The Easter Rising: a terrible beauty and a challenge in the 21st century
Pity Dan Mulhall, the urbane Irish ambassador to the Court of St James. A press aide to Dick Spring during the turbulent but dramatic nineties, Mulhall has gone on to a distinguished career in the diplomatic service.
London needs safe hands. Even in the best of times, there’s a rough edge to the relationship between the two countries and Mulhall is well versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Irish relations.
The ambassador is obsessed by the work of WB Yeats, so the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth has been a gift. One of the finest writers in the English language, Yeats speaks to the world, not just Ireland. He has become one of Mulhall’s primary tools for soft diplomacy, as subscribers to his twitter feed will know only too well. Yeats scholars watch out, the ambassador is after your job.
The poet has been in the news this week for other reasons. But the controversy about whether the bones buried in Drumcliffe belong to him or a French peasant doesn’t much matter. Yeats’s spirit resides in his visionary writing.
From Yeats it is just a step to 1916, and the men who were martyred by the British after the Easter Rising.
In his remarkable meditation Easter 1916, Yeats coined one of the most dramatic couplets of the English language: “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”
Next year sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising, it coincides with an equally potent one for the Somme, one of the sorriest of sorry battles in the First World War. Irishmen died there too in their thousands – nationalists fighting in the forlorn hope that war would yield to home rule, and unionists fighting on the same side for the opposite outcome.
Irish anniversaries have a habit of turning out badly. The Twelfth is a constant reminder of that. But at least with the Twelfth we sort of know where the hot spots are going to be and the likely results.
The Rising anniversary is a different matter. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it is fraught with risk. The Law of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly come into play. Like relatives fighting over a will, many claim to be the rightful inheritors of the flame lit that fateful Easter morning. In addition to internecine rivalry, there is its impact on the tensions between the two traditions here.
History has a way of flattening things out, and the 1916 rebels are now seen as being players in Ireland’s seamless transition to nationhood. It was bumpier than that. Whether the Irish government can claim direct line of descent is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, it has taken on the job of commemorating the event, not just in Ireland but globally.
It is Mulhall’s job to sell it to the British. Like selling ice to Eskimos, it’s a thankless task. This week in his blog (check out the Irish Embassy website) he confronted the question: how does the rising commemoration relate to Britain? Interestingly, he sees it in the context of the “extensive Irish involvement in World War 1”, and details exhaustively Ireland’s involvement in remembrance events.
“Just as involvement in the First World War had a major impact on Ireland, so too the Rising was an important event in British history and in the remaking of relations between our two islands.” You have to admire his pluck.
“It was the beginning of a new era between us as neighbouring States and it is important that we take this opportunity to look back at a century of Irish independence and take stock of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.”
Unsurprisingly, he plans to focus on “the future direction of relations between our two countries and on the contribution Irish people have made to British life over the years, notably in the cultural field”.
He hopes this will lead to “greater awareness in Britain of the intriguing complexities of Irish history”. Few will dispute his observation that: “Proper reconciliation comes when we can grasp and appreciate each other’s perspectives”.
But I doubt the English will be fussed. The residents of Kensington and Chelsea have long since reconciled themselves to the Easter Rising. The intellectuals will enjoy their seminars, speeches and canapés in the Irish Embassy and no doubt a member of the Royal Family will be persuaded to raise a glass to the memory of Pearse and his comrades.
But what’s the strategy for Northern Ireland where the outcome of the Rising has not yet been resolved?
- A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on July 24 2015