Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland | Published: 17 March, 2017
ISSUE 12 | Pages: 140-150 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-6957
2017 by Feargal Whelan | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
This paper will survey the means employed by various bodies within Ireland to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising and argue that the various competing events combined to expose paradoxes of attitudes and behaviours at the heart of Irish society, and also interrogated the very methods of traditional commemoration which might be useful when a country revisits histories which are contentious and conflicted. An exhaustive survey is not intended rather it will focus more precisely on the street spectacle of the various parades and participatory events, and on two site-specific theatrical performances which formed part of the official programme. It will also assess the role played by the Abbey Theatre as a crucial central space in both 1916 and 2016, and demonstrate its role in various events.
Este artículo versa sobre las conmemoraciones oficiales en Irlanda, celebradas durante 2016, relativas al centenario del Alzamiento de Pascua de 1916. El autor del trabajo argumenta que dichas celebraciones pusieron de relieve las contradicciones existentes en el seno de la sociedad irlandesa actual, al tiempo que impulsaron una reflexión sobre los métodos que tradicionalmente se emplean para recordar eventos del pasado. Sin la intención de ofrecer una panorámica completa de todos los actos conmemorativos celebrados en Irlanda en 2016, este artículo se fija especialmente en algunos desfiles y en destacados actos públicos, incluyendo representaciones teatrales que recrearon los sucesos de 1916. El papel del Abbey Theatre como símbolo del sentimiento imperante durante el conflicto de hace un siglo, y su papel en la sociedad irlandesa de hoy en día, será igualmente analizado.
Alzamiento de Pascua; 1916; centenario; conmemoración; representación; Abbey Theatre
2016 provided a momentous year for commemoration in Ireland. It marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising in which a group of Irish volunteer rebels took control of the centre of Dublin city and declared a republic independent of The United Kingdom of which Ireland was a part. The insurgents survived a fierce military engagement with the British army for six days before surrendering. All those involved were jailed and 16 of the leaders were executed. This moment has been regarded as a crucial moment in the cause of Irish freedom and a glorious event in the nation’s history. Therefore, its celebration was always going to be an important affair. Yet the moment of the Easter Rising has many contradictions attached to it, and equally, any attempt to commemorate it has shown up these difficulties and coincidentally exposed the enormous and continuing paradoxes at the centre of Irish political and cultural life in the twenty first century. The coming of 2016 and with it the anniversary of the events of 1916 as they affected Ireland provided the Irish government with, at once, an opportunity but also a palpable problem in relation to how it should mark the centenary. It was an opportunity to celebrate the Easter Rising which, it is generally accepted, led eventually to the foundation of the independent state of Ireland in 1921, and it was an opportunity to re-examine those contentious events from a vantage point which benefitted from the distance of passed time with the self-confidence derived from a modern, well-established nationhood. Yet it also presented the problem of selecting what was to be officially commemorated. The Easter Rising may be one of the founding myths of the Irish nation but 1916 also witnessed the Battle of the Somme, not only the modern founding myth of Ulster Protestant resistance but a ferocious World War One engagement in which thousands of Catholic Irishmen fought, many of whom were committed Irish Nationalists of varying degrees, and whose experience had effectively been erased from official memory. By focusing on the various events, scrutiny of the aims of objectives of those who had fought would naturally be addressed and how they might have been achieved or denied brought to account. Given the difficult history, especially with the fractious events in Northern Ireland in the intervening years, with its current hard-won, if fragile, peace, it was a rational fear that stirring up those moments might have an effect of restoring tribalist behaviour among the communities involved.
The need for the commemoration of specific historic events is apparent within broad Irish culture and in itself throws up a contradiction between what it is that is being commemorated and the contemporary reason for the commemoration in the first place. As Emilie Pine observes, “The Irish cultural obsession with the past is an imperfect form of remembering” (2011:16) suggesting that in the process of commemorating, until now at least, it seems unclear if the actual historic event is the one being brought to mind. Declan Kiberd further illuminates this inherent contradiction by arguing that there is a tension between celebrating the past at the expense of the present in how history is recalled in Ireland: “The penchant for commemoration is a tell-tale sign of a community which, pained by the process of unequal development, has difficulty in adjusting to modernity. Yet the nationalism to which it appeals is modern in the sense that it rejects a dynamic traditionalism and seeks to abort the historical process” (1996: 294). An understanding of the latent problems in previous manifestations of Irish commemoration, as evidenced in these critiques, may well have informed the decision taken by the Government in 2012 to fix a shape on the official events which would mark the various centenaries which were to occur over the following years, beginning with the enactment of the Home Rule Bill in 1912 and concluding with the founding of the Free State in 1922. An expert group comprising ten historians was appointed to aid an all-party committee of politicians to provide for “the development of access to historical records and primary sources from the time period, and for working with local and national cultural bodies to bring forward a series of exhibitions and public discussions” (Decade of Centenaries 2012). A clear declaration from the group relating to the even-handedness and inclusivity which would underpin all events suggests strongly that there was a belief that past commemorations had failed to be inclusive of the whole of the population and that they may have served to inflame subversion within the state. It is worth quoting the statement in full:
The commemoration will be measured and reflective, and will be informed by a full acknowledgement of the complexity of historical events and their legacy, of the multiple readings of history, and of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the Irish historical experience. There must be full acknowledgement of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the overall story and of the different ideals and sacrifices associated with them. Official events must within reason be inclusive and non-partisan, but the State should not be expected to be neutral about its own existence. The aim should be to broaden sympathies, without having to abandon loyalties, and in particular recognising the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost. (Decade of Centenaries 2012)
This detailed declaration suggests a certain nervousness on behalf of the State not to be overtly triumphalist or even celebratory, and seems to have been tempered by the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of 1966 in which the events were to be celebrated through “re-enactment” in a grand pageant at Croke Park Stadium which was seen to project a particularly uncritical view of the insurrection and tended to focus on the heroism of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, elevating their status at the expense of others involved (Roche 2007; Daly 2007). As a consequence, it was felt that the 2016 celebrations should be “inclusive” of all traditions, by which it meant to include those who had also opposed the Rising, or had been perceived as doing so. Thus, the aims of the expert board outlined their view of how to appeal to the various interests by implicitly expressing their fears for what might arise from a lack of even-handedness:
The goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation in commemorations for events such as the 1916 Rising or the opening of the parliament in Northern Ireland, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations which remember the past while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not re-ignite old tensions. (Decade of Centenaries 2012)
The result of this approach was a greater emphasis than before on the events of the First World War from 1916 which had involved the greater number of Irishmen than the events on Irish soil. Inevitably, the protracted Battle of the Somme became a recurring feature. This was a novel approach as evidenced by Emilie Pine’s observation as recently as 2011:
Within a nationalist context the Irish soldiers of the Great War have often been forgotten in the larger purpose of remembering Easter 1916, while in a unionist context the entirety of experiences of the Great War has been refined into the remembrance of the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. While these are two very different and, indeed, mutually exclusive mythologies, they emerge from a very similar decision to construct and commemorate the past in political terms. (2011: 127)
Rehearsing the Rising
There are many contradictions at the heart of the events of 1916 in Ireland. For various reasons, the uprising was not a particularly popular revolution when it initially happened. Firstly, it took place in the middle of World War I when around two hundred thousand Irishmen were fighting for the British Army in the trenches of France and Belgium. Many these men had left poor families behind sustained only by what the men earned as soldiers. Any attack on the British Empire was felt by these dependents as an attack on them and on their incomes.
Even within the group of Irish volunteers who were to carry out the rebellion, only a fraction actually took part because of a disagreement among the leadership on the day. Although it was planned and executed as a military operation, and most of the leadership prepared for a victory in the short term, in reality it was a military disaster as the soldiers occupied large important buildings which they could never defend properly. While it has to be admitted that among the leaders there were those who intended the action to achieve a certain military success, in the eyes of Pearse, in particular, the greater achievement was to be had in the impact of action itself and even in its inevitable failure. For Pearse, the plan had as much to do with being a theatrical performance which would be doomed to failure rather as it had a battle which would have a chance of success.
Another great contradiction, of course, is that 1916 is not even the actual date of Irish independence. Although it certainly was a catalyst on the path to independence, this was not finally achieved until 1922, following two years of a guerrilla war which took place in various locations throughout the country. Even then, what resulted was the independence only in a part of the country and the creation of a separate Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom leading to subsequent decades of violence and repression.
Yet 1916 has long been regarded as the high moment of Irish history, in which independence from the British finally began. So, it was long accepted that the one hundredth anniversary of the event would have to be commemorated nationally. But it was also understood that there were dangers in celebrating it without question given its contradictory nature. There were fears that simplistic interpretations of the Rising would be used by certain republican politicians to gain popular support throughout the country. Those nationalists in Northern Ireland who had endured a thirty-year violent struggle for a break with Britain had always regarded 1916 as a supreme moment, and had drawn on its legend to give legitimacy to their own struggle. It was obvious that their means of celebration would differ from the State’s version and would reflect a very different interpretation of history.
What emerged was several very different stories and interpretations of 1916 being played out across Dublin in April of 2016 all in the name of commemorating the same events of Irish history. But in reality, the variety of approaches all seemed to demonstrate how much people could not agree about what had actually happened and what it all meant in a new Ireland. However, if the substance of the narrative could not be agreed upon, the manner through which various groups displayed their part in the commemoration was remarkably similar. Common to almost all public engagements were an unashamed theatricality and a desire to dress up.
The events of 1916 may have had a deeply theatrical nature, and I will assess this later, but this very fact alone cannot seem to account for the willingness for such a large cross section of the population to put on approximations of volunteer uniform, however inaccurate, or appear in vague replicas of generic Victorian dress. Even within the official commemorations, the emphasis on military ceremonial drew attention to the pageantry of parade, uniform and flags, which in turn was replicated by various paramilitary parades of various unofficial, irregular groups.
Playacting or merely dressing up?
The central event of the official State celebration consisted of a military spectacle and a solemn honour of the dead. On Easter Monday, a parade was held in Dublin in which “over 3500 members of the Defence Forces, along with 78 vehicles, 17 aircraft and 5 equitation School horses” took part, comprising “one of the biggest ceremonial events
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