By Eamonn McNamara
On 24 April 1916, a group of armed men and women occupied the Dublin General Post Office (GPO) while their leader, Pádraig Pearse, read a proclamation declaring an independent Irish Republic. Over the next week, fierce fighting throughout Dublin between 1200 rebels and British soldiers would culminate in the execution of 16 leaders of the rebellion. This week long event has come to be known as the ‘Easter Rising’.
The GPO, pictured here in 2016 [i].
The negative public response to the executions influenced the development of Sinn Féin in 1917, the eventual Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and culminated in the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and the Irish Free State in 1922. In the Irish Republic, the successor to the Irish Free State, the event is seen as the beginning of the road to Irish independence. According to the ‘Discover Ireland’ tourism organisation, this year’s centenary offers the chance for the Irish people to ‘reflect, remember and honour those who lost their lives in the 1916 Rising, as we look toward a brighter future which those pivotal days of rebellion shaped for the Dublin city and our country, 100 years ago this year’ [ii].
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic [iii].
In Northern Ireland, 1916 has a different history, and the year established two important precedents. The example of the proclamation and Rising would inspire future members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as the document claimed that in ‘every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty’ and that ‘Ireland, through us, summons children to her flag and strikes for her freedom’. In the years after 1916, Unionists, those wishing for Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, have focused on commemorating another major event of that year, the Battle of the Somme. During the battle, the Irish 36th (Ulster) Division displayed extraordinary gallantry, suffered enormous losses and many were awarded the Victoria Cross. The battle entered Unionist mythology, a blood sacrifice that proved Ulster’s commitment to the union and the necessity of Northern Ireland remaining a part of it. As Northern Ireland Prime Minister Sir James Craig said in 1922 ‘those who passed away have left behind a great message to all of them to stand firm, and to give away none of Ulster’s soil’ [iv]. Unionists and nationalists saw 1916 as a year in which they had proved their loyalty to the state, the crucial difference being the state to which their sacrifice was offered.
Mural dedicated to the 36th (Ulster Division), Donnegal Pass, 1990 [v].
Mural dedicated to Rising, Falls Road, 2016 [vi].
1966 marked 50 years since both the Rising and the Somme in Northern Ireland. In the nationalist community (those wishing for Northern Ireland become a part of the Irish Republic) tens of thousands attended commemorations around Northern Ireland, and many young people were encouraged to become involved in the resurgent IRA. Indeed, many IRA members later credited the RTÉ’s (Irish National Broadcaster) 1966 television specials as directly influencing their decision to become involved in republicanism [vii]. Unionist outrage at these commemorations was spearheaded by Dr. Ian Paisley, staunch unionist and firebrand preacher, and an icon of the ‘Troubles’. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary group who later that year declared war on the IRA, committed what may be the first paramilitary attacks of the Troubles in 1966 and were promptly declared illegal. The group formulated its name from the 1910s Ulster Volunteers, many of whom fought at the Somme. The first signs of the eventual conflict in Northern Ireland were present in 1966, and it would take until 1998 for the UVF, IRA and other organisations to finally agree to suspend their campaigns of violence.
Ian Paisley, 1966 [viii].
In March 2016, thousands will gather in Dublin to commemorate the Rising and in July, thousands will gather in Belfast to commemorate the Somme. In a sign of the changing times, Arlene Foster, the current First Minister of Northern Ireland, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (founded by Ian Paisley), will attend an event in Dublin discussing the Rising [ix]. The Republic of Ireland’s ambivalence towards the First World War (1914-18) in which tens of thousands of Irishmen served, has begun to shift, as the government plans to commemorate Ireland’s role on the Western Front as it has recently done with the Gallipoli campaign. Relations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and within Northern Ireland have improved greatly in the past 20 years, symbolised by visits to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 and to the United Kingdom by President Michael D. Higgins in 2014. Despite these changes, the legacy of 1916 will continue to be celebrated, commemorated and debated long into the future on both sides of the border. W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘Easter, 1916’ concludes with the haunting and perceptive line that in the Rising ‘A terrible beauty is born’ [x]. When considering the legacy of 1916, 1966 and the Troubles, we may also consider his other timely observation from the same poem, that ‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart’ [xi].
[i] Picture taken by the author, February 2016.
[vi] Picture taken by the author, February 2016.
[vii] Taylor, Peter. The Provos: IRA and Sinn Fein. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.