Remembering the 1916 Rising: Irish parties have their differences

It was a short rebellion. Only six days. According to the “Book of the 1916 Rising,” a 2006 publication by the Irish Times, 450 people died – 62 Irish rebels, 132 British soldiers and 256 civilians. Beyond that, the British Army imprisoned approximately 3,400 men and women in England and Wales, but soon released 2,000 of them back to Ireland.

Within 12 days, after summary court trials, 15 of the Irish leaders were shot dead by military firing squads at the famous Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. All of them have become heroes in the years since, their deaths memorialized across Ireland by the streets, parks, and train stations named after them.

Short as it was, “The Rising,” as it is called in Ireland, was a seminal event in Irish history. In one sense, it was a continuation of Irish rebellions against British rule that had been going on for centuries. It actually began on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, but its centennial will be celebrated next year on Easter Sunday, March 27.

You would have to be a real student of Irish history to fully appreciate the different approaches that today’s political parties and their politicians are taking to the upcoming commemoration/celebration. Many of the differences stem from old rivalries from that time and the tragic 1922-1923 civil war that still resonates with many parts of the population.

Some of those differences emerge from an abhorrence of the violence that occurred in the past 40 years in the North and a strong desire to put the various conflicts behind today’s Irish society. Some involve demographics, the relatively wealthy versus the underprivileged. There are those who want things to stay the same and those who want change. Some come from a lingering loyalty to the British Crown and some from political posturing about the sides that were taken during those seven years a century ago – The Rebellion, The War of Independence, and the Civil War.

The result of all that is that today’s Irish political parties have taken on different levels of enthusiasm for the celebration. Sinn Fein is the most enthusiastic, promising parades in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and month-long events around the country. Fianna Fail is equally enthusiastic with a full agenda of its own. Fine Gael not quite so.

Fine Gael, the party now controlling the government, proposes to link the commemoration to the World War I battle along the River Somme in France where many Irish, from both North and South, died. Some have proposed inviting British royalty to the events as part of an inclusive, all is forgiven gesture.

These same divisions were present in 1916 when a mix of academics, poets, writers, and pseudo military men decided to challenge the British military in Dublin and around the country. The called themselves the Irish Volunteers. To call them naive would only be partly true; they had few weapons, little military training, but were imbued with a strong drive for Irish Independence.

This was nothing new.

Ireland today owes its existence as an independent nation to the thousands upon thousands of Irish men and women who consistently over hundreds of years agitated, took up arms, fought, and died to remove their land from British rule. The rebellion didn’t just happen in 1916 – it had been going on for centuries.

There is no doubt, however, that Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, was a historic event in the history of Ireland. On that day several thousand men and women, many armed with German rifles, marched to their assigned positions throughout Dublin. Their headquarters was the General Post Office, which is still there on what is now known as O’Connell Street.

The rebels were led by dedicated men, among them those who were executed by a British firing squad on the orders of General John Maxwell, who arrived on April 28 to take charge of British forces. Patrick Pearce was the commanding officer of the Irish Volunteers, and Tom Clark, James Connelly, Joseph Plunkett, Sean MacDermott, Thomas MacDonagh, and Eamon Ceannt were all active leaders and signers of the famous declaration of the new Provisional Irish government that was read from the General Post Office on the first day of the uprising. They and eight others were shot dead after surrendering to Maxwell’s forces.

Though neither took a major role, Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins were among the fighters during the rising and both are venerated as heroes by much of Ireland today. Collins was assassinated during the civil war while de Valera survived to serve a number of terms as president and head of state of the Irish Republic.

But that was all to come. In that spring of 1916, the “rising” was to no avail. British troops swarmed in from England and from the North, and the British Army moved the gunboat Helga up the Liffey River that splits Dublin and relentlessly shelled and bombed the buildings on O’Connell Street. Many were destroyed and much of the area where the rebels were entrenched was leveled. The damage would take years to repair.

The 1916 rebellion was part of a series of events that created the Ireland of today. It will be interesting to see how the Irish people will welcome the celebrations next year.

As Americans, we have no hesitation regarding our commemorations of Patriots Day, Bunker Hill Day, Evacuation Day and, especially, Independence Day, the Fourth of July. We celebrate them.