DUBLIN—Here in Ireland, this weekend, Yeats’s terrible beauty becomes a centenarian. It might have had a letter from the Queen, were history different.
It is a pleasing sign of recent Irish social change that 1916 is not being commemorated as a good-and-evil struggle, one with Ireland on the side of the angels—and evil Britain receiving its due comeuppance and ouster. Call this the Wind That Shakes The Barley view of Irish historiography.
Consider halfway back, 1966, for something less nuanced and reflective. The conversion of Nelson’s Pillar into rubble—shortly after 1.32 am on 8th March, by a bomb placed by disaffected IRA man Liam Sutcliffe—lingers as the image of a 1916 turning 50. De Valera reportedly suggested the headline ‘British Admiral Leaves Dublin By Air’. David Norris calls it de Valera’s only recorded instance of humour.
In the south, the golden anniversary was, like Ireland, in the vise-grip of Fianna Fáil and Dublin’s Catholic Archbishop McQuaid. In the north, 1966 also was when the Rev. Ian Paisley came to the fore of Northern Irish politics, gathering 5,000 in Belfast to march in ‘thanksgiving’ for the defeat of the 1916 rebels. The 1916 anniversary would prove his path to ousting Terence O’Neill, who—Eton, Guards, a committed anti-sectarian—was an Ulsterman cut from a different cloth altogether.
But this Easter ’16 is a different terrible beauty. For one, the government-issued commemorative stamps include James O’Brien, first casualty of the fighting, a Catholic unarmed police constable with the misfortune to be on duty outside Dublin Castle. Another shows John Francis Foster, a two-year old shot in his pram in crossfire, the first of thirty children killed in the Rising. A third portrays two Dublin brothers, William and Michael Malone – one killed in the Rising, one at Ypres.
In 1966, students at Holy Faith Convent in Celbridge were being admonished that the 1916 Proclamation called for them to love their country—for example, through speaking Irish, purchasing Irish goods, or refraining from littering. For the generations then living to whom the Easter Proclamation had been addressed—‘Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom’—this must have sounded very weak tea indeed.
Come the day, and come a more open Irish society, and a swapped pair of state visits with Britain. Historical curiosity about forebears in the General Post Office—in my case, a great-grandfather and namesake—mingles with a view which is almost ‘1916: Not In My Name’.
This is the worry that deeming the Easter Rising the origin of independent Ireland neglects all the patient, political parliamentary work of Parnell and Redmond—work which had already led to Home Rule in 1914 (though suspended for the war).
To find the way to home rule, Redmond had to rewrite the British Constitution for Irish ends. This he did by achieving the balance of power in the second 1910 election, and using it to abolish the Lords’ veto—which had blocked Gladstone’s home rule bill in 1894—in the Parliament Act 1911. When the Third Home Rule bill passed in 1912, Redmond stood in the Commons to say ‘I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day.’
1916, flashier, added nothing to this settlement, but just put the gun in Irish politics. This is worth repeating: the bloodshed of Pearse, Connolly, and the others, and the 5,000 falling in the War of Independence and Civil War, did not improve in any way on the deal on the table in 1914.
One thinks of Good Friday in 1998, 1973’s Sunningdale Agreement for slow learners.
But from 1916 momentum lay with the radicals, undercutting Redmond who, as late as January 1918, was within a whisker of securing Ulster Unionist acquiescence for all-Ireland home rule at the Irish Convention. Redmond died in March, telling the Jesuit who attended him, ‘Father, I am a broken hearted man.’
The Proclamation reads poignantly in 2016. ‘Equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ took 99 years and a #MarRef to achieve. While ‘cherishing all of the children of the nation equally’, knowing what we now do about the clerical child abuse the 2009 Ryan Commission called ‘endemic’, is heartbreaking.
And none of this would have been heard in a very different country in 1966. We are all neo-Redmondites, now. And a much more reflective, modern, and mature Ireland for it.