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20 April 2006 Edition

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1916-2006: Different atmosphere for 75th anNiversary

ROBERT BALLAGH

ROBERT BALLAGH

Reclaiming the Spirit of Easter

When I read that the Government intended restoring the military parade in Dublin to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising a wry smile formed on my face; I still retained clear memories of the remarkable experience of those brave souls who dared commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Rising fifteen years before.

In early 1990 a group of concerned citizens, aware that the Government seemed determined to ignore the anniversary, decided to take steps to ensure that the event was properly celebrated. I signed up to this initiative which took as its title "Reclaim the spirit of Easter".

My own reasons were both personal and complex. For many years I found myself dismayed by an intellectual atmosphere that had been allowed to develop that appeared to be driven by a kind of self-loathing. As a reaction to the conflict in the North, many southern politicians and "thinkers" constructed a whole new way of seeing Ireland and the Irish. Nationalists were portrayed as negative, uncooperative and recalcitrant while hard line unionists were lionised by a sycophantic Dublin media. In this scenario the British played the role of a benevolent and frustrated neighbour attempting to separate two feuding delinquents.

Anyone who still clung to the point of view that branded British imperialism in Ireland as either a fact or a bad thing was dimissed as old-fashioned, narrow minded and of course, soft on violence.

In the 1980's those who were engaged in the creation of this anti-national bias were greatly assisted by Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, the most draconian piece of political censorship operating in Europe at the time.

The final straw came for me, when a Belfast actor I knew, told me that he had auditioned for a part in an RTE drama but had been turned down on the basis that RTE felt that a Northern accent was too threatening! I thought - enough is enough, and decided, there and then, to do something about this ridiculous situation. I felt certain that the impending 75th anniversary could provide me with a unique opportunity to challenge such feelings of guilt and self-hatred.

In 1990 when I became involved with the "Reclaim the Spirit of Easter" project I viewed it as a perfectly reasonable vehicle for cultural and historical reclaimation. Imagine my surprise when someone quite casually remarked, during the course of a committee meeting, that the Special Branch were outside.

I wrote to the Chief Superintendent of the Gardaí to say that, while the police had the right to maintain surveillance on certain groups in certain circumstances, what we were experiencing, was in my opinion, more to do with clocking up overtime than in maintaining the security of the state.

As Easter approached, public interest in the 75th anniversary began to swell, stimulated I would suggest by our robust defence of 1916 and our determination to organise an adequate commemoration. However this public influence came at a price.

Senator Shane Ross stated "The Reciam the Spirit of 1916 group is menacing", and that the 1916 celebrations could be "hijacked by the Provsional IRA or one of its front organisations". Desmond O'Malley, a Government Minister, suggested we "served the interests of the Provisional IRA".

Easter Sunday was chosen by the Government for the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising. They invited some surviving veterans of the Rising but managed to insut them by making no travel arrangements for them to attend. Some in fact were infirm, also one stayed away as a protest at what he saw as the current politicians' betrayal of 1916. At the end of the short cermony, as the President moved to depart, some of the veterans struggled to their feet in order to shake the hand of their President, only to be dissapointed by officials whisking her past to her state car. Sadly, nobody had thought of such a simple way of honouring the veterans.

Eilish O'Regan wrote in the Sunday Independent "the guarded gestures of commemoration which marked last week's official rememberance of Easter 1916 were ousted yesterday in favour of a rousing and unfettered celebration of the Rising," and Trish Hegarty in The Irish Times observed that "even the rain could not dampen the spirit of 1916 as thousands took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising in a lively, colurful, dramatic, musical manner which contrasted starkly with the state's short and sombre event on easter Sunday."

The Day got off to a damp start with an open air concert at the top of Parnell Square, where musicians entertained groups, and individuals from all over Ireland, from Britain and from the US before the parade itself set off down O'Connell Street, lead by a pipe band. As it progressed along its route, actors proclaimed extracts from the speeches of many of the leaders of the period at various points along the way.

When the huge parade finally arrived at the G.P.O. , "committee chairman Robert Ballagh" according to Steve S. Scott, "gave a fiery speech, condemning the political, business and media establishmentt" which had tried to block the event at every turn. He said they had underestimated the patriotism of the people.

The speech was followed by a satirical pagent written and produced by Tomas Mac Anna. According to The Irish Times it was "the highlight of the day, giving a dramatic and humorous presentation of what the organisers saw as the concerted attempt to write 1916 out of Irish history." "a mock funeral procession, led by a piper, with Éire R.I.P. inscribed on the coffin lid, marched slowly on stage. Actors symbolising the political, legal and academic elements who wanted to bury Irish nationalism were portrayed in a biting satire that had the huge audience in stitches". "I'm personifying all of the T.D. who have diluted the Proclamation, consigning Caithlín Ní Houlihan to the grave" said an uncannily Dev-like Frank Kelly, while waiting to go on stage. Mark Lambert played a revisionist professor who suggested that "our school history books should contain a short paragraph to show coming generations how destructive and un-Irish the whole event was". The final speaker was a judge, played by Kevin Reynolds, who confirmed that the Rising was completely "illegal". But they were all silenced as the coffin burst open and a woman symbolising Ireland emerged in a bright constume. The proceedings ended with the singing, by the large crowd, of Amhrán na bhFiann which echoed the length of O'Connell St. and beyond.

So, in spite of all the intimidation, harassement and misinterpretation, I'm proud to say that the Reclaim the Spirit Group succeeded admirably in its main objective and that was to ensure that the 75th Anniversary was celebrated in an appropriate fashion.

• 1991 - Reclaim the Spirit Group succeeded admirably in its main objective and that was to ensure that the 75th Anniversary was celebrated in an appropriate fashion

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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