What anniversaries tell us

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2016), Platform, Volume 24

By Robert Ballagh

In 1991 Dr Eoin McKiernan, founder of the Irish American Cultural Institute, penned an article for the official programme of the New York St Patrick’s Day Parade entitled ‘What anniversaries tell us’. He bemoaned the silence of the Irish government on the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising 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 praised the planned programme of the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter 1916’ group and called on Irish Americans to support the initiative. Some months earlier the ‘Reclaim’ group had asked Dublin Tourism for permission to participate in the Dublin parade, but this request was firmly rejected on the grounds that any float commemorating 1916 would be considered inappropriate! That particular negative response was not unique. In fact, the many efforts to commemorate the 75th anniversary were met with a barrage of harassment, intimidation and misrepresentation.

As the years rolled by and the centenary of the Easter Rising approached, I hoped that this time around things might be different; after all, in 1991 official Ireland’s declared reticence in celebrating the event was based on fear of giving ‘aid and comfort to the Provisional IRA’. Today, however, with the guns of the IRA silent, that particular argument has become incontestably redundant. This in turn raises the obvious question: why does official Ireland still remain ambiguous and uneasy about commemorating the most seminal event in modern Irish history?

For example, certain influential voices continue to insist that, at this point in our history, we, the Irish people, should be ‘mature’ and ‘commemorate’ all who died in a ‘shared history’. This concept is entirely fraudulent. The African slaves brought to North America to work the cotton plantations would hardly have described their experiences at the hands of their masters as a ‘shared history’. Why should the Irish colonial experience be viewed differently? Unfortunately, the Irish government appears determined to pursue this bogus and inappropriate course.

What other explanation is there for its decision to hold a state ceremony at Grangegorman military cemetery in May 2016 exclusively to honour the British soldiers who died during the Rising—this at a time when most Irish people will be marking with dignity and respect the execution of the leaders of the Rising in Kilmainham Jail?

There can be no equivalence between those who died in the struggle to create an Irish Republic and those who perished in crushing that very republic. Can you imagine the British authorities erecting a plaque at the cenotaph in London to honour those ‘brave’ members of the Luftwaffe who died in bombing raids over London during the Second World War? Of course not! Self-confident nations do not engage in such nonsense, such national self-abasement. In honouring everyone in general we commemorate nobody in particular.

In this scheme of things the Easter Rising is presented as ‘just another event’ in a series of events making up a ‘decade of commemoration’. This is a distortion of history, a deliberate and desperate attempt to distance citizens from the aims and ideals of a golden generation, the likes of which we have not seen since. Among their number were poets, writers, playwrights, teachers, musicians, journalists, trade unionists, actors, artists and ordinary working men and women—citizens—all striving to create a society of equality with no citizen left behind. The men and women of 1916 were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country, in stark contrast to those in our time willing to sacrifice their country for their lifestyles! It is only right and proper that we, as Irish citizens, be prepared to mark the bravery and sacrifice of that heroic generation. Furthermore, we do their memory a disservice if we fail to recognise and acknowledge the real motivation that lay behind their action. After all, these people were not merely rebels—they were visionaries! What they desired was not simply a government in Dublin, a green flag over Dublin Castle or a harp on the coinage. They were calling for a complete transformation of Irish society, and the blueprint for that transformation was set out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, first declaimed by Patrick Pearse outside the GPO on 24 April 1916.

This document was a visionary statement of ambition that rightly belongs in the pantheon of human achievement alongside other exceptional documents like the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, and the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic is far more than simply a call to arms: it represents the articulation of a progressive programme for an enhanced future for all Irish men, women and children.

Surely it’s more than reasonable to ask, almost 100 years later, the question, ‘Where today stands the republic for which so many sacrificed so much?’ Sadly, the vision of 1916 has never been fully realised, and the Irish people, north and south, have been forced to bear the consequences of political, social, economic and cultural failure.

1916 Rising 75th Anniversary, The Provisional Government, by Robert Ballagh—poster commissioned for the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter 1916’ initiative in 1991.

1916 Rising 75th Anniversary, The Provisional Government, by Robert Ballagh—poster commissioned for the ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter 1916’ initiative in 1991.

Undoubtedly a partial explanation can be found in the dismal economic situation inherited by the new state, yet those same conditions prevailed before independence, when Ireland experienced unprecedented levels of social and cultural development! So what changed? The answer can be found in the social forces that came to dominate the new state, social forces that were determined by two disastrous events: partition and civil war. The emerging northern state became a sectarian time bomb simply waiting to explode, while in the 26 counties the field lay open for the Catholic majority to express its will unhindered by any significant opposition. On the other hand, the outcome of a bitter civil war was not so much that the republicans lost but that the counter-revolution won! The new southern state was dominated by an emerging conservative Catholic middle class in alliance with the powerful institution of the Roman Catholic Church. As Terence Brown remarked, ‘It was a social order largely composed of persons disinclined to contemplate any change other than the political change that independence represented’.

Essentially, the conservative forces that created the Irish Free State established a system of governance that was designed to serve the interests of the few rather than the needs of the many, and that inequitable system has prevailed, more or less unchanged, to this day.

So it does not seem to be overstating the case to say that the state that was established in the aftermath of the revolutionary years has hardly proved to be an unqualified success. Nevertheless, there is one achievement that must be acknowledged: the fact that, against all the odds, the state has survived, but at a price—a price paid in full by the majority of its citizens through the betrayal and abandonment of the dreams and aspirations of a heroic generation, the men and women of 1916.

The centenary of the Easter Rising provides all citizens with a unique opportunity to gather in celebration of that extraordinary moment in Irish history and, in so doing, to create a platform to reflect, consider and act upon the aims and ideals of those who in their time decided to act in the cause of freedom; after all, their vision remains the yardstick by which we can measure the current state of the nation.
Let us dare to dream!

Robert Ballagh is an artist and chairman of Reclaim the Vision of 1916, an independent, non-party-political citizens’ initiative that is organising a major event in Dublin on 24 April 2016.

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