DUBLIN >> A century on from the 1916 Easter Rising, a critical moment in Ireland’s quest for independence from Britain, the event continues to polarize opinion in Ireland and beyond. Some regard it as undemocratic treachery, others as a heroic act of selflessness whose legacy remains unfulfilled.
The armed revolt by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army against British rule began on April 24 and lasted only five days before its ruthless suppression, but it still casts a shadow over the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The rebellion commanded little popular support at the time, but the decision by the British authorities to execute the ringleaders would prove to be the catalyst for the partition of the island and the formation of an independent state in the south.
It has been impossible to avoid the centenary commemorations in Ireland over the past month. Every school has been presented with the national flag, re-enactments have taken place in the streets of the capital, the state broadcaster RTE has peppered its schedule with historical dramas and documentaries, and on Easter Sunday there was a military parade past the center of the rebellion, the General Post Office, one of the key locations in Dublin seized by the rebels.
Events like those are part of most such celebrations in many countries. But here they have been arranged so as to minimize offense to Northern Ireland unionists, whose forebears swore to resist a united Ireland by force, and to Britain, Ireland’s former ruler and biggest trading partner. Many people in Britain still regard the uprising as a stab in the back in the middle of World War I, in which hundreds of thousands of Irishmen fought and died.
Moreover, unlike other nations that celebrate difficult birth pangs, Ireland retains a sense of unfinished business. The echoes of three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland have receded far enough for the events of a century ago to be applauded, but there is also concern that celebrating the actions of individuals who pursued their goals by military means is dangerous ground.
Despite the republic’s violent origins in the rising, those living here have shown little appetite for unification by force. In 1999, the electorate voted overwhelmingly to drop a constitutional claim — largely symbolic — to the entire island, acknowledging that a united Ireland can now come about only through the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
The authorities on both sides of the border have expressed concern that dissident republicans remain intent on marking the centenary with a bloody act of defiance. Last month, Stephen Martin, the assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, described the threat of a significant terrorist attack as at “the upper end of severe.”
“I believe there are people within dissident republican groupings who want to mark this centenary by killing police officers, prison officers and soldiers,” he said.
A new memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin epitomizes the contentious nature of the government’s efforts to steer a middle course.
The memorial, the Necrology Wall, lists the names of 488 people who were killed in the uprising. The names of rebel combatants and executed leaders are juxtaposed on reflective black marble stones with the names of the British troops who died while putting down the rebellion and civilians who were caught up in the conflict.
At the official unveiling of the monument this month, John Green, the chairman of the Glasnevin Trust, which administers the cemetery, said the memorial was an appropriate way to remember all those who died.
“One hundred years on we believe this memorial reflects the time we live in, with the overwhelming majority of the Irish people wishing to live in peace and in reconciliation, but it is for each visitor to take from the wall what they wish,” he said.
Robert Ballagh, a prominent artist and political activist, is among those who would love to take it away altogether.
“I call it the Wall of Shame,” he said. “I find it unbelievable that the authorities would do it.”
“If you walk the length of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., you will fail to see a single Viet Cong soldier, and in London’s Whitehall I see no move afoot to commemorate those ‘unfortunate’ Luftwaffe pilots who were shot down during the Blitz.”
Ballagh is one of the main organizers of Reclaim the Vision of 1916, a group formed two years ago to highlight what it sees as the failure of successive governments to realize the ambitions set out in the egalitarian proclamation issued by the rebels.
“The state commemorations were an exercise in exclusion — the people were reduced to the role of mere spectators as the military parade passed them by,” he said. “They were all about providing a photo op for political leaders rather than facing the reality that successive governments have failed to fulfill the aspirations of the proclamation.”
One of these unfulfilled aspirations was a united Ireland. After the partition, Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland felt largely abandoned by their southern counterparts and endured decades of prejudice in an entity that regarded them with deep suspicion.
Nationalist voices from Northern Ireland have been largely absent from the state coverage of the commemorations. That does not surprise Patricia MacBride, a public affairs consultant and former head of the Commission for Victims and Survivors, a state body in Northern Ireland that deals with legacy issues arising from the conflict.
“The authorities do not want to deal with the fact that the point of 1916 was to free Ireland from British rule,” she said. “It is an uncomfortable truth.”