Relative rows over Rising commemorations echo 1966 war of words

Opinion: Capital projects offer a chance to redress cultural neglect

Over the next year and a half there will undoubtedly be many rows about the tone of 1916 commemorations, the politics underpinning them and the parades, jamborees and people associated with them.

There are also likely to be continuing complaints from 1916 relatives’ groups about consultation, sacred revolutionary sites and the balance to be struck between the recognition given to the cultural, social, political and military dynamics of Ireland 100 years ago. There is nothing new in such rows.

Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke, the eldest signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, tormented taoiseach Seán Lemass in the run-up to the 50th anniversary commemorations in 1966. She wrote to him as “the only widow alive of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation” and righteously declared, “I know more about the events both before and after the Rising than anyone now alive”.

She demanded a central role in the commemorations and, further, insisted that her husband, not Patrick Pearse, had been president of the Republic in 1916. Pearse, she said, had “wanted to grab what was due to others . . . surely Pearse should have been satisfied with the honour of Commander-in-Chief when he knew as much about commanding as my dog . . . I had not intended raising the issue in public but I shall be forced to come out very strongly in public if the powers that be attempt to declare Pearse as President”.


Don’t look back

Lemass was weary at this stage and not enamoured of looking back. He exhorted his fellow citizens in advance of the commemorations to “forget the Island of the Sean Bhean Bhocht and think of Ireland of the technological expert”.

He had to look to one of his ministers, Jack Lynch, for advice on how to bat away Clarke, but it emerged her son did not agree with her and accepted the official version of Pearse as president, a reminder that unanimity among relatives is not guaranteed during commemorations.

Despite this, Clarke lined up formidable supporters for her view, including Muriel MacSwiney, the widow of War of Independence martyr Terence, who died on hunger strike in Brixton prison in 1920.

In 1966, there were heated criticisms of was characterised as the betrayal of the ideals of 1916 by the State commemorations. Critics included Irish language groups, artists and disgruntled republicans; the Labour movement smarted at being sidelined during the events.

Culturally, there were robust challenges to any sense of complacency. For all the emphasis on the notion of the poetic Rising, Dublin Magazine maintained, "If we are prepared to confront realities we must surely admit that from a cultural point of view Ireland is a disgrace". It was regarded as humiliating that the Northern Ireland Arts Council received double the funding the Republic did.

Updated versions of these themes, rows and developments are already evident and more are likely to transpire in the near future (have we heard the last about a possible British royal visit in 2016?). As things stand, debate about the cultural dimension is particularly noteworthy.

Amid all the gloss and dross associated with the recent launch of the Government's "Framework Programme" for marking the centenary of the Rising, and the reaction to the historically illiterate and vacuous video Ireland Inspires (at least it inspired laughter and added to the gaiety of the nation), mention was made of the capital projects the Government has committed itself to supporting, to the tune of €22 million. This is a significant sum in straitened times and will result in, among other things, an interpretative centre in the GPO, the refurbishment of Kilmainham Gaol and a new Military Archives building.

There are also welcome indications that the Government might use the commemoration to make amends for the shabby treatment of our cultural institutions – a number of which predate the Rising – in recent years.

Minister of State at the departments of Justice and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, who will have some input into the commemorations, made the refreshingly honest admission on RTÉ radio last weekend that in the past few years “we have sidelined the whole cultural side of Ireland. That has been a massive mistake . . . we have denuded the sense of citizenship.”

The period of commemoration, he suggested, offered a chance to confront that mistake and make amends for it.

It is important that relatives and other interested parties are consulted in relation to 2016, because they have some very good ideas, but it is also incumbent on them not to place themselves on a pedestal and indulge in a hectoring piety.

The State also needs to oversee dignified formal events, and communities need to conceive and control their own initiatives. But it is unlikely that consensus will prevail. For all the coming rows, the capital projects at least have the potential to go some way towards doing justice to the sentiments expressed by Ó Riordáin.