We commonly run through the mythology of the 1916 Easter Rising in our minds: the proclamation of the Republic and the siege of the GPO, the “sanctifying” of the cause of Irish independence in blood, the executions of the leaders, who had been imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, Connolly shot while sitting on a chair due to the grievous injuries he had incurred in the fighting. It has been turned into poems, songs, etc. It has become a shorthand of sorts, for whatever you want it to mean. In the last couple decades that has often been something along the lines of: Pearse was a fanatic with a death-wish and a misguided Romantic notion about self-sacrifice, or was really just a “terrorist” who has provided cover to a whole new generation of terrorists. Now that the war in the North is over, it has suddenly become okay again to celebrate Pearse and the other men and women of 1916. Last year’s gargantuan government commemoration in Dublin, the biggest since the 50th anniversary in 1966, seems to have made it acceptable. Certainly this is a good thing. But think of the smaller marches and gatherings which have always taken place, year after year, which didn’t always have “official” sanction. And of those who wore an Easter lily when to do so immediately identified you as sympathetic to the cause of a united Ireland, when it wasn’t always the PC thing to do. And how much easier it is this year, now that Ian Paisley has sat smiling next to a lily-clad Gerry Adams.
I think of those Sundays in Eyre Square, Galway, at the foot of the statue of Liam Mellowes. (For it was in Co. Galway that Mellowes led the only action of the Rising that occurred outside of Dublin.) A lone piper and someone reading the Proclamation. Somewhere around a hundred people or so – not bad for Galway – to show their regard and to hear a B-list Sinn Féin speaker. Then the march to Bohermore Cemetery, where the obligatory plain-clothes Branchman sat in a compact car, trying to observe who was in attendance. The action of memory has him absentmindedly reading a newspaper, but I’m sure that wasn’t really the case.
Undoubtedly, with the recent events in the North we are just a little bit closer to the aim of a united Ireland, but perhaps as far as ever from the ideals of Proclamation of the Republic. The Rising was led by Pearse, the Gaelicist, and Connolly, the socialist. Though it certainly lives, the Irish language still struggles in competition with English. The gap between rich and poor grows seemingly wider, as Ireland, in emerging from its century-and-a-half-long economic slump, has morphed itself into the latest bastion of the nouveau-riche.
As Roland Barthes, the post-structuralist cultural critic, has pointed out in his Myth Today, “Myth is speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back it was not put exactly in its place.” It wouldn’t be too difficult to identify distortions in the 1916 myth, at the agency of both reactionaries and revolutionaries. But on Easter 1916, a real Pádraig Pearse led a real uprising against a real colonial government, which sailed a real gunboat up the River Liffey, and fired real shells at the centre of Dublin. Real men and women took to the streets and battled real British soldiers. Real bullets fired by those same real British soldiers executed Pearse, Thomas J. Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Ned Daly, Willie Pearse, Michael O’Hanrahan, John MacBride, Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Cornelius Colbert, Seán Heuston, Seán Mac Diarmada, James Connolly, Thomas Kent, and there was a real rope for Roger Casement. Some were real poets.
I admit to being partial to the symbolism of 1916. It appeals to my personal sense of aesthetics. In that way perhaps I am even perpetuating its mythic qualities (and probably this is unavoidable, for an action in history which has been transformed into an image). But underneath the layers of distortions it might still be possible to arrive at some sort of truth about the Rising and what it meant. One might start by rereading the Easter Proclamation. And then also imagining what it could mean for the Ireland of today. The guns have gone. This is a good thing, and one can only hope that Sinn Féin politicians are correct in their analysis that a united Ireland can now be achieved without violence. The question is what kind of Ireland will it be. The Proclamation remains, and cannot be erased. It’s not just paper, but a seed, a representation of a goal and a statement of intent which remains to be fulfilled.