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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