Remembering 1916 in Ireland

Last month, the Irish Government launched its commemoration project for the 1916 Easter Rising, Ireland 2016, with a three-minute video. This video depicts mostly recent, reconciliatory images of Anglo-Irish relations and modern Ireland. This video was rightly derided by both the public and the major political parties for, among other things, having almost nothing to do with the Rising. Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, mockingly asked the Taoiseach ‘…we are treated to images of Facebook, Google, Bob Geldof, Bono, David Cameron and the English Queen. Is this what the Government believes the 1916 Rising was about?’ Undoubtedly it isn’t, but the controversy begs the question: what is the legacy of 1916 all about?

There could be a number of positive reasons that the Government of Ireland chose to use this video to represent the 2016 commemorations. However, the lack of reference to the 1916 Rising (apart from the opening frame showing the Proclamation of the Irish Republic), shows how uncomfortable both the Government and also, perhaps, the public is with celebrating or commemorating the events of that Easter week.

The Rising, it must be remembered, failed to deliver a republic. However, its significance for Ireland cannot be understated. As an event, it gained the massive public support (Due to the Army’s execution of the leaders of the Rising without trial) that the IRA needed in order to establish a state independent of Britain. The most tangible result of the Rising was felt in the 1918 election, where Sinn Fein won almost every seat in the area that makes up the modern Republic. This result eventually led to war with Britain and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. This situation would have been unimaginable even for the most ardent nationalist in 1915 and it is because of this that the Rising is considered the founding event of the modern Irish State.

So, like many modern nations, and especially republics, the Irish state was founded as a result of a violent revolution. Yet, the country finds it quite difficult to embrace the violence that occurred which, although many may find it difficult to admit, helped achieve the republican aims. This may be because Ireland has been a neutral country since its foundation, so it is likely that citizens would be loath to glorify the violence that gave birth to the state. A violent birth seems incongruous with the narrative of the peaceful Irish state. This has led to a number of politicians and commentators playing down the necessity of the Rising or questioning its necessity.

In a Primetime debate from earlier this year, former Taoiseach John Bruton took the position that Ireland, without the Rising, would have been able to achieve its republican aims constitutionally after WWI. The Home Rule Bill would have been enacted and the Irish Parliamentary Party would have dismantled British rule in Ireland peacefully. Whether or not this very idealised view of how the situation may have played out is valid, is not the point. John Bruton’s assertion casts doubt on the effectiveness of 1916 because of its use and legacy of violence.

However, the most interesting aspect of the discomfort with 1916, is its relationship with Sinn Fein and the violent legacy of the Rising. The party has not been able to disassociate itself from the violence of the Troubles and is yet to convince some that they are truly committed to parliamentary activities (in Northern Ireland anyway). This association with violence becomes very interesting in the run up to the 2016 commemorations, particularly given that Sinn Fein is now the most popular party in the country (There is also a general election due in 2016). For many years, Sinn Fein was seen by the major Irish parties as largely insignificant, not a real threat to their vote and a party that they could easily deride as one that endorses violence and murder. Now that Sinn Fein are leading the polls, the major parties have redoubled their efforts to smear Sinn Fein with their past relationship with violence. Yet, if the 1916 Rising was a fundamentally violent revolt, how can the major parties, who, apart from Labour are all Sinn Fein offshoots from the 1920’s, glorify the violence of 1916 and condemn the violence in the North? In order to do this, efforts have been made to differentiate between the violence in 1916 and violence in Northern Ireland but these efforts have been desperate at best. ‘Sinn Fein and the IRA had no mandate for their campaign’ is an often used claim against them but neither did the 1916 rebels initially. Perhaps this is why the Government has neglected to remember 1916 as the armed struggle that it was, instead focussing on reconciliation. By doing so, the Government and Fianna Fail can continue to present themselves as patriotic but peaceful and define Sinn Fein, who have never effectively distanced themselves from violence, as the opposite of that.

Easter 2016 will be a highly emotional event on both sides of the border in Ireland. Undoubtedly, the memory of the Rising in Northern Ireland will be contested, but the symbolic founding event of the state in the Republic is in danger of being reduced to a weapon in the current political climate. Allowing the Rising to be a contestable issue is to allow the modern political climate to influence the memory of an important event from a distant political context. It runs the risk of distorting the true nature and meaning of the Rising.

There is nothing wrong with questioning the official history of a nation’s past, it is admirable and many nations in the world would benefit greatly from doing so but the Easter Rising was a violent event, no political attempts to downplay that should be tolerated. Accepting its aggressive nature does not glorify it. 1916 is the event that set in motion the founding of the Irish state, whether you agree with its methods or not and it must not be reduced to a political weapon, with parties fighting over its true meaning and legacy. If so, Ireland 2016 will pass by in bitterness or, perhaps worse, insignificance.