Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed
It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.
Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.
Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.
It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.
England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.
Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”
‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.
Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.
It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.
Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.
“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”
One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.
For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.
The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.
It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.
“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.
If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.
- This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015