The Centenary doesn’t matter. It’s nice and pleasant for academics in elbow patches to be relevant for a while and hear Liam Neeson reading out history and children chatting about war in their innocent way.
The most significant effect is how the events of Easter 1916 are now attracting more attention than those of 2016. It’s troubling. If you stand back and consider it, the two Irelands a century apart have worrying similarities. The country has no government and matters in London affect the future far more than domestic affairs. Brexit may not be as seismic as the Great War, but its effect on Europe would be profound if Britain votes to leave.
The Centenary also won’t have the same effect as the half-Centenary did. The sombre 1966 version stirred up such myths and emotion around Republicanism, it arguably helped cause the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland in 1969. The IRA recruited using a sort of martyrdom-chic that has its origins in Padraig Pearse’s revolution.
If you enter a home along the border that has a Proclamation on the wall, you know it’s that of a Sinn Féiner or IRA supporter. One of the true successes of the Centenary has been the reclaiming of this and other symbols through a well-organised and engaging programme in schools like Proclamation Day and Flags for Schools.
The major accomplishment of the Centenary is the boost to the Dublin economy through foreign and domestic tourism. Columnist Gene Kerrigan has been scathing of this “fumbling in a greasy till” exploitation in his polemic. Unfortunately among those profiting from the busy 1916 book trade is Kerrigan himself, who’s account “The Scrap” is still on sale for 16.99 in all good bookshops. And some crap ones as well.
The bustling market for Rising-related documentaries, live events and memorabilia is largely positive. The sight of mainly-Irish tourists attending museums, walks and tours is encouraging. It’s a sign that social media hasn’t turned the entire populace into keyboard-squatting halfwits who tuck into Kardashian flavoured ice-cream just yet. History is more important to the Irish people than we might have predicted.
Amid the heavy commercialisation of the anniversary it’s harder than ever to imagine a time when citizens were willing to die for their country. Can you imagine any of today’s youth in their Premier League-star haircuts and Hollister tops texting their mums profound and prescient messages about the future of Ireland while waiting for dawn executions?
Who could blame them? The mythology and eulogising of these brave heroes executed by the British State does not allow for questioning the pointlessness of their sacrifice. Contrary to what 20th Century poems and songs had sewn into public conscience, these deaths were in vain. History may have changed, but the rebels died and that was the end of everything for them. Brave sacrifice is wanton stupidity, but it’s impolite to speak the truth about bravado.
Young men of the same age as Rising volunteers today worship sports stars. They are the 21st Century male icons, a never-ending queue of money-grabbing borderline perverts who have little capacity for independent thought and who’s tiny cosmos of gyms and hotels is so insular they have nothing of value to say to the world.
There have been high-minded attempts by broadcasters and media to ask ‘where are we as a country today?’. It’s the sort of ponderous guff that passes as debate. The usual people are trotted out on the usual panels. The bland and mundanity of click-bait columnists follow suit.
Where is the real debate about what might have been if Ireland never had its damned Rising? Pearse’s revolution led to the division of Ireland which led to 30 years of murder and mayhem in the North. It led to the rise of the Catholic Church achieving near-totalitarian control. That led to the torture and abuse of thousands of children.
It led to social regression and the denigration of the rights of women and minorities. It led to a catastrophic culture of greed and corruption that infected every institution in our society. It seeped into politics, business, banking, policing, religious orders, media, sporting organisations, even charities.
It led to anyone ever found at the helm of mass wrongdoing rewarded with a life of State-funded comfort. Bishops, nuns and clergy who moved abusers and shielded them from justice still live in mansions with servants. Politicians, bankers and business leaders who created the economic crash and ruined the lives of thousands enjoy massive pensions funded by those they hurt most.
1916 led to the aching mystery of what might have been if we left British rule peacefully, some decades later, less divided and with our underbelly of cultural identity intact.
The Centenary has been handled like an abstract history essay with no overarching lesson. It’s like a President Higgins speech; we nod along and pretend to know what the huge words mean and that the long-winded sentences have any relevance. Polite and meaningless words, like Mr Yeats said.
Revisionists like John Bruton and others have used the anniversary to stir up nonsense that gets them headlines and angry comments at the bottom of the Internet. RTÉ provided hit and miss offerings with dreadful drama alongside excellent documentaries. Bizarre moments like a photoshoot of its main broadcasters in period costume or having “Sir” Bob Geldof commentate on the Rising highlight the noisy and uneven manner in which Ireland is looking back on its history.
The haphazard clatter has dulled the senses. Rather than asking what happened or what might have happened or what happens next, why not look at what’s happening NOW? Here’s a start; we’re a rudderless basket case and may simply be incapable of ruling ourselves.
Perhaps we’re better off outsourcing central political power in a way that allows us maintain our own separate cultural undercurrent. It was after all, the British refusal to allow a Gaelic revival and permit the Irish to find and recreate its own identity, that ultimately “hurled the little streets upon the great”.
Ireland loves its past with its death and numbers in denominations of 100s. We’re not very good at doing the present. But there has never been a better time to start.
Published in The Sunday Business Post on Easter Sunday March 27th 2016