Rethinking 1916 ahead of Ireland’s abortion referendum

One April morning 102 years ago a countess, a grocer’s daughter, a carpenter and and a former British soldier picked up guns and marched onto the streets of Dublin to rebel against the British Empire and declare an Irish republic.

We introduce these characters and what they were fighting to achieve in the new episode of The Irish Passport podcast: ‘1916 and the Invention of Ireland‘. The episode traces the cultural upheaval that led to the rebellion and questions whether, 102 years since the Easter Rising, its promises have been kept.

‘All her men and women’

The republic proclaimed that day was a radical one for its time.

It was non-sectarian, guaranteeing “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities” to all its citizens. Its government would be elected by “all her men and women”, at a time when Europe was ruled by kings and emperors, and only a handful of countries in the world allowed women to vote.

The Proclamation of Independence also promised “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.

“In other words it promised a welfare state, decades before such a thing emerged in Scandinavian countries, in Britain and in France,” leading academic Declan Kiberd tells us on the podcast. “Women fought as soldiers in the Easter Rising. Obviously there were no women in the imperial army they fought.”

But the state that emerged was very different from what many of the rebels of 1916 had in mind. Far from egalitarian, non-sectarian and prosperous, it was socially conservative, overwhelmingly Catholic, and poor. The women who were inextricable to the Easter Rising were written out of history, and in many cases rejected by the state they had fought to establish.

Rethinking the Rising

The centenary of 1916 arrived at a moment when the Irish republic was already interrogating the state of the republic. Marriage equality had been passed by referendum the previous year. Much political debate, whether about healthcare, education, or the history of confinement, was in one way or another about the legacy of Catholic influence that took hold in the early years of the state.

The commemorations were led by a Fine Gael government uncomfortable with physical force republicanism, and overseen by a culture minister of Ulster Presbyterian descent. The emphasis was on embracing plurality and nuance. Women were, quite literally, written back in to the history. This was a public festival of history that was firmly post-Good Friday Agreement. The simplistic, triumphalist, nationalistic approaches of the past had little place.

“Coming out of that event I was hugely enthusiastic about the state of history in an Irish republic. It was very democratic, it was hugely accessible, it was all free,” historian Conor Mulvagh recalls on the podcast.

“I think the Irish public are in a very good place where they can look at their history with maturity. They’re not particularly worried about heroes, or about carefully guarded histories that they need to preserve. Instead they’re quite open to looking at history with its complexities, to look at the grey areas.”

It’s an approach Mulvagh believes will serve Ireland well as the anniversaries of more recent fraught events grow closer, such as the outbreak of the Troubles, and the arrival of the British Army in Belfast and Derry.

An ‘instance of modernity’

The Easter Rising was an act of theatre. Its leaders never hoped it could be a military success, but to create a myth powerful enough to inspire the emergency of a nation. It has remained a ‘useful history’, drawn upon and challenged by Ireland’s various political strands for their own purposes.

As the referendum on whether to remove the 1983 constitutional ban on abortion from Ireland’s constitution approaches, it’s worth recalling the radical ambitions of the state’s founders.

“I’ve always believed that the Gaelic League and indeed the Rising itself were instances of modernity,” Declan Kiberd tells us on the episode.

“To me, the forward-looking elements of these movements are often forgotten by historians who accuse them of nostalgia.”

You can listen to the full episode and subscribe to the series on iTunes, Stitcher, Acast, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you support us on Patreon, you can also get access to exclusive extra episodes.

Irish journalist writing for @PoliticoEurope. Try my politics/history/culture podcast @PassportIrish.