John Steinbeck, who had an Irish mother, once wrote that every good Irishman goes back once. This Irishman must confess that he's been back more than once in the many years since he first left for Australia. But it took 13 years before I could make the first trip, and it is 19 years since I had last set foot on the auld sod in 1997.
Appalled by what I found then with the excesses of the Celtic Tiger and the unthinking and unreasoned embrace being given to unbridled capitalism, I was never anxious to return until this year. This year, on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, there was a personal reason that I should return. My grand-uncle William O'Brien, aged 18 years, was a member of the Boland's Mill garrison during that fateful week.
Above, the colour party assembled by the grave of William O'Brien, December, 12, 2015
Last year, thanks to my nephew Liam O’Briain, a headstone was erected on William’s grave at Dean’s Grange Cemetery in the south of Dublin. Although William had died in 1939, the dispersion of his family had meant that no one had taken the trouble to mark his grave during all those years. And so, in December last year on a cold wet Saturday morning, members of the family and the National Graves Association marched behind a colour party and a lone piper to unveil a small headstone as a tribute to a rebel.
On April 24 this year, exactly 100 years since he and 1,700 comrades made a stand against the might of the British Empire, I stood beside that headstone and reflected on William and his comrades who had challenged one of the greatest empires in the world at that time. I reflected on the fact that in the land that he had fought for, all his family could afford at the time of his death was to inter him in a shared grave. Great care was taken to ensure the names of those others who are buried with him are named on the headstone. We know that would have been his wish.
In 1939, the year William had died, as in 1914, war had again broken out in Europe. But this time there would not be enormous recruitment or encouragement to join the British forces.
Above, the author at the headstone of his grand-uncle William O'Brien, April 24, 2016
Although ‘economic conscription’ was still very much a factor in Ireland, there was little ‘neutrality’ for those without a job who would find themselves working in munitions factories in Britain or fighting as members of the British forces.
Press reports of the funeral tell how the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, was there to show his respect for my grand-uncle, one of the men he had commanded, and that “more than two-hundred-and–fifty 1916 men marched behind the hearse” as it made its way to the cemetery. Many of those in the procession had been his comrades, together with surviving members of other garrisons that knew of his work in Cumann Oglaigh na Casca (Associated Easter Week Men). William O’Brien was a member of the Executive Council and took an active part in the interests of the unemployed members of the Cumann.
Historical accounts say that William, aged 18, was chosen to carry the green flag emblazoned with a gold harp that would be proudly flown above the mills during the fighting. He would maintain his faith in the Republic for the rest of his life. He also took part in the Black and Tan War and his home was raided on several occasions by the British forces.
When Fianna Fail came to power in 1932, William, like many others, had hoped that this would bring change to the gombeen-ridden country that the 26 counties had become since the Free State’s formation in 1922. In its early days, Fianna Fail had offered that hope of change to the “plain people” of Ireland. But that was many years before Charlie and Bertie had converted that party to their own image and likeness.
As I stood by the headstone, I reflected on the fact that William had been one of those lucky enough to survive the War of Independence and the Civil War and had at least had the privilege to die and be buried in Dublin. Many others had struggled for Irish freedom only to find themselves scattered throughout the world, often in the slums of London, Manchester, New York, Chicago and Sydney or Melbourne. Such were my thoughts as I paid my respects.
Remember, Reflect, Reimagine
The other purpose of my visit was less personal. This was to attend the Citizens’ Commemoration Ceremony in O’Connell Street in Dublin. On this — the Rising’s launch date by the secular calendar (April 24) — a “Reclaim the Vision of 1916” event was held, which interspersed re-enactments and historical readings with rousing speeches. The title came from a “citizens’ initiative,” which had been established in 2015 with the support of some relatives of the 1916 leaders. The concept and date of choice was not that new, however. In the demand to make April 24 ‘Republic Day,’ demonstrations had been organised by a group of academics, writers, artists, actors, journalists and trade unionists to commemorate the Rising then as far back as 2010.
Above, a picture of the Citizens' Ceremony, courtesy of The Irish Republic blog, April 24, 2016
All believe that April 24 should be declared Republic Day. Just as July 4 is Independence Day in the USA and Bastille Day, July 14 is a day of national celebration in France. The ludicrous commemoration of the rising at Easter, which is a moveable liturgical feast, has meant that this year there has been a gap of almost 50 days between April 24, 1916, the date of when the Proclamation of the Republic was declared and the execution of James Connolly, the last of the leaders to die, on May 12.
Gradually their efforts have gained more attention, and this year, in conjunction with the National Graves Association, a rally attended by over 50,000 citizens preceded a parade to Glasnevin Cemetery to rededicate a refurbished memorial to the rank-and-file men and women of Easter Week. From across the world, the ‘Wild Geese’ came in their thousands, with over 20 of their own bands to lead them. This stood in stark contrast to the government’s largely unsuccessful 2013 event, dubbed “The Gathering” in a cynical effort to encourage Irish expatriates to return on a holiday to boost the economy. (Details of the event can be seen on the blog site: The Irish Republic.)
On my arrival in Dublin a week prior, I noticed the tricolour flag and the starry plough — the flag of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 — were proudly flying on every lamppost on the way from the airport. As one who remembered well the low-key celebrations on the 50th anniversary in 1966, I asked my friend who was driving, if he thought this was part of a move to “reclaim” the vision of 1916.
“Perhaps. Though it's too early to tell,” he said. “But things are slowly changing, and it looks as though the two main parties are deadlocked after the inconclusive general election in February. People have seen through their pretense of being different.
"Sinn Fein, the independents and many women candidates offered an alternative to the policies of the conservative parties and that’s where the real opposition can now be found.”
This makes that opposition’s 2016 political agenda -- whose overarching themes are “remember, reflect, re-imagine” – all the more relevant.
On April 29, party negotiators (the “cute hoors,” as some call them) for the two main parties reached a three-year "confidence and supply" deal, allowing the formation of a new Fine Gael-Independent cabinet through a de facto relationship with Fianna Fail. An arrangement that has led some to refer to the “civil war” parties as “Fianna Gael.” Even so, Ireland’s politics are very much in a state of flux. In the February election, voters put the system on notice and an independent source says, “Reform of leading institutions, including both houses of the Dáil, is overdue, while the social impact of the debt crisis remains acutely painful.”* Meanwhile, a lack of accountability and opportunity drives many to despair, or to emigrate.
Those who are part of the Diaspora may not be able to influence the politics of the country to any great extent. But the push to make April 24 “Republic Day” is something we can and should support.
* Inside Story: Swinburne Institute for Social Research