or ballads on the radio or TV; Irish speakers and GAA supporters were frequently seen in a negative light; and anyone who subscribed to a ‘non-revised’ version of Irish history was instantly labelled as a Provo fellow-traveller.
The final straw, and there always is a final straw, came for me when a Belfast actor I knew told me that he had auditioned for a part in an RTÉ drama, but had been turned down on the basis that the RTÉ people felt that a northern accent was too threatening! I thought ‘enough is enough’ and decided, there and then, to do something about this ridiculous situation. I felt certain that the impending seventy-fifth anniversary of the Easter Rising could provide me with a unique opportunity to challenge such feelings of guilt and self-hatred.
As an artist, I was always fascinated by the 1916 Rising, by the fact that it involved so many poets, writers, musicians, actors, and artists.
As an artist, I was always fascinated by the 1916 Rising, by the fact that it involved so many poets, writers, musicians, actors, and artists. Also, it seemed to me that the men and women of 1916 were not merely rebels but people of vision. What they desired was not simply a government in Dublin, a green flag over Dublin Castle, and a harp on the coinage. These men and women were calling for a cultural revolution, for a transformation of both public and personal reality. It was this vision that prompted me to paint ‘The History Lesson’ in 1989, a self portrait where the artist sits enthralled by the heady discourse between Pearse and Connolly, leaders of the Easter Rising.
In 1990, when I became involved with the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter’ project, I viewed it as a perfectly reasonable vehicle for cultural and historical reclamation that, in my opinion, was not only necessary, but also totally within the law. Imagine my surprise when someone quite casually remarked during the course of a committee meeting that the Special Branch were outside. As a political tenderfoot, I was flabbergasted that our perfectly innocent meeting should be under police surveillance, so, seething with righteous indignation, I marched out to the unmarked car and demanded to see some identification. I got my answer from those particular public servants pretty quickly – just two words: ‘Fuck off’!
On another occasion, I once more approached them, but this time I invited them to attend our meetings so that they could learn at first hand what we were planning. Sadly, once again, I received the same two word response. However, it was when the one car surveillance was increased to a two car team, with an obvious increase in the number of detectives involved, that I decided to go to a higher authority. I wrote to the chief superintendent of the Gardaí to say that, while the police had the right to maintain surveillance on certain groups in certain circumstances, what we were experiencing was, in my opinion, more to do with clocking up overtime than in maintaining the security of the State. This seemed to have had some effect because, even though I received no acknowledgement of my complaint, our constant companions from the Special Branch disappeared for a time. But, return they did and, unfortunately, caused us much more serious grief subsequently. However, more about that later.
In the meantime, we set about our work, and the first task I was given was to design a logo for the campaign. The resultant effort featured a dove, symbolising the idealism of the Rising, emerging from the GPO. Very quickly, we decided that, even though there was little time before the arrival of Easter that year, we should organise a small commemorative rally in Dublin. Essentially, the purpose of this was to test the waters before attempting to realise our grand ambitions for the following year. Remembering that in the past the Rising had been called the ‘Poets Rebellion’, the committee decided to ask Tomás Mac Anna from the Abbey Theatre to devise a small cultural presentation to start the rally outside the GPO. This drew on the writings of Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh, and W. B. Yeats, and featured musicians from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and actors Donal O’Kelly, Eithne Dempsey, Séamus MacMathúna, and Breandán Ó Dúill. After the music and poetry, a series of speakers were invited to address the crowd. These included Íte Ní Chionnaith, past-president of Conradh na Gaeilge; Sean Redmond, trade unionist; Paul Hill from the Guilford Four; Kadar Asmal, anti-apartheid activist; Neil Blaney TD; and Bernadette McAliskey, civil rights activist.
The committee also established a tribunal, which charged ‘that the nation had failed to cherish all its children equally’. Submissions were made by the unemployed, travellers, youth groups, environmentalists, and others. In addition, a debate, with the motion ‘that the concept of a United Ireland is an impediment to peace’, was held in the Mansion House. Jim Kemmy TD and Senator John A. Murphy supported the motion; Senator Éamon Ó Cuív and Bernadette McAliskey opposed.
To underscore our stated intention of highlighting the cultural nature of the Rising, we organised, in conjunction with the National Museum, a facsimile exhibition of Leabhar na hAiséirighe (‘The Book of Resurrection’) in the Dublin Central Library. The Free State government had commissioned this remarkable artwork from Art O’Murnaghan to commemorate those who had fought for Irish freedom in the 1916-1921 period. It represents a unique manifestation of the calligrapher's art. Mike Murphy opened the exhibition and was so impressed by the work that he featured some original pieces on his Arts Programme on television. Art O’Murnaghan was also an actor and designer and later worked with Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards in the Gate Theatre.
Even though the programme of commemorative events in 1990 was quite modest, the Reclaim the Spirit of Easter committee felt that the effort involved was definitely worthwhile. Important lessons were learnt, and valuable contacts were made. For example, after experiencing the outright hostility of the Special Branch, we were somewhat surprised, but obviously delighted, by the professional and courteous approach of uniformed Gardaí to our activities.
The rally itself clearly demonstrated that, with a lot of speakers, the attention span of any crowd is taxed to the limit. Also, even though we attempted to create as broad a platform as possible, we still managed to exclude Sinn Féin, thus unintentionally engaging in the kind of self-censorship that we ourselves criticised in others. Another consequence of the 1990 activities was that the committee became convinced of the need to broaden and extend its membership; so, with this in mind, a public meeting was organised for October in Liberty Hall. About 500 people turned up on the day, and, after considerable discussion, elections were held to form a new, larger, and more representative committee. To my great surprise, at the first meeting of this new committee I was elected to the office of chairman. I was surprised because I still considered myself a novice at what some might call political activity. In fact, at the time, I harboured the perception that I was engaged in a cultural and historical undertaking. The coming months would disabuse me of such a notion.
Another committee member discovered, on turning up for work on a Monday morning, that the Special Branch had suggested to her employer that she was involved in subversive activities.
For a start, our ‘friends’ from the Special Branch returned and ominously began to ratchet up their hostility to our activities. One evening, on noticing that an enthusiastic young committee member had missed a few meetings, I remarked, ‘Has anyone seen Brian?’ ‘Did you not hear?’, replied a colleague. Apparently, the Special Branch had visited his school to inform the headmaster that the boy in question was a member of the IRA. The young lad’s parents were summoned to the school and told that their son faced expulsion. Since it was his leaving certificate year, they were left with little choice. Another committee member discovered, on turning up for work on a Monday morning, that the Special Branch had suggested to her employer that she was involved in subversive activities. Fortunately, he judged the claims to be preposterous and took no action. Others might not have been so lucky. I myself had several unpleasant experiences at the hands of these guardians of the peace.
The most bizarre occurred one day when I was walking home along Parnell Square. Without warning, an unmarked police car mounted the footpath and barred my way. Two detectives jumped out and spread-eagled me, à la Starsky and Hutch, against the railings and began to frisk me. By now, a crowd had gathered, obviously trying to catch a glimpse of the ‘dangerous criminal’ who had been successfully apprehended. However, having discovered that I was ‘unarmed’, the detectives then demanded to see some identification. After I showed them my drivers licence, they jumped back in the car and drove off as rapidly as they had first appeared. As I said, bizarre, but none the less fairly intimidating! I should say that I officially complained about many such examples of harassment and intimidation to the Garda Complaints Board – none were accepted!
Yet, in spite of such hostility, perhaps even because of it, the committee set about its task with increased vigour. Realising that the events of 1990 were exclusively Dublin based, the committee felt that local commemorative events about the country should be encouraged. With this in mind, members of the national committee travelled to many locations to attend meetings where local committees were established. The success of this endeavour was borne out by the final list of activities published in the seventy-fifth anniversary calendar of events. The locations for such locally organised events included Dublin, Meath, Leitrim, Tipperary, Wicklow, Derry, Mayo, Clare, Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork, Belfast, Kildare, Galway, Donegal, and, across the water, London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow.
Another initiative to gain greater recognition for the impending anniversary was to encourage local councils to pass motions of support. We devised a sample motion and sent it to all local authorities. Over a dozen councils passed a version of this motion! At this stage, recognising that we were beginning to create a national profile for the anniversary, we decided to circulate a series of newsletters in order to propagate information about ourselves and our activities. In the first issue, we listed forty-three members of a Cairde Cuimhneacháin, which was fully supportive of our aims and objectives. These included such public figures as Ulick O’Connor, Michael D. Higgins, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Senator Éamon Ó Cuív, Theo Dorgan, and retired Comdt. P. D. O’Donnell. We had invited all party leaders to support the initiative, but only one responded positively, and it was the presence of Gerry Adams’ name on the list that provided an opening to those in the media who were opposed to our efforts. Several journalists deliberately misinterpreted the facts in such a way as to suggest that Gerry Adams was a member of the organising committee and, as a consequence, implied that the whole endeavour was little more than a front for Sinn Féin. This was an early indication of the kind of media misrepresentation we could expect. Yet, in spite of such negativity, we remained convinced that the majority of Irish people shared our belief that it was only right and proper to celebrate one of the most vital events in our history. Our task, as we saw it, was to create an exciting programme of commemoration and celebration that, if successful, would inevitably enjoy the support of most Irish people.
However, to succeed in this endeavour we recognised that some serious finance was required. Already, we were organising such staple fundraisers as raffles and pub quizzes, but these only realised limited amounts. We felt we needed a big idea. One notion from 1990 that I was determined not to repeat was the promotion of a sponsored parachute jump. Back then, we nearly killed Paul Hill, who, after so many years in prison, was game for anything! After a lot of thought, the committee finally came up with the idea of producing a limited edition print, and, since I was the only artist involved, I was volunteered for the job. The image I came up with met with some resistance initially. A few questioned my inclusion of Constance Markievicz; others wondered if ideological bias had caused me to place James Connolly centre stage – nonetheless, the image went on to popular acclaim and featured not only on the front pages of newspapers and magazines but also on gable walls in the North.
As we advanced into 1991, the pace and range of our activities picked up considerably. For example, when I discovered through contacts in An Post that the government had no intention of issuing a commemorative stamp to mark the anniversary, we engaged in extensive lobbying behind the scenes, which, thankfully, had the effect of causing the government to overturn its original decision. Unfortunately, we were not so successful with another endeavour. Believing that a commemorative float in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin could prove an excellent way of reaching the general public, we decided to request permission from the organisers, Dublin Tourism. I have to say that I was not too surprised when our initial submission, which we had commissioned from a group of art students, was rejected. In the political climate of the time, the design could have been considered provocative in that it portrayed Ireland as an ostrich with its head buried in the ground. However, undeterred, we recontacted the organisers to suggest that we were quite willing to create a float to any specification that they might deem appropriate. Their final rejection stated that any float commemorating 1916 would be inappropriate. This embarrassed attitude stood in stark contrast to that of the organisers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, who included an essay titled ‘What Anniversaries Tell Us’ by Dr. Eoin McKiernan, the founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, in the official programme. In the essay, he bemoaned the silence of the Irish government on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Easter Week and asked the question: ‘Has Charlie Haughey himself acquiesced in the new revisionist philosophy that seems apologetic about Irish nationhood?’ On the other hand, he noted that others had moved to fill the void, principally the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter’ group. He praised the planned cultural programme and called on Irish Americans to support the initiative through purchasing the limited edition print published by the campaign. Finally, he suggested that such ‘an undertaking, rising out of the heart of the people, convicts the government of lukewarm national aspirations – if not a betrayal of the vision of the founders of the State’. The quantity of print sales in the United States would suggest that Eoin’s appeal did not fall on deaf ears.
Because of the nature of the teaching of history in our schools, we were aware that many young people were either ill-informed or misinformed about many aspects of our history. We felt that a nationwide schools competition on the theme of 1916 could contribute to a better understanding of this particular period. At a social function, I met Mary O’Rourke, then Minister for Education, and told her of our plans. She agreed that the competition was a good idea and said that the Department of Education might include an information flyer in its next mail out to all national schools. However, when I tried to follow up on this offer with her officials, I was met with obstruction and inaction. I was about to give up when I received a phone call from a senior civil servant in the department who said that he was very disappointed by what had happened and confessed that he didn’t know whether the failure to deliver on the offer had been caused by politicians or bureaucrats, but that he was willing to pass on addressed envelopes for all the national schools in the country as long as I didn’t say where they came from. By the way, this was an attitude that frequently cropped up in the course of the campaign. Senior members of the Defence Forces, civil servants, and even a few journalists declared their support to me in private, but confessed that they were nervous about going public for fear of damaging their career prospects. The schools’ competition was a great success. We received thousands and thousands of entries, from all over the country, in all three categories: an essay, a poem in Irish, and a poster. The judges were Ulick O’Connor, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and yours truly; and one of the few politicians to come out and support us, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Michael Donnelly, presented the prizes.
Our enemies were so fearful of any attempt to celebrate the Rising that they endeavoured to discredit the whole idea by daubing those involved with the blood spilt by the IRA.
At this stage, with Easter not so far away, public interest in the seventy-fifth anniversary began to swell, stimulated, I would suggest, by our robust defence of 1916 and our determination to organise an adequate commemoration. However, this public influence came at a price. Our enemies were so fearful of any attempt to celebrate the Rising that they endeavoured to discredit the whole idea by daubing those involved with the blood spilt by the IRA. Senator Shane Ross stated that ‘[t]he Reclaim the Spirit of 1916 group is menacing’, and that the 1916 celebrations could be hijacked by the Provisional IRA or one of its front organisations. The seventy-fifth anniversary Committee, he claimed, was ‘heavily infiltrated by fellow-travellers’. Desmond O’Malley, a minister in the government, suggested that ‘Mr. Ballagh’s committee serves the interests of the Provisional IRA’. Never having been involved in anything like this before, I was shocked by the ferocity of those who attacked us. Also, the poisonous atmosphere that was being engineered created an amazing polarity between most Irish journalists and journalists from outside the country. I did interviews with all sorts of people: NBC in America, Sydney Morning Radio, the Boston Globe, the Glasgow Herald, and so on. The first question the foreign journalists asked was ‘why is the Irish government so embarrassed to celebrate its own past?’ The first question, and usually the only question, most Irish journalists asked was ‘doesn’t what you’re doing give aid and succour to the IRA?’
Now, it’s obvious that the purpose for all the mudslinging was to compromise our campaign; but, the collateral damage caused was far more alarming. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before somebody decided to take action on the basis of the smears that were being put about. As Liam Fay wrote in the Hot Press at the time, ‘somebody out there has let it be known that he would like nothing more than to kill Robert Ballagh’. Apart from such murderous threats, I was also subjected to a barrage of abusive phone calls, which resulted in the Gardaí advising me to go ex-directory. Again to quote Liam Fay, ‘Robert Ballagh has had to pay a very real price in terms of his career. Going ex-directory has made him virtually uncontactable by anyone wishing to commission work from him’.
I remember wondering at the time, ‘why are so many elements of the Irish establishment so virulently opposed to any remembrance of 1916?’ Certainly, the constantly repeated mantra that sought to connect the events of 1916 with the activities of the Provisional IRA seemed entirely bogus to me. According to Declan Kiberd, ‘what created the modern IRA was not any cultural force, but the bleak sectarian realities of life in the corrupt statelet of Northern Ireland. During Operation Motorman in Derry in 1972, a dying IRA volunteer assured an Observer journalist that ‘Mother Ireland’ or ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ meant nothing to him; he was dying simply to defend his neighbours in the street on which he had grown up’. Yet, in spite of such self evident truths, some continued to argue that historical commemoration would, to parody W. B. Yeats, send out certain men to shoot the English. A recent example of such nonsense was contained in an article by Mary Raftery entitled ‘Dangers of glorifying the Rising’. In it she wrote: ‘There can be little doubt that the smug and wholly uncritical public glorification of violent nationalism in 1966 played a significant part in the emergence of the violence in Northern Ireland three years later’. What she had in mind here was the drama series Insurrection produced by RTÉ and broadcast each night during Easter week. According to her thesis, we should accept that the young volunteers who joined the IRA in the early 1970s were not driven to do so because they and their neighbours were burnt out of their homes by loyalist thugs, aided and abetted by the security forces, but, rather, because of a TV series that they couldn’t possibly have seen because few Northern homes were able to receive the RTÉ signal in 1966. What rubbish! In fact, if forced to proffer a historical precedent for the armed struggle of the modern IRA, you would not look to the military tactics of the 1916 rebels, deprecated by Michael Collins, who was in the GPO, as having the ‘air of a Greek tragedy’, but to the more ruthless campaign he waged in the war of Independence.
Those of us involved in the Reclaim the Spirit of Easter campaign were convinced that those who kept bleating on about the connection they saw between the events of 1916 and the violence of the modern IRA were, in reality, erecting a diversion in order to avoid dealing with the obvious contrast that existed between the vision of the men and women of 1916 and the narrow-minded, greedy, and self-seeking attitudes of those in positions of power and influence in contemporary Ireland.
Today, with the guns of the IRA falling silent, the smear of alleged association with violence has become less effective, so, in order to deal with the potent legacy of 1916, the establishment has once more resorted to an old tactic. They have decided to salute the heroes of 1916 with a military parade.
You will find that vision laid out in the Proclamation of the Republic, a remarkable democratic document, rightly belonging in the pantheon of human progress alongside Jefferson's Declaration of American Independence and the Declaration of the first Assembly of the French Revolution. In March 1991, the Glasgow Herald quoted me as saying that most Irish Politicians ‘know full well that they have failed to enact the aspirations of the Proclamation, and so any public reading of it is a grave embarrassment’.
Today, with the guns of the IRA falling silent, the smear of alleged association with violence has become less effective, so, in order to deal with the potent legacy of 1916, the establishment has once more resorted to an old tactic. They have decided to salute the heroes of 1916 with a military parade. By the way, those of us who were slammed for supporting militarism in 1991 find it highly ironic that the government itself has resorted to commemorating the Rising with a military display in 2006. It would appear that while the government is quite content to engage in military manoeuvres in O’Connell Street, which, apparently, have been devised to honour the men and women of 1916, they seem totally unwilling to engage with the ideas and ideals that led to the Rising in the first place. This is understandable. After all, the declaration in the Proclamation of ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies’ rings hollow when examined against the shameful deal done with Shell over the Corrib gas field; and with one third of the nation’s children living in poverty, according to Barnardos, the aspiration ‘to cherish all the children of the nation equally’ stands as a fierce indictment of those in positions of power and influence today.
Another charge frequently levelled against the rebels of 1916 is that they had no mandate for their actions. This attempt to project back in time the ‘so-called’ democratic standards of today to judge an event in our colonial past is entirely spurious. I say ‘so-called’ because it seems to me that even today the exercise of democracy is only fully respected when it provides the desired result. For example, if the people have the temerity to vote the ‘wrong’ way, they are sent back to vote again; and if an election hands power to the ‘wrong’ people, then boycotts and sanctions are invoked.
Anyway, ‘in the thirty years prior to 1916, the Irish people’, according to Tommy Mc Kearney, ‘voted overwhelmingly on three occasions for self-determination. Each time, Britain over-ruled the people’s clearly expressed demand. The Irish Volunteers were merely trying to enforce the stated will of the people at Easter 1916. Moreover, the electorate unambiguously endorsed their actions two years later. Only pedants or pro-imperialist apologists maintain that the Volunteers flouted democracy by not holding a referendum on their plans for insurrection’. In America, no one questions the legitimacy of the revolt by George Washington and his comrades, even though they had no mandate!
In the fractious debate that centred on the contemporary relevance of 1916, it seemed to me that the overwhelming concentration on the ‘undemocratic, violent nature’ of the Rising was a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from what we, in the Reclaim the Spirit of Easter campaign, considered truly relevant and worthy of commemoration – and that was the progressive ideas that inspired the Rising.
It was with this in mind that we prepared our programme of events for Easter week, 1991. Once again, we co-operated with the National Museum to put on an exhibition of water colours by Constance Markievicz in the Irish Labour History Museum. Bertie Ahern, the Minister for Labour, performed the official opening. This proved singularly appropriate since Markievicz was Minister for Labour in her day. We also organised a lecture series, a debate in the Mansion House, a symposium entitled ‘Women in Irish History’, and a week of film. All these events culminated in a day of action on Saturday, April 6, with a live concert, a massive parade, and a spectacular pageant at the GPO, followed in the evening by a Céilí Mór in the Mansion House.
However, at this stage, before I begin to describe the events of April 6, I think that it is only right and proper that I should acknowledge the work done by others to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of 1916.
The National Museum of Ireland mounted an exhibition entitled ‘The Road to Independence’, which covered the period 1916 to 1921, and it was accompanied by a book of the same title, written by Michael Kenny.
On Easter Sunday, March 31, John Stephenson, a well known arts activist, on behalf of Poetry Ireland, organised an exciting all-day event called the ‘The Flaming Door’. It began with a bus tour of the main sites of the Rising and continued with an historic gathering of Irish writers for a constant flow of poetry and prose inside the GPO. The writers included Anthony Cronin, Seamus Deane, Brendan Kennelly, Máire Mac an tSaoi, John Montague, Paula Meehan, James Plunkett, Francis Stuart, and many more. The day concluded with poetry, prose, and drama readings, with music in Kilmainham Jail. The event was sponsored by ‘Dublin 91’, the European city of culture organisation. By the way, ‘Dublin 91’ was the only official body that supported the Reclaim the Spirit group. It provided funding for ‘A Dublin Itinerary’, a cassette tape history trail of the Dublin sites of 1916, with narration, music, poetry, and song. It was devised and produced by Tomás Mac Anna and Gerard Keenan, and featured the talents of Donnacha O'Dulaing, Bosco Hogan, Eithne Dempsey, Joan McDermott, Cormac Breatnach, Niall Ó Callanáin, and Seán Óg Potts.
There is one more event that must be mentioned, although the casual observer could have missed it completely. Here, I speak of the ceremony organised by the government.
Scott S. Smith, in the Irish Edition, a Philadelphia newspaper, noted that ‘at the last moment due to the public uproar over the attempt to ignore what amounts to Ireland’s equivalent of our Fourth of July, the Irish government hastily organised a twelve minute military ceremony in front of the GPO’. According to Anne Simpson of the Glasgow Herald, it was ‘an event of simple brevity, no parade, no speeches. Instead, an occasion marked by military ceremonial, a guard of honour inspected by Mary Robinson, and the hoisting of the national flag above the General Post Office’. The government invited some surviving veterans of the Rising, but managed to insult them by making no travel arrangements for them to attend. Some, in fact, were infirm; also, one stayed away as a protest at what he saw as the current politicians’ betrayal of 1916. At the end of the short ceremony, as the President moved to depart, I noticed some of the veterans struggle to their feet in order to shake the hand of their President, only to be disappointed by officials whisking her past to her state car. Sadly, nobody had thought of such a simple way of honouring the veterans. Earlier on, the Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey, was to participate in some short ceremony within the GPO; but, when he arrived outside, the door was shut tight. I remember speculating that the title of John Stephenson’s event might have formed part of Charlie’s probable response: ‘Who's locked the flaming door!’
I noticed some of the veterans struggle to their feet in order to shake the hand of their President, only to be disappointed by officials whisking her past to her state car.
In the words of Declan Kiberd, the official ‘ceremony was spare’ and differed sharply from the events that unfolded a week later on April 6. As Eilish O’Regan wrote in the Sunday Independent, ‘the guarded gestures of commemoration which marked last weeks official remembrance of Easter 1916 were ousted yesterday in favour of a rousing and unfettered celebration of the Rising’ and Trish Hegarty in the Irish Times observed that ‘even the rain could not dampen the spirit of 1916, as thousands took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate and commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Easter Rising in a lively, colourful, dramatic, musical manner, which contrasted starkly with the State’s short and sombre event on Easter Sunday’.
The day got off to a damp start with an open air concert at the top of Parnell Square. This event featured many of Ireland’s leading musicians: Jimmy McCarthy, Donal Lunny, Mary Stokes, Paddy Glackin, Declan Masterson, Noel Hill, and Tony Mac Mahon, and was presented by Marian Richardson. The musicians entertained the groups and individuals from all over Ireland, from Britain, and from the US, before the parade itself set off down O’Connell Street, led by a full pipe band. As it progressed along its route, actors proclaimed extracts from the speeches of many leaders of the period at various points along the way. Jer O’Leary climbed up beside the statue of Big Jim Larkin to exhort the working classes to ‘rise up’ while, on O’Connell Bridge, Brendan Caldwell took on the persona of James Connolly. At the bottom of Grafton Street, Olwen Fouéré and Ailish Connolly played Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne; and outside the Dáil, Paul Bennett as Patrick Pearse read out the 1916 Proclamation.
When the full crowd was assembled, I delivered an address on behalf of the organising committee. Because of our experience in 1990, we decided on the strategy of just one speech. Steve S. Scott wrote: ‘committee chairman Robert Ballagh gave a fiery speech, condemning the political, business and media establishment which had tried to block the event at every turn. He said they had underestimated the patriotism of the people. Ballagh told the crowd that by their presence they had clearly demonstrated their pride in their history and culture. Calling the Proclamation a remarkably inspiring and democratic document, relevant to the problems besetting the island today, Ballagh said current leaders were afraid of it because they had betrayed its ideals’. The speech was followed by a satirical pageant written and produced by Tomás Mac Anna. According to the Irish Times, it was ‘the highlight of the day, giving a dramatic and humorous presentation of what the organisers saw as the concerted attempt to write 1916 out of Irish history’. ‘A mock funeral procession, led by a piper, with Eire R.I.P. inscribed on the coffin lid, marched slowly on stage. Actors symbolising the political, legal, and academic elements who wanted to bury Irish nationalism were portrayed in a biting satire that had the huge audience in stitches’. ‘I'm personifying all of the TDs who have diluted the Proclamation, consigning Cathleen Ni Houlihan to the grave’ said an uncannily Dev-like Frank Kelly, while waiting to go on stage. Mark Lambert played a revisionist professor, who suggested that ‘our school history books should contain a short paragraph to show coming generations how destructive and, indeed, un-Irish the whole event was’. The final speaker was a judge, played by Kevin Reynolds, who confirmed that the Rising was completely ‘illegal’. But, they were all silenced as the coffin burst open and a woman symbolising Ireland emerged in a bright costume. The proceedings ended with the singing by the large crowd of Amhrán na bhFiann, which echoed the length of O’Connell Street and beyond. Later that evening, thousands packed the Round Room in the Mansion House to enjoy one of the biggest Céilís held in Dublin for many a year.
Media response to the days activities was intriguing, to say the least. As Steve S. Scott put it, the ‘media coverage of the event was cursory – it was too large to ignore and too embarrassing for the powers that be to give it much attention’. Irrespective of the obvious success of the day, many media outlets still persisted with the kind of misrepresentation that had become their stock in trade. As Declan Kiberd wrote of the day of action: ‘Thousands of families took part as did poets, musicians, face painters, and so on. RTÉ’s Six O'Clock News reported the event for thirty-two seconds as its final item; and the camera focused not on the crowd of families, but on one face in the crowd, the Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams MP’.
Media response to the days activities was intriguing, to say the least.
Perhaps, the most bizarre intervention came from the eminent historian Roy Foster, who wrote the following: ‘When the seventy-fifth anniversary arrived in 1991, it was treated by the Irish Government as a sensitive issue, to be approached in a deliberately restrained way – very different from the unequivocal old-Republican reaction – featuring not historians but out-of-office politicians, free lance journalists, ex-1960s activists (including quaintly, a Pop Art painter), and the members of the Short Strand Martyrs Memorial Flute band’. I suppose the most charitable response I can make to such a chronically inaccurate description is to acknowledge that Dr. Foster appears to think that what was organised for 1990 was what happened in 1991; but, even at that, every single part of his assertion is fallacious.
Yet, in spite of all the intimidation, harassment, and misrepresentation, I’m proud to say that the Reclaim the Spirit Group succeeded admirably in its main objective, and that was to ensure that the seventy-fifth anniversary was celebrated in an appropriate fashion.
Apart from that, we can claim some success in stemming the tide of the more eccentric expositions by anti-national historians. However, perhaps our greatest achievement lay in underscoring the efficacy of non-violent political action, which, in my opinion, played some small part in convincing those who were involved in the physical force tradition in Irish politics to consider a viable alternative.
And finally, by way of a short postscript to this personal memoir, I would like to mention the very last event that we organised on April 24, the date of the commencement of the Rising in 1916. We felt that a wreath laying ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance would be an appropriate gesture and consequently requested permission from the Office of Public Works. Our application was flatly rejected. However, being the rebels that we were, we just went ahead anyway. We asked seven young lads from nearby St. Mary’s Place National School to lay seven Easter lilies by the pond in the garden. That was all: no speeches, no other ceremony. Beforehand, we had issued a press release, but, sadly, only one journalist turned up. He was from the Boston Globe. His subsequent article expressed amazement at the absence of any official marking of the day in question, whilst, at the same time, noting that, in Washington D.C., Congress observed a minute of silence in honour of those who fought for Irish independence seventy five years before.
The facilities of The Ireland Institute, including the Ionad an Phiarsaigh – The Pearse Centre can be rented for theatrical performances, rehearsals, exhibitions, conferences and meetings.
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A conference held at Trinity College, Dublin on 21 and 22 April 2006 organised by The Ireland Institute and Dublin University History Society
Talks delivered at the opening of the restored Pearse Family Home as The Ireland Institute
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