The 1916 Centenary Observance – Part II


Yes, indeed…Ireland…hang up your brightest colours and on Easter Sunday, one-hundred years after Pearse and Connolly marched out, they did.

Finally, the waiting was over. In what initially appeared to be a national faux pas, the Irish Government made itself proud. So, in spite of all the debate during the run-up to the Centenary Commemoration of the Easter Rebellion, Ireland did put its best foot forward. In the end, it certainly was a great day for the Gael.

Sure, in what could have been a contentious affair, a public bunfight of ignominious proportions, the days surrounding Easter Sunday 2016 proved to be most memorable. From its very pedestrian beginning months and months ago, the Government, led by Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Interim Arts Minister Heather Humphreys, Ireland did a complete one eighty. Kenny, who initially seemed to be sleepwalking through Irish history with his interest in welcoming British royals and egregiously forgetting his own country’s flesh and blood, rebounded nicely. In the end, no royals were invited and the relatives of 1916 participants received, for the most part, the honours they rightly deserved. There were, however, several unpleasant bits of last-minute residue that raised their ugly heads over the weekend.

Several months ago, Acting Minister Humphreys succeeded in having #14-17 Moore Street, only a block from the GPO, declared a National Heritage site. She intended to have those three terraced buildings made into a national memorial, honouring the 1916 Rebellion’s leadership who’d occupied those premises just prior to surrendering to British Crown forces on Saturday, 29 April. As the last headquarters of the Irish rebel government, the buildings held important historical and sentimental significance. But unfortunately, and rightly so, the 1916 Relatives Association, a pressure group who’d initially lobbied to save the three structures, appealed to the High Court, declaring the Moore Street designation should have included #13, #18 and #19 as well as a number of cellars and back gardens.

In a bewildering turn of events, Humphreys disagreed with the court’s ruling and vehemently stated she intended to appeal the decision. In spite of her displeasure, she was chosen to preside at a wreath-laying ceremony in Moore Street on Easter Monday. Knowing her legal intentions, a small cadre of some twenty protesters from the Save Moore Street Campaign 2016 did their best to disrupt her dedication, shouting insults at the Acting Minister. Later, she said, “The ceremony today was designed to be solemn and respectful. I find it very disappointing that a small group of protesters would seek to disrupt it in such a disrespectful way.”

Two other events tried to cast a shadow over the festivities, but, thankfully, were temporarily pushed aside. The first centred on the Government’s embarrassing inability to resolve the political deadlock over the country’s governance that’s been dragging on since the last general election a month ago. The present governing coalition between Fine Gael and Labour failed to garner sufficient voter support and the likelihood of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil minority Government now seems likely. The query is could old Civil War antagonists find the will to unite in common cause for the sake of running the country? With generations of acrimony frequently percolating between the old pro- and anti-Treaty parties, there were other present-day issues needing resolution. Unfortunately, disagreements existed between the two major political parties on how to improve national health care; on how to create more affordable housing for the underprivileged; on how to settle the nagging issue of water rates being just three of them.

The other divisive matter needing immediate solution centred on a labour dispute between Dublin’s light-rail [Luas] tram drivers and their supervisory management structure [Transdev]. A pay rise of 23%, resulting in worker salaries surpassing those of most Irish schoolteachers, has met with great objection. As a result, periodic work stoppages continue, even over the Easter-holiday weekend, forcing thousands of people to change their travel plans.

Discounting these discordant matters for a moment, the highlight of the day, Easter Sunday, was Ireland’s formal State commemoration ceremony staged before the General Post Office [GPO], headquarters of the 1916 Rebellion. A tricolour, fringed in gold proudly flew from the Henry Street corner of the GPO, just as it did one-hundred years ago. Across the street, atop the former 1916 Imperial Hotel, waved James Connolly’s defiant worker’s banner, the Starry Plough.

So, the stage was set. Tens of thousands lined the parade route from Stephens Green to Parnell Square. O’Connell Street was packed out from top to bottom. Overhead, a low-flying helicopter darted across the sky, sending back its video feed to RTÉ studios in Donnybrook. Yes, the moment had finally arrived.

Just prior to noon, with hundreds of dignitaries seated before the GPO, key figures in the Irish Government began arriving in their sleek, black limousines. Silently, they navigated past the rows and rows of onlookers who’d been standing for hours, in orderly assembly, along O’Connell Street. Those in front had fine views. Those in back craned their necks, trying to catch a glimpse of the spectacle or watched on big screen Jumbotrons.

First to disembark was the Acting Minister for Defence Simon Coveney. He was followed by Dublin’s Lord Mayor Criona Ni Dhálaigh. Next to arrive was the Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny and lastly, Ireland’s ninth President Michael D Higgins.

Ceremonial salutes preceded the President’s inspection of his Guard of Honour. Now, with the President and the Taoiseach standing at attention, the national flag, waving high above the GPO, was lowered to half-staff.

As he’d done earlier in the day at Kilmainham Gaol, Fr Séamus Madigan stepped forward and offered a prayer, saying in part, “As we reflect on our past we thank you for all the courageous people of Ireland who dared to hope and dream of a brighter tomorrow for our country and all of its citizens. Blessed are all those who sought to build a more inclusive and just society, for they are truly the chosen of God.”

Next, in a very touching moment, four children, representing Ireland’s four provinces came forward. They laid daffodils on the likely place President Pádraic Pearse had stood on that fateful day in April 1916 when he first read aloud the Proclamation of Ireland’s Provisional Government.

Following this brief observance, the Oglaigh na hÉireann [the Irish Defence Forces] military band played Danny Boy. Looking around, I could see many of the people mouthing the words of this legendary Irish song.

Then, in one of the most chilling moments of the State’s commemoration, a Corkman, Captain Peter Kelleher, standing before the GPO and holding the Proclamation before him, read its words in a strong, clear voice: “Irishmen and Irishwomen, in the name of God and of the dead generation from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom….”

Moments later, the band performed one of my favourites, Seán Ó Riada’s haunting air, Mise Éire after which the President placed a commemorative wreath before the GPO.

After this solemn tribute, a minute of silence was observed.

With the Government’s tribute to the men and women of 1916 ending, a final piece, the Last Post, sounded as the tricolour, overlooking Dublin from atop the GPO, was dramatically returned to full staff.  Now, as if on cue and with a freshening breeze pulling at its folds, the flag nobly overtopped the princely statue of Hibernia with her golden spear and Irish harp.

As the audience paused to catch its breath, the second half of the State’s Commemoration began. The men and women of Oglaigh na hÉireann marched up along O’Connell and past the GPO in perfect unison, their buttons and buckles glinting in the bright sunlight. Behind them appeared a squad of “Blue Berets”, Ireland’s gallant UN peacekeepers…and there in the second row, marched my friend Sgt. Ronnie Daly, so proud and professional.  Suddenly, a voice called out, “Eyes left” and the soldiers’ heads turned as one to honour the Rebellion’s GHQ.

For the next two hours, over 3,500 personnel, both military and civilian, all in full kit, filed through the centre of Dublin and up O’Connell Street. It was a grand tribute to their dedicated service and a mark of respect toward their great country.

Later in the day, an enthusiastic audience and all of Ireland, via television, enjoyed a fabulous, open-air concert from the parade grounds at Collins Barracks. Entitled A Nation’s Voice, 1,100 singers from all over the country joined the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for a free, open-air concert. Conducted by David Brophy, this musical extravaganza included the world premier of One Hundred Years A Nation, a major new orchestral and choral work commissioned for the occasion by RTÉ from composer, Shaun Davey with text by writer, Paul Muldoon. I had to admire the courage and imagination of the organisers for holding such an event outdoors. Thankfully, the weather cooperated. Though cool temperatures prevailed, the morning’s sunny, dry conditions continued.

The next day, Easter Monday, saw another incredible tableau of programming. With O’Connell Street reserved for pedestrian traffic only, the city centre became a veritable, open-aired theatre with RTÉ serving as its coordinating host. From late morning to early evening, Dublin was the scene of the largest public history and cultural event showcase ever seen. More than 500 free talks, exhibitions, walking tours, debates, films, performances and live dramatisations were scheduled in over 200 venues, 6 outdoor stages, 8 family zones and 50 marquees. Additionally, at 1.15 pm, the imagined moment of the Easter Rebellion’s first shots, a series of seven synchronised wreath-laying ceremonies were held throughout the city, each honouring the seven-battalion-headquarter locales of the Rising.

Now, looking back at the many 1916 tributes, it was a magical step back into history. The accolades simply boggle the imagination. Thankfully, for the history and Irish cultural enthusiast much of the Government’s efforts will remain as permanent exhibits. Hopefully, on your next journey to Dublin you can visit one or more of them. The refurbished Kilmainham Courthouse next to the gaol now acts as a new visitor’s centre. Nearby Richmond Barracks, where 1916 prisoners were interred and the trials were held will soon open. The expanded GPO interactive centre helps bring 1916 alive. Dublin’s new Tenement Museum on Henrietta Street will expand your understanding of the city’s social history. In the coming months, the Moore Street restoration project will be completed, allowing visitors to experience the building where the 1916 leaders held their final war council before surrendering. Finally, from now until mid-October 2016, visit the Revolution 1916 Exhibition in the Ambassador Theatre at the top of O’Connell Street [€15 adults/€12 seniors]. It’s a Centenary exhibit featuring film, photographs and amazing artefacts telling the Rebellion’s story.

So, until we meet again, take a moment and say a prayer for those men and women who sought to free Ireland one-hundred years ago.

Easter, 2016: A Centenary Commemoration… “Hang Up Your Brightest Colours…”

In my mind’s eye, I didn’t know quite what to expect as my wife and I arrived into Dublin Town at the beginning of Holy Week. Terminal One was its usual unremarkable self. After a sleep-deprived night on a 767, I felt edgy and in no mood to stand in line for thirty minutes while the short-staffed airport Gardai asked deplaning passengers the usual queries and checked passports.

My humour finally improved when, at last, our cases slid down the baggage reclaim turntable and we walked out into a sunny Irish morning. The crisp, springtime air seemed to clear the cobwebs from my head. At last, a real note of excitement crept over me as I reached into my pocket for some coins to pay for our Aircoach bus ride into the city.

It was on the short journey to our hotel that I first noticed the city looking changed. As the bus headed into town, I was amazed to see so many buildings bedecked with tricolours and bunting. Additionally, 1916-tribute murals graced various neighbourhood walls. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen on this road from the airport.

Unexpectedly, the words G.B. Shaw penned to Michael Collins’s sister Hannie suddenly popped into my head. Quite surprisingly, I found myself recalling his tribute, written to the Collins family upon learning of the Big Fellow’s death in 1922. “So tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour, and let us all praise God that he did not die in a snuffy bed of a trumpery cough weakened by age….”

Though the meaning inherent in Shaw’s letter had nothing to do with the events of today, the commemorative spirit of the festoons decorating the city signalled a mood shift from sombre to celebratory. Gazing out of the bus’s window, a renewed awareness and sense of national pride was rekindled in me. The usually subdued and dated city looked prideful, out-smarting any All-Ireland Sunday I’d ever known. Even Drumcondra and the somewhat dreary north side of the city reverberated with a newfound lustre.

The crowds of people, for a weekday morning, filling the footpaths along O’Connell Street were amazing too. As the bus crossed over the Liffey and continued its way through College Green, past Trinity, and up along Nassau Street, the number of people out and about seemed endless. It reminded me of the Saturdays before Christmas during the high-flying, Celtic-Tiger days of the early 2000s.

After checking-in and a cup of tea, we caught a taxi back to the city centre. Eager to hear the locals’ reaction to all the 1916-2016 Commemoration tributes now underway, I asked the driver what he thought of them. In short, your man simply replied “Great.”

Over the next two weeks, I must have asked well over a hundred people that same query. Almost to a person, I received positive answers. People talked of reigniting a sense of Irish national pride; of paying tribute to our brave Irish heroes and their history; of providing a much-needed boost to the country’s still flagging economy. One taxi driver even turned off the meter before taking us out of our way to show us a mural he’d work on depicting the Proclamation reproduced in six languages displayed on the side of a building.

After a stop at the Bank of Ireland in College Green, we promptly became part of ‘the madding crowd’ on O’Connell Street. Drinking in all the retail pageantry along the way, we next stopped at Easton’s.

The bookstore was abuzz. Tables overflowed with new and recently republished titles centred on the Rebellion, the War for Independence, Pearse, Connolly and other related topics. There was even a huge, freestanding display in the form of an old Dublin tramcar, packed out with 1916 volumes, positioned in front of the Irish history section.

More than once in the run up to and immediately following Easter Sunday, I sometimes felt as if I’d stumbled onto a movie set. Repeatedly, I encountered men and women dressed in period-1916 costumes all hurrying to or from some event. Daily newspapers, with photographs, maps, opinion pieces and historical critiques, filled newsagent racks. RTÉ planned on live coverage of many upcoming commemorative events as well as airing a range of historical programming during evening hours.

I was amazed and delighted to see that most of the Government’s literature on Rebellion-commemoration events was bilingual, English and Irish. Indeed, the coverage of the Centenary exceeded my expectations, so ‘good on ya’ was my reaction. All this and ‘No Royals’…what a luxury it was to be in Dublin and witnessing it all.

Most events of Easter Sunday and Monday were well done, respectful, educational and heart-rending. With little imagination, I was transported back in time, reliving Ireland of one-hundred years ago. Individually, the tributes were too numerous to mention but a handful deserve special attention.

Irish president Michael D Higgins was at his most dignified best as he laid a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance to honour the fallen men and women of 1916 on Holy Saturday. He asked all those present to “preserve the memory of those who fought and gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom….” Yes, it was on this hallowed ground at the top of Parnell Square [formerly Rutland Square] that surrendered members of the Headquarters and 1st Battalions spent the near-freezing night of 29 April 1916 in the open while under close British military guard. [Note: The next day, the prisoners were marched across town to temporary internment in Richmond Barracks.] This was also the same spot back on 25 November 1913 that saw the first ranks of the Irish Volunteers formed.

In addition to the wreath laying, there was military ceremonial and Irish traditional music played followed by silent reflection. It certainly marked a fitting advent to the weekend’s ceremonies.

Again, that evening, President Higgins spoke to a large assemblage of Easter Rebellion relatives at the RDS [Royal Dublin Society]. Over 3,500 guests were present from all corners of the globe. They heard the Uachtarán na hÉireann say that their relatives helped bring about a “free and independent Ireland.” He also reminded them that the older generations’ stories cast long shadows across their families’ histories. Now, these layers of grief and loss were finally being recognised and honoured. Higgins spoke of the “great debt of gratitude we owe to all those who bravely risked their lives a hundred years ago so that future generations of Ireland could grow up as citizens of a free and independent State.”

Yes, earlier fears that 1916 relatives would be ignored proved groundless. Through their continued persistence and successful lobbying, the present Government realised the earlier error of its ways and fittingly wrote them into events throughout the three-day weekend.

Thankfully, Easter Sunday morning dawned cloudless, crisp and breezy. Kathy Sheridan, writing in the Irish Times, noted, “Early on Easter Sunday morning in Glasnevin Cemetery, under an icy blue sky, the British ambassador solemnly stepped forward to lay a wreath at Ireland’s Pieta, Dora Sigerson’s poignant sculpture of a mother cradling a lost warrior.” She further commented, “No parade, no museum, no bullet-riddled building can evoke the reality of Yeat’s ‘terrible beauty’ quite like this cemetery.”

Later that morning, President Higgins, assorted politicos and descendants of the executed 1916 leaders gathered in Stonebreakers Yard at Kilmainham Goal to pay tribute to the fourteen men who’d been shot within its high, stonewall confines in early May 1916. Unable to attend, I watched transfixed on television. I couldn’t help but wonder if the men facing the barrels of those British guns ever imagined the reverence and pride their deeds now held in the hearts and minds of Irish today? With the impeccable military decorum of the 92nd Cadet Class honour guard standing at attention and with their modern-day weapons in hand, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a British army firing squad standing in that same yard a century ago.

Defence Forces chaplain Fr Séamus Madigan stepped forward and spoke eloquently when he said, “In this place of final moments, we are reminded of the comfort brought by faith to the leaders of the 1916 Rising. We remember, reflect and re-imagine our belief in life after love. We recall the love and devotion of the executed leaders – for family, for country and for God.”

So with the sunlight glinting off the soldiers’ bayonets; with the wind carrying the strains of the Piper’s Lament, the Last Post and the Solder’s Song heavenward; with the tricolour again proudly waving on high, the short but poignant ceremony came to an end.

To be concluded next month…

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