Talkin’ ’bout a revolution

I should really start doing credits for my blog post titles.  Most of them are ripped off from song lyrics or books.

Well, that’s the internet for you.

Not the dessert penises one though.  That was all mine.


When our destination and timing were confirmed last year it occurred to me that we’d be in Ireland for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  I didn’t know much about this except that it was important and that they haven’t fixed the bullet holes in the walls of the General Post Office yet.  I saw them last time we were in Ireland.  I didn’t know whether the centenary would be a big deal or whether it’s the sort of thing where people vaguely say months later, ‘Oh, I suppose it was a hundred years since the Rising a while ago.  Doesn’t time fly?  Pass the butter please’.  I do remember thinking it’s a shame that the kids wouldn’t be in school before the event because if you go to someone’s country and take advantage of their hospitality and their free Monday lunches and their Marks and Spencers Food Hall then you should show them respect by not being ignorant, you know?  And I wasn’t the one to help them in that area.

I needn’t have worried because yes, it is a big deal and quite hard to miss and yes, at least some of the children are learning about it in school because it turns out to be a series of dates that are important rather than just the one over the Easter holidays.

On Easter Monday 1916 the Rebels went into the GPO on O’Connell Street, the main north-south street through central Dublin.  The GPO is a huge and impressive building and must have seemed impenetrable.  It was business as usual inside and to start with the tellers kept serving customers as they wondered why these tossers were wandering around shouting.  Eventually, though, it became clear that the Rebels meant business and everyone else left them to get on with the serious business of overthrowing the government.  They raised the tricolour flag on the roof and Padraig Pearse stood on the steps and read out their Proclamation of Independence to what seems to have been a small and ambivalent crowd.

Over the course of the next six days the seven leaders commanded 1,000 volunteers (including 200 women) who attacked strategic landmarks – the City Hall, the seat of government in Dublin Castle,  the Magazine Fort (where weapons were kept) and a few inner-city parks and buildings.  To begin with the British had very few armed policemen or soldiers around so the Rebels gained a fair bit of territory quite quickly.  Then it all went custard-shaped.  The British called for reinforcements and 19,000 troops turned up and started fighting back.  As big and fortress-like as the GPO was, it couldn’t stand up to being shelled by gunboats on the river Liffey and all but the facade was destroyed.  The Rebels tunnelled out, saw the bodies on the street, and surrendered.

The seven leaders plus various others were executed in Kilmainham Jail (now a tourist attraction) within the week.

Here’s one of the things I find interesting.  They are now regarded as heroes and the Rebellion as one of the most significant events in the progression towards freedom from the British.  At the time, though, it seems that they were really quite unpopular with their fellow Irishmen and women.  As they announced the Proclamation of Independence on the GPO steps some of the people in the crowd threw stones.  As they were taken to their executions they were spat on.  They certainly weren’t universally supported within Ireland; not even close.

Part of this was because many Irish people had relatives fighting with the British in the Great War taking place at the time and therefore had some feeling of allegiance in spite of past differences.  Also, I suppose, they didn’t want people bringing violence and destruction so close to home, and as one statistic I read claimed that 54% of the dead and wounded at the end were civilians it’s a valid point. Certainly there were 40 children killed including a 2-year-old girl hit by a stray bullet while in her mother’s arms.  Another factor, it seems, was that the population was only 50 years past the famine and the scars lingered.  In our local library at the moment there’s an exhibition showing the diaries kept by a lady named Kathleen King  who lived in the nearby suburb of Dalkey.  She died in about 1978 and among her belongings her family found these very detailed journals which documented the Rising, among other things, from the perspective of the ordinary person.  During the week of the Rising the city’s infrastructure collapsed and Miss King recorded that their household had no access to food.  When the siege ended and deliveries to the shops started again without too much delay there was huge relief because, with the famine in living memory, people had been terrified of it happening again.  For a population severely traumatised relatively recently the prospect of making already hard times harder in the hope of political gain in the distant future was probably a very big ask.  And I’m sure there were other reasons that I haven’t worked out yet.

So how did the people who put their friends and neighbours through all this end up with their statues and memorials decorating the city?  Well.  The British, as it turned out, gifted them with the always-handy PR move of turning them into martyrs.

The British Army reacted with brutal swiftness.  They rounded up thousands of people, some innocent, and took most to internment in England where many were held without trial until an amnesty in 1917.  They executed 16 leaders immediately.  One, Joseph Plunkett, married his fiancee Grace Gifford 8 hours before his death, undoubtedly because of her very fine hairstyle.  Irish people who had previously considered the Rebellion to be a betrayal began to be resentful of this heavy-handedness and the Irish Nationalist movement gained a new momentum that carried them all the way to becoming a Republic in 1949.  A similar thing happened after Bloody Sunday, which boosted IRA membership more than anything before or since.  You’d think the British would have learned by then.

Although the 1916 Rising is now commemorated annually (apart from a gap during parts of the 70s and 80s because of the Troubles) and is an especially big thing this year, still not everyone is on the same page.  There are those who think it was ill-considered, a futile waste of life, and who believe that what it did achieve could have been done better in other ways.  This may be so; I don’t know.  We do know that there were organisational problems that made it less effective than it could have been.  It was originally planned for the preceding Friday and there was a ship en route from Germany packed to the gunwales with weapons for the Rebels to use.  The ship was intercepted by the British Navy, however, and the Rising was postponed.  The Dublin Rebels decided to go ahead on the Monday anyway (it was Irish Grand National day and all the ruling British politicians were watching the horses so no one was running the country) but the 3,000 men and women from outside Dublin who were ready to come and fight didn’t get the memo that it was going ahead after all and so stayed home to wash their hair.  Had the leaders in Dublin decided to wait for more arms and more troops things may have ended differently.  They didn’t plan on a war; they meant to take over politically while the people with guns just stood there looking convincing.  Also, although they cut the telephone lines into Dublin Castle they failed to de-activate the phone exchange so back-up from Britain was called very quickly.  It’s possible that they realised quite early on that some of these hiccups had weakened their position considerably because a priest was called into the GPO on Monday – the first day – to hear confessions.  Or maybe it was their plan all along to die fighting and let martyrdom do their work for them.

I picked up bits and pieces of this along the way but it all came together last Tuesday when I went on a bus trip organised by the home-school liason teacher at the kids’ school.  In teaching terms, this lovely lady officially has the Best Job Ever.  She’s a real teacher, so I assume is paid as one, but her whole job is to deal with adults.  She liases with parents over concerns about children, she organises parent help for various school projects, and in the interests of community involvement and people getting to know each other she organises bus trips to historic places for parents.  I thought it would be good to meet some people so I signed up (and I dragged Amy along otherwise she’d have stayed in bed the whole time I was gone) and it was great.  A bus picked us up after school drop-off and took us to the GPO where there’s an amazing multi-media 1916 exhibition which opened only a couple of weeks ago.  It has artefacts from the time – uniforms, weapons, letters (including several written by Rebel leaders to their mothers or wives in the days between their sentencing and their executions, if you’re looking for poignant) and telegrams, medals, posters, newspapers etc – and a short movie which really has you feeling as though you’re there.  It was the first time I’d seen photos showing how completely destroyed parts of the centre of town were.  Most of O’Connell Street was reduced to rubble.  It really was a war, briefly.  There is also a new memorial sculpture there in the GPO for the children fatally caught in the crossfire.  Relatives of victims were later able to claim compensation on a case-by-case basis but children didn’t count for much and there are some heart-breakingly cold letters from the claim evaluators explaining this to grieving parents.  One boy was shot while looting a sweet shop which reflects an interesting little bit of social history.  Sweet shops were among the businesses worst hit by looters and pilfered articles recovered by police included a toffee hammer.  For many inner-city children it was the one and only opportunity they’d ever had to eat sweets and, as the writer of a book I flicked through pointed out, there was probably a good number of adults who looked back on the Rising with a kind of happiness because of that.

Then we went to a cafe for soup and ciabatta sandwiches and tea and coffee and little slices and the bus took us home in time for school pick-up, and all this for four euros per person.  There’s one more of these outings this term and I’m totally going.  I don’t know or care where we end up; it’s worth it just for the lunch.

The main centenary commemorations seemed to be over Easter weekend.  We happened to be passing through the centre of town on the Monday and there were Gardai (Police) everywhere and many paddy wagons (you’re probably not allowed to call them that here but I don’t know any other name for them) and the mood was sombre and eerily quiet despite the crowd.  There seemed to be processions to various memorials.  Later there was a concert in O’Connell Street with choirs and things.

Proclamation Day was celebrated on March 15 with school children raising flags and trains decorated patriotically.  I had assumed that this was the anniversary of Padraig Pearse delivering it from the steps of the GPO but I now know that it wasn’t so I don’t know how they came up with that date.  Easter in 1916 was later than it was this year so the true anniversary of the first reading of the Proclamation, and the start of the Rising, is April 24th.  The surrender was on Saturday 29th and the executions began on May 3rd so I’m sure there are more remembrance ceremonies to go.

There are posters and flags and huge paintings on the sides of buildings in town talking about remembering 1916.  There are photos and short biographies of the main players on the walls of the train.  There’s a well-graffitied temporary wall around a construction site on which someone has listed the names of the seven men who wrote a Proclamation so revolutionary that they were convicted of treason on the strength of it.  As we were eating our soup after visiting the GPO I asked the ladies around me if they’d learned a lot about it when they were at school.  Not so much, they agreed; it wasn’t really mentioned.  The one next to me said that she’d started work on her 14th birthday and maybe if she’d gone to secondary school they would have covered it there.  Yes, the others said, maybe at secondary school.  They remembered the 50th anniversary but were teenagers and had much more important things on their minds.  It can take a while for the past to turn into history and I think this might be a good example of an event that’s become a lot more palatable and popular over time.  The rough edges – the bloodshed, the children, the destruction and disruption – have been smoothed as the Rebels’ dream has come to pass, regardless of how useful their contribution really was.

If nothing else it provided Ireland with the eventual Republic’s founding document, the first of its kind specifically addressed to both men and women.  It’s a strong document written by men who had great faith that one day their country would be able to live by it.

This country that they loved and fought for and died for, it’s a great country indeed.  I’m happy to be here and happy to celebrate their centenary with them.  I’m happy that my Irish child, and my others, have this chance to learn something about the price of the freedom that most of us have always taken for granted.  It’s important.






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