As the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising approaches there have been several competing companies offering tours of the battlefield — ie, the centre of Dublin. I opted for the Rise of the Rebels tour, which left from College Green and crawled through the city traffic towards the heart of the insurrection, the General Post Office on O’Connell Street.
The bus was decked out in shades of war-zone grey, and an audience of a dozen or so (mostly Irish but not blasé Dubliners) were enlightened by a pair of young actors playing soldiers who gave us a suitably dramatic account of events. One emphasised, correctly but a little incessantly, the role of women in the Rising. And at midday, when we reached the GPO, she stood under the portico and began to recite the proclamation of the republic, just as the rebels’ intellectual leader Pádraig Pearse did a century ago.
In fact, the re-enactment was a bit too authentic. Just as happened to Pearse, hardly anyone on O’Connell Street took any notice. The traffic trundled on, and there were all kinds of other distractions. A few feet away a young man was also reciting the proclamation with the text written on a sleeping bag (a stunt for a homeless charity, it turned out). A heavily amplified busker made both versions near-inaudible. Nearby, protesters were unpacking their flags for a Free Tibet demo. Someone else was collecting funds for soup kitchens. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were out. Across the road, Dublin’s most famous retail landmark stood shuttered and silent: Clerys department store, closed suddenly and mysteriously last summer after 162 years on the site (interrupted only when bombed out during the Rising). But its neighbour Ann Summers was thriving, offering half-price knickers and sex toys (and what would the pious and pedagogical Pearse have made of that?).
It all seemed some like some kind of metaphor for modern Ireland, so transfixing that by the time I looked around to find my tour group, they and the bus had vanished. So instead I went inside the GPO. I suppose I had imagined a national shrine, hushed and candlelit, perhaps with an embalmed corpse as the centrepiece. It is in fact . . . a post office. The oldest purpose-built, still-working post office in the world, according to the postal service’s head of communications Barney Whelan, and an unusually beautiful one, with brass grilles and wood panelling. But a post office nonetheless. Outside, tourists were taking pictures of the passing show; Dubliners were heading inside without a second thought, to sort out their savings and buy their stamps.
A hundred years ago, in the midst of the first world war, the GPO had actually just been refurbished and extended. Then on Easter Monday, April 24 1916, a small group of rebels, led by Pearse and the union leader James Connolly, took it over in an attempt to throw off British rule. They held out for three days before tunnelling out to escape the fires caused by British shells (which wrecked the new interior), then took refuge above a fish shop until being forced to surrender, whereupon Pearse instructed those holding other key points to do the same. That was the Saturday. On the following Wednesday, May 3, Pearse was among the first group to be shot. There would be 16 executions in all.
All this Pearse envisaged and embraced. Of course the rebels hoped for better: the arrival of the promised German arms; control of the real key points, the ports and railways stations. But Pearse had talked of Ireland requiring a blood sacrifice to gain its freedom. He expected to die: Easter was chosen for the symbolism of death and resurrection. He also foresaw correctly what would come later: “We shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations.” The truth of that will be demonstrated this Sunday, when the Irish Republic stages its main commemoration in O’Connell Street, complete with proclamation, to mark the event now regarded as the founding moment of modern Ireland.
These anniversaries have sometimes been a bit fraught. Twenty-five years after the Rising was 1941, when Britain was at war with Germany, as in 1916; and even though Ireland was now independent and neutral, the occasion was necessarily muted. In 1991, the 75th, the Northern Ireland troubles had not yet concluded, and the narrative of gunmen trying to take over the state was not one to be overcelebrated.
The 50th anniversary, in 1966, did get the full treatment. The main unofficial event was the blowing-up of Nelson’s Pillar, which had stood outside the GPO since 1809, by a few freelance extremists. That aside, the anniversary was marked in a manner befitting the reactionary, hard-up, priest-ridden, slightly repressive, exceedingly repressed, introverted, charming, eccentric, beautiful backwater into which the Republic of Ireland had mutated. The view of the political and clerical hierarchy prevailed: the rebels were martyrs who died for Ireland, and there was not much else to discuss.
Since then the Irish have forsaken God or, at any rate, His representatives in the Catholic Church, and succumbed to Mammon, a relationship that went sour inside a decade rather than the 1,500 years between St Patrick’s arrival and the priestly sex scandals. In Dublin, among the waterside pavement cafés near the new temples to cyber-commerce and interesting tax arrangements, the Celtic tiger is sitting up again, and licking its paws: 7.8 per cent growth in 2015. “Property prices have all gone mental again,” one Dubliner told me, “but not quite as mad as last time.”
In much of the hinterland, though, the recovery from the economic collapse of 2008 is regarded as a myth, hence the confused result of last month’s election. Ireland is a country searching for the right way forward, with a constant questioning of received wisdom. And that extends to the way the Rising is being commemorated. “Now we can capture the complexity of things,” says Patrick Geoghegan, professor of modern history at Trinity College Dublin. “We’ve lost our simplistic narrative about the past.”
At the National Museum of Ireland, the Rising is being celebrated alongside an exhibition about the Irish soldiers who fought for the British empire, of which Ireland was then a part: 90,000 Irish Catholic boys joined up in the first world war; some of them were obliged to do their duty and helped quell the Rising. Previously these actors were written out of the script.
It can now also be mentioned that the biggest single group of the 485 who died in the fighting were not rebels but civilians, caught in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Forty of them were under 16, and at the new museum about to open as part of the GPO complex, there is a memorial to them. “Some were babes in arms and some were looters,” says Barney Whelan, “so there’s a creative tension in that.”
Today’s uncertainties have something in common with those of 1916. In Vivid Faces, his account of the revolutionary generation, Professor Roy Foster depicts the Rising — and the artistic golden age (Joyce, Synge, Yeats, O’Casey etc) that accompanied it — as a conscious rejection, in different ways, of the patient conservatism of their parents. The rebels themselves included a high proportion of actors and playwrights, which helps explain the operation’s self-conscious theatricality.
Yet the initial Irish response to the rebellion was tepid to hostile. Most of Catholic Ireland was not at this point noticeably chafing against the bonds of British rule. HH Asquith’s Liberal-led government in London had already enacted Ireland’s demand for Home Rule, its implementation delayed only by the ferocity of the Ulster Protestants’ response and the outbreak of war. “The Irish weren’t necessarily happy at being British,” explains Lar Joye, curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland, “but they could see the advantages of being part of empire.”
And it was only when the executions began, in batches, day after day, that opinion turned. John Redmond, leader of the parliamentary Irish nationalists, who had been horrified by the Rising, began to sense his own fate. His deputy John Dillon called the government “dense and stupid”.
The church swiftly moved onside. “The sanctification happened almost instantly,” says Geoghegan. “Even by the end of 1916 these were Catholic martyrs.” The British did far too little to soothe Irish feelings. And in the election held weeks after the Armistice in 1918, the moderates were almost wiped out by the militants of Sinn Féin. Pearse and Connolly’s posthumous triumph was assured.
During the past 18 months, events in Scotland have provided an astonishing echo of this — minus, thank heaven, the violence. Though the referendum failed to secure immediate independence, just like the Rising, London’s response was perceived as niggardly, and the political losers were the moderate devolutionists: in 1918, the Redmondites; in 2015, Scottish Labour.
In 1919, Sinn Fein began a two-year war of independence. Then came a year-long civil war between militants and those ready to accept partial separation. These were wars of terror, ambush, repression and stupidity (not all of it British). Not unlike the recent 29-year Troubles, more repulsive than inspirational. And so Ireland turns gratefully to the Rising. Despite the bloodshed, the heroism-to-horror ratio is perceived as favourable. Deliberate atrocities? Too few to mention. The rebels fought so bravely that the British became convinced there must be hordes of Germans in their midst. And the 16 executed men died with unanimous dignity.
The proclamation whose first reading was treated with such indifference is now revered, and with good reason. It is more poetic than the US Declaration of Independence, and more timeless. Indeed, it fits beautifully into the orthodoxies of our own era. The inclusive opening words “Irishmen and Irishwomen” were very advanced for the time.
It said the republic would insist on “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”, which was a figurative use of “children” to try and reach out to the Ulster Protestants — but was regularly recycled as the scandals emerged about how real children were treated when they were in the care of priests and nuns. “It’s become the document the politicians constantly quote, misquote and quote out of context,” says Geoghegan. Even Barack Obama used the phrase last week — five times! — in his speech at the White House St Patrick’s day reception.
No wonder the GPO was so lovingly restored. The rebels control the key points now all right: Dublin’s main railway stations (Connolly, Pearse and Heuston) are all named after the martyrs. But, in years when the anniversary is less resonant, kids are not force-fed the story the way they once were. “It’s been less of a presence in my children’s life than it was in mine,” says the Irish Times columnist Frank McNally. “History seems less central to the curriculum. All the uprisings, we were taught over and over again. And the famine.”
Perhaps the decline of indoctrination has actually helped the centenary become less statist, less orthodox, more intellectually stimulating — and more accurate. The militant Republicans of Sinn Féin have their own exhibition close by the Post Office, but its unflinching message of goodies versus baddies may be just a little old-fashioned.
That does not mean Ireland has lost its sense of pride about the small band who thwarted an empire, nor its relish for the theatricality of it all. The artist Mick O’Dea, president of the Royal Hibernian Academy, is much taken with this, and a recent exhibition of his in effect recreated the Rising as a stage set. He is fascinated by the Post Office in a way that perhaps eludes native Dubliners. “Maybe Romans walk past the Colosseum,” he says. “But if you’re coming up from County Clare as I first did and you walk up O’Connell Street, it has this enormous resonance.”
And, for all his nuances, Patrick Geoghegan still embraces the central fact. “The sense is still that the rebels had an idealistic notion of Ireland, and I think that still inspires people,” he said. And so on Sunday the nation will watch uncynically as Ireland’s leaders gather by the steps, opposite dead Clerys and living Ann Summers, to honour the martyred slain. And when Easter is over, the populace will be allowed back in the GPO . . . to buy their stamps.