Photo by Maxwells/Irish Government. Getty Images.

What are we celebrating, anyway?

The Easter Rising Centenary celebrations in Dublin are controversial to say the least.


The banners are still up, but the newly-minted glow of pride is fading, as Dublin returns to a brusque normality after a week spent celebrating the national ideal. One hundred years after the 1916 Easter Rising — an armed insurrection against British rule, which ultimately led to country’s independence,— Ireland came together here to “remember, reflect, [and] reimagine” the country’s past and future. The thoroughfares thronged on Easter Sunday, as a parade showcased not only the military capacity of this neutral, windswept nation, but all the apparatus of state to go with it — the prison service, the coastguard, the civil defence. On O’Connell Street, the city’s main avenue Government ministers and the figurehead president, Michael D. Higgins, laid wreaths and performed the appropriate rituals. The army band played the national anthem, and tears were shed at their rendition of Danny Boy. The rain, a ubiquitous element of the Irish Spring, held off until seconds after the parade ended.

On Easter Monday, the national broadcaster, RTÉ, presided over the biggest civic  in the history of Ireland, with four important areas pedestrianised to allow people to enjoy free entertainment, food stalls, and the company of their compatriots. All things considered, the weekend appeared a dignified triumph, a new statement of the national project. That the weekend was so unanimously considered a success was a testament to the anxieties swirling around it. The vague threat of a terror attack was only one such worry. More broadly, the whole idea of celebrating 1916 had been accompanied by disputes about time and space, about the nature of history and deeply held beliefs, since the commemorations themselves were launched. What were we celebrating, anyway?

Everything in Dublin comes complete with a bit of ambiguity. The city has been heralded in recent decades as an epitome of a modern, cosmopolitan, European metropolis. Grand, colonial-era facades and welcoming red-brick buildings have been joined by sleek, glass-fronted office spaces and apartments. After nearly a decade of recession, construction cranes dot the skyline once more, accompanied by a fear of another property bubble.


Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916. Photo courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Much has been made of the fact that the Irish have become more liberal, moving away from the stultifying submission to the Catholic Church that marked most of the twentieth century. Yet, for many, the whims of the godly still appear pervasive. Debates about abortion, or Church patronage of schools, are a near-constant. Easter weekend provides one of the more clear-cut examples. Many people spend Good Friday thinking about something a good deal less solemn than the death of Christ: alcohol. No mere tired thrashing-out of a national stereotype, Good Friday is the only day of the year in which it is illegal to sell it. Before off-licences close on the Thursday at 10pm, lengthy queues form as students and twenty-somethings stock up on cans and bottles for the following night. On Friday itself, the normally bustling tourist trap of Temple Bar, a cultural quarter turned extended watering hole, features more than one bewildered group of tourists wondering why all the pubs are closed. For once, the only drinks left on the ground are discarded cardboard coffee cups.

Just as the relics of a religious past hover over Irish people’s liberty to drink on Catholic festivals, the 1916 commemorations inevitably contain shadows of a past many would rather forget. Compared to the foundational violence of other countries around the world, Ireland’s revolutionary period has stubbornly refused to make the transition from politics to history. This year, for the first time, the two political parties which arose out of the state’s creation, Fianna Fáil (‘the soldiers of destiny’) and Fine Gael (‘the race of the Gaels’), received less than 50% of the vote between them in a general election. The party which came third, Sinn Féin, are a more radical party of leftist nationalists. The campaign featured toxic exchanges relating to their seemingly lingering associations with the Provisional IRA. Dissident republican groups who reject the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and deny the legitimacy of the Irish state, still occasionally murder people in Northern Ireland, claiming to be the heirs of the 1916 Rising, and to derive their authority from them. In the weeks leading up to the commemorations, Adrian Ismay, a prison officer in Belfast, was murdered in a bomb attack from such a group. Tension still flares.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Irish state’s relationship to the Rising of 1916 became fraught. As the IRA waged war with unionists and the British in Northern Ireland, celebration of revolutionary violence became problematic. The Irish tricolour came to be associated with paramilitarism, even within the state it stands to represent. Part of the foundational Proclamation which allowed for the suspension of parliamentary democracy, and for the rebels to “administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people” until such a permanent government could be established, gave ammunition to dissidents rejecting the authority of the State. Thus, for various reasons, the Irish government was inevitably wary of staging a commemoration that could be seen as too triumphalist, too much in thrall to the glorification of bloodshed. There is also a significant chunk of Irish opinion which doubts the validity of the Rising at all, thinking it better to celebrate the achievements of Irish parliamentarians who achieved progress by peaceful means. Patsy McGarry, a well-known newspaper columnist says that “on every level I can think of, the 1916 Rising was unjustified, and indeed immoral.”

The old Joycean line about history being ‘a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ rings especially true on occasions like this. Ireland is still a contested space, both physically and in the abstract.

In the lead-up to Easter weekend, there is more ostentatious signalling of Irishness than Dubliners are used to. Overall, the amount of plastic tat aimed at tourists is normally remarkably low in the city. The Irish display their national pride in subtler ways than most, evidenced by a reluctance to sing the national anthem at sporting events, or, even now, to brandish the tricolour as a statement of identity. At Carroll’s Irish Gifts, the main purveyors of tourist-oriented gimmickry, the usual ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’ t-shirts are found among trinkets commemorating the Rising and its leaders. On Grafton Street, at Weir & Sons jewellers, one of the city’s oldest, specially-made commemorative coins sell for the hefty price of €1916, celebrating, a “pivitol [sic] moment in Irish history.”

In honor of the occasion, significant buildings are draped with banners relating to aspects of the Rising. The City Council’s main offices feature an image of the Proclamation. The executed leaders, or significant women from the revolutionary period, adorn others. Along the quays of the Liffey, flags line up in pairs brandishing the colours of the national flag. Green, white. Orange, green. White, orange.

And yet, the old ghosts of the past are everywhere. The old Joycean line about history being “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” rings especially true on occasions like this. Ireland is still a contested space, both physically and in the abstract. One of the banners put up for the commemorations, on the building which was the Irish parliament in the 18th  century, features four great figures from the Irish parliamentary tradition, including Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Liberator,’ who fought for Catholic Emancipation in the 1820s, and Charles Stewart Parnell, ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’, a nationalist leader who died in 1892. The argument is that, as representatives of Irish nationalism’s ‘constitutional’ tradition, they have as much a right to be celebrated during Easter week as men like Pearse and Connolly. This resulted in considerable controversy. The organizers were accused of whitewashing the event’s history, as three of the four men depicted were long dead in 1916, and none approved of political violence. The fourth, John Redmond, became infamous for exhorting Irish men to join the British army in 1914, after Ireland had been granted a devolved parliament in 1912. A few days before the commemorations, an activist group sprayed ‘35000’ across Redmond’s face, the number of Irish who died in the War, and whose blood, it is claimed, is on his hands. To many republicans, the man remains a hate figure.


A crowd in Dublin during the Easter Rising Centenary Celebrations. Photo by Maxwells/Irish Government. Getty Images.

In the courtyard of that same building, on Easter Monday, the proclamation of the Irish Republic was read out by actors as part of a huge civic event staged by RTÉ. The echoes of conflict weren’t too far away. On O’Connell St., just north across the Liffey, a march met with a series of proceedings organized to remind people of that very fact. Republican Sinn Féin, a Sinn Féin splinter group who flaunt their links to terrorist activity, marched to the General Post Office to perform their own ceremony in the midst of the milling crowds. The incident passed off peacefully, but was a potent reminder that there are still some for whom the rhetoric of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is more powerful than the realities of contemporary life.

The final event of the State’s commemorations took place on 3 April  in Glasnevin cemetery, in the north of Dublin. A wall was unveiled honouring all who died in the Rising. Men, women, children, martyred rebels, British soldiers and innocent bystanders are all presented side-by-side, chronologically marking the date on which they died. For many, this act of reconciliatory symbolism was anathema. Comparisons were drawn with SS members being honoured in a memorial to the Holocaust. The absurdity of such a comparison merely highlights the heightened emotion which still swirls and eddies around Ireland’s relationship to its past. Outside, another tiny dissident group staged a protest, burning a Union Jack and engaging in scuffles with the Gardaí. A 15-year old was arrested. For all the solemn, dignified remembrance, it remains hard to say whether Ireland has fully awoken from the nightmare of history.