In April 1916, Irish nationalist rebels in Dublin launched what came to be known as the Irish Easter Rising, which left a distinct mark on Irish history.
by Mark McCarthy
‘All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born’ – with his poem ‘Easter 1916’, William Butler Yeats immortalised the memory of the dead rebels of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916. With Ireland commemorating the Rising’s centenary anniversary throughout 2016, the time seems ripe to reflect upon how its memory has lingered in the nation’s consciousness. Although the Rising was a military failure, it rattled the British Empire’s foundations and was a turning point in Irish history: it was followed by the War of Independence, from 1919—1921 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Ultimately, this led to the creation of the 26-county Irish Free State in 1922, which became a self-governing dominion in the Commonwealth, with the king remaining as head of state.
Although planned as a national event, the 1916 Rising was mainly confined to Dublin city centre – due to the failure of Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement’s mission to import 20,000 arms from Germany and because of the issuing of a countermanding order by Eoin MacNeill, Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers, a military Irish nationalist organisation. Despite these setbacks, the General Post Office (GPO) and other prominent buildings in Dublin were seized on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916 by rebels belonging to the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Rising, read the Proclamation, which declared the Irish Republic.
After the shelling of the GPO, the rebels retreated to Moore Street and finally had to surrender on Saturday, 29 April. A total of 485 lives were lost in the Rising: 54% of the dead were civilians, 26% were from the British Army, 16% were rebels and 4% were policemen, according to the Glasnevin Trust. After viewing the ruined city centre, an observer described Dublin as ‘Ypres on the Liffey’ – a comparison to the Belgian town damaged in World War I. In addition to the capital, smaller risings occurred elsewhere.
After the Rising ended, 14 prominent rebels, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence, were executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol prison between 3—12 May. Afterwards, they were buried in quicklime at Arbour Hill in Dublin. Other prominent nationalists suffered a similar fate: Thomas Kent was executed in Cork on 9 May and Roger Casement was hung in London on 3 August. The executions in May, which were ordered by General John Maxwell, provoked a backlash against the British government, as did the declaration of Martial Law. ‘From one cause or another’, reported Maxwell, ‘a revulsion of feeling set in – one of sympathy for the rebels … the executed leaders have become martyrs and the rank and file “patriots”.’ In an effort to tackle the security situation, around 3,500 people were arrested – including rank-and-file Volunteers and those suspected of being sympathetic to their cause. More than half of these were interned in prisons in Britain. In the battle for Irish hearts and minds, the heavy-handed reprisals by the authorities were ultimately responsible for garnering much sympathy for the rebels.
The changing politics of commemoration
Following the Civil War of 1922—1923 between the Free State forces and anti-Treaty republicans, the legacy of 1916 became highly contested, with political quarrels over the partitioning of the island of Ireland making their mark on the commemorative process. The first official commemoration of the Rising by the Free State was held in Dublin in 1924 by a government led by the nationalist party, Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael). Anti-Treaty republicans were blacklisted from attending this ceremony.
A new Constitution came into effect on 29 December 1937, under which the Free State changed its name to Éire/Ireland. After World War II broke out in 1939, Éire/Ireland adopted a policy of military neutrality. The threat of invasion, however, prompted Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera – a veteran 1916 rebel – to stage a parade of 25,000 military personnel past the GPO for the Rising’s 25th anniversary in 1941 (see picture above).
The Irish Civil War (June 1922 – May 1923) was a conflict between the Free State forces and anti-Treaty republicans about the Anglo-Irish-Treaty which had been signed in 1921 to end the Irish War of Independence. The Free State forces supported the Treaty, whereas its opponents interpreted it as a betrayal of the Irish Republic declared during the Easter Rising. Supported by the British Government, the Free State forces emerged as the victors of this Civil War which resulted in 1,000 to 4,000 deaths.
Éire/Ireland left the British Commonwealth and formally became a Republic on Easter Monday, 18 April 1949. Despite that, its establishment was destined to be overshadowed by the memory of the revolutionary era: During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Rising was commemorated by the unveiling of Celtic crosses and statues of rebels in the provinces, and the completion of a memorial at Arbour Hill. Restoration work was also done at Kilmainham Gaol prison – now a major tourist attraction. In 1965, the British government made a significant diplomatic gesture by repatriating the mortal remains of 1916 rebel Roger Casement from London to Ireland.
To commemorate the Rising’s Golden Jubilee, a military parade was held in Dublin on Easter Sunday, 10 April 1966. This was watched by c. 200,000 spectators, including de Valera, who was now President of Ireland and took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the former Kilmainham Gaol prison. This 50th anniversary was also marked by the opening of the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square, and the broadcast of the RTÉ television drama Insurrection. Commemorative memorabilia was also released – including stamps, coins, badges and publications. The relationship between Britain and Ireland was bolstered by the actions of the Imperial War Museum in London, which returned the tattered ‘Irish Republic’ flag that had flown over the GPO in Dublin during Easter Week. It was subsequently exhibited at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
However, in the late 1960s, the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland led to a deterioration in Anglo-Irish relations and also had repercussions for the Rising’s legacy. In April 1971, the Republic commemorated the 55th anniversary of 1916 with a parade of around 1,800 military personnel past the GPO – it would be the last commemorative parade for the next 35 years. Of particular concern to successive governments was the degree to which paramilitaries in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA, also commonly known as IRA) had appropriated the 1916 mythology in order to justify their own armed struggle against the British presence in Northern Ireland.
During the challenging times of the 1970s and 1980s, revisionist historians and journalists often expressed unease about the legacy of 1916, thus making people uncomfortable with glorifying violence. At the same time, the Irish government took a firm line against physical-force republicans and mobilised the state’s institutions to fight against subversive forces. By the time of the Rising’s 75th anniversary in 1991, the government ran a much scaled-down commemoration.
Rehabilitated and reconciliatory memory
The cessation of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s heralded a change in attitudes to memorialisation. Gradually, sentiment towards the Rising improved again. In 2006, the first Army parade since 1971 was held in Dublin, watched by an estimated 100,000—120,000 spectators. Whilst this 90th anniversary passed off successfully, security concerns remained about the activities of dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. The killing of Ronan Kerr, officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in a terrorist attack in April 2011, weighed heavily on the minds of politicians attending the Rising’s 95th anniversary commemoration on Easter Sunday a few weeks later. Afterwards, Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny touched upon the theme of reconciliation by way of remembrance, by stating that it was his hope that a forthcoming state visit to Ireland by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II would bring some sort of ‘conclusion to centuries of division and dissent and difficulties’.
The Queen’s visit in May 2011 was the first by an English monarch in 100 years and proved to be a big success – a giant leap in the ‘bridge-building’ journey of peace, reconciliation, mutual aid and friendship between Ireland and Britain. One of the highlights was her visit with President Mary McAleese to the Garden of Remembrance (see Figure 2). After laying a wreath, the Queen bowed her head whilst observing a minute’s silence for those who had died fighting for Irish freedom – including the rebels of 1916. In a speech at Dublin Castle, the Queen acknowledged ‘the complexity of our history’ and emphasised the significance of ‘being able to bow to the past but not being bound by it’. Reflecting on the significance of the visit, poet and Nobel Prize laureate Séamus Heaney later wrote that ‘the British-Irish bridge was in place as never before’.
To establish a tone that would be ‘inclusive and non-triumphalist, ensuring authenticity, proportionality and openness’, the Irish government appointed an advisory group of historians for a Decade of Commemorations in 2012. The building of ‘bridges’ continued in April 2014, when President Michael D. Higgins made the first state visit to the United Kingdom by an Irish Head of State. At a banquet at Windsor Castle, the Queen spoke about the upcoming centenary anniversaries of events such as World War I and the 1916 Rising: ‘My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.’ Whilst the prospect of inviting a member of the British royal family to Dublin for the Rising’s centenary was considered afterwards, it was not pursued in the end. The Irish government, it appears, feared that such a high-profile presence would be politically sensitive, pose extra security threats and had the potential to overshadow the historical significance of the event being commemorated.
As Easter 2016 approached, the state’s preparations for the Rising’s centenary intensified. The Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme, which was launched in Dublin’s General Post Office in November 2014, aimed at working collectively ‘to remember, reconcile, imagine, present and celebrate our Republic in 2016’. By March 2016, a programme of around 3,000 events was in place nationally, supplemented by at least another 1,000 events internationally (in c. 100 cities around the world, including London). The content of the multi-faceted programme was centred around three themes: Remember, Reflect and Reimagine.
In addition to input from the government and local authorities, the programme also featured a significant level of involvement from cultural and educational institutions, Irish language organisations, local communities and the Diaspora. Funding was given to seven flagship capital projects, including the development of a new interpretative centre at the GPO in Dublin, to serve as permanent reminders of the anniversary. On Easter Sunday, 27 March 2016, the centenary was commemorated with a military parade in Dublin (see Figure 3). A total of 3,722 Defence Forces personnel marched along a 4.5km-long parade route, watched by over 250,000 spectators. The overall consensus following the Easter commemorations was that the state had marked the occasion in a dignified, respectful, inclusive and imaginative fashion. As The Irish Times reported, the centenary ‘enabled people to gather, tell stories and celebrate in the way that meant most to them’.
Mark McCarthy is Lecturer and Programme Chair in Heritage Studies at the Department of Heritage and Tourism, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). His book, Ireland’s 1916 Rising: Explorations of History-Making, Commemoration & Heritage in Modern Times (Ashgate, 2012), was shortlisted for the Geographical Society of Ireland’s Book of the Year Award.