Reconstructing the Easter Rising

This year's 1916 commemoration will not be the first time Fianna Fáil have used the anniversary of the Rising to build party support. A new book by James Moran takes a critical look at the commemoration of 1935. Colin Murphy reports


When the restoration of GPO was completed in 1929, the Cumann na nGaedheal government held an inauguration ceremony, the first formal commemoration of the Rising at the GPO. A small number of uniformed soldiers marched to the GPO, the tricolour was raised, and William T Cosgrave, then President of the Executive Council, made a speech. His speech focussed on the building's architecture, on the challenges of the reconstruction, and on recent advances in communications technology. The Rising itself was mentioned just at the end.

Six years later, in 1935, Eamon de Valera presided over a massive Easter pageant at the GPO, which dwarfed both previous commemorations and the Rising itself.

The significance of the 1935 commemoration lay not in any particular anniversary of the Rising itself – it was the 19th anniversary – but in the political context at the time.

De Valera had failed to co-opt the IRA into Fianna Fáil, and they had continued to carry out assassinations. In December 1933, they killed Hugh O'Reilly, and in February 1935, Richard More-O'Farrell. In March 1935, they began targeting de Valera's civic guard.

In response, de Valera moved against the IRA. In 1934, there were 451 prosecutions of IRA members. By 1936, the IRA had been banned. The 1935 commemoration gave de Valera a platform to assume ownership of the Rising's legacy for Fianna Fáil, and to strip the historical memory of the Rising of those elements which did not fit comfortably with Fianna Fáil's conservative Catholic nationalism. The Rising was rebranded as a Catholic and patriarchal pageant.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, 1935, a mounted escort brought Eamon de Valera from Government Buildings to Portobello barracks for an open-air mass. Another open-air mass took place at the GPO, where a loudspeaker system had been set up, and veterans of the Rising acted as altar servers. (These descriptions are taken from James Moran's recently-published book, Staging the Easter Rising.)

WF Cullen, who had commanded a contingent at the GPO during the Rising itself, addressed the crowds at the GPO. "Once again a party of armed men are advancing on this position", he announced, as a military parade arrived on O'Connell St. A company of troops at the GPO fired a volley from the roof of the building, and Cullen announced, "the men of 1916 are about to arrive". Then 2,500 veterans arrived at the GPO, led by an armed guard, and assembled under banners labelled "Four Courts", "Liberty Hall" and "Boland's Mills", according to where they had been stationed for the Rising.

Eamon de Valera arrived by car at the GPO, and was greeted with salutes and the national anthem, before giving a speech, and then unveiling a specially commissioned statue of Cuchulainn. There was a trumpet fanfare, another rifle volley, another rendition of the anthem, and air corps planes flew overhead. Then de Valera positioned himself on a platform in front of the building, and a parade of 7,000 soldiers marched past.

De Valera concluded his speech, in Irish, describing the Cuchulainn statue as a "memorial to the men who gave their lives for Ireland", and he also spoke of "the men of Easter Week". He made no mention of the contribution of women to the Rising. According to James Moran, "the women of Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army played no part in the ceremony other than marching, and the veterans holding the old Mauser guns, the guard of honour, and the soldiers who escorted de Valera into the GPO were all exclusively male". "Whilst de Valera's re-enactment seemed to unite the community in a spontaneous show of support for the Easter Rising, in reality it was carefully contrived to exclude and marginalise those women who had played their part in the rebellion," Moran writes.

Some women joined a counter-demonstration that marched past the GPO after the official commemoration. Maud Gonne had earlier told a meeting that she hoped all true republicans would not participate in the commemoration, as it was being taken over "by all the forces of the State to desecrate the memory of those who died in Easter Week".

While the militant women who had participated in the Rising were excluded, or excluded themselves, de Valera was accompanied at the GPO by two women who had become nationalist figureheads, Padraic Pearse's sister (his mother, Margaret, having then recently died) and Tom Clarke's widow. Eight priests also accompanied de Valera on the platform at the GPO.

The inscription on the Cuchulainn statue consisted of just the third paragraph of the 1916 proclamation, focussing solely on the national struggle against Britain and with no mention of the wider social struggle.

The government was criticised for appropriating the commemoration as a partisan party demonstration. On the day itself, Fianna Fáil held a party fundraising day to coincide with the commemoration. Advertisements for the pageant in the national press were placed in just the Irish Press newspaper, and in the Dáil, Richard Mulcahy, a prominent 1916 veteran and Fine Gael member, asked whether it was "still held that the Government is not making it a party demonstration?"

Prior to the commemoration, the Minister for Defence had assembled a committee of veterans to coordinate the veterans' contribution. A large number of these, amongst them supporters of Cumann na mBan, the IRA and Fine Gael, resigned when they realised the event was being hijacked by Fianna Fáil.p

This article is based on James Moran's Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as Theatre, published by Cork University Press

Seventy-fifth anniversary: 1991

In 1991, a cultural celebration of 1916 was organised, called 'The Flaming Door'. This mobilised artists, poets and writers to celebrate the 1916 Rising. It began with a bus tour around Dublin, on the morning of Easter Sunday, 31 March 1991, to the sites occupied in the Rising, with readings from poems and memoirs of the event. There was a poetry reading in the GPO in the afternoon and on the Sunday night, a concert was held in Kilmainham Gaol. It was the first time the Gaol was used as a public venue and the musicians used its prison cells as their changing rooms. Artists included members of the Dubliners, the Chieftans and the Hothouse Flowers. It culminated in a 'flaming door' procession at midnight in the yard of the Gaol where the signatories of the 1916 declaration were executed. The event was concieved and organised by John Stephenson as part of Dublin's European City of Culture.

Eightieth anniversary: 1996

A commemoration took place at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, attended by the then Taoiseach John Bruton. Fianna Fáil laid a wreath at graves in Arbour Hill. The IRA placed their largest explosive device up to that time – 30lb – at Hammersmith Bridge in London on the anniversary of the rising. It failed to detonate. In May, President Mary Robinson unveiled a statue of James Connolly in Dublin, one of the executed leaders of the rising and founder of the Labour Party.

The fiftieth anniversary: 1966

The 50th anniversary commemoration, in 1966, followed closely the form of the 1935 celebration, with Eamon de Valera again at its head. The ceremonial features were all repeated – the marching troops, the rifle salutes, the trumpet fanfares, the air corps overflight. Again, the women of 1916 were largely excluded, or erased. As the Irish Independent put it the next day, "Nation honours men of 1916". The Irish Times described "line after line of striding men" sporting banners with mottoes such as "Stand together, Brothers", and reported de Valera saying, "'A Nation of Brothers' was [the] ultimate goal of the seven signatories".

That Easter Tuesday, Eamon de Valera attended the first performance of a pageant at Croke Park, which retold the story of the Rising through a series of tableaux, titled Aiseirí, meaning Resurrection.

By 1966, revisionist historians were questioning the slimmed-down, simplified version of the Rising that had been promulgated in the official commemorations. Francis Shaw, a priest and professor of history, wrote an article saying that Padraic Pearse's equation of the hill of Calvary with the GPO was blasphemous, and calling for a revised appraisal of the role of the constitutional nationalists. The article was suppressed by journal editors, and was subsequently published posthumously in the journal Studies in 1972.

The Ulster Unionist government in Northern Ireland all but sealed the border for fear that the South would invade.

The 1916 Easter Rising was a success

The Easter Rising of 1916 was successful. Successful in its objective: to bring about independence for Ireland within a generation. Had it not been for the Rising, Ireland probably would not have become independent until after the Second World War – if then. The chances are that Ireland would not even have got home rule by then. Even if home rule had materialised, it would hardly have been of any substance – probably no more substantial that the devolution Wales currently "enjoys".

The culture of the time was violent, so we should not be surprised by the violence of the Rising. Hundreds of thousands were being massacred in the course of the Great War that was being waged at the time. Violence was first threatened by loyalists, who had landed an arsenal at Larne and were being organised in the Ulster Volunteer Force. While a small secret society, the IRB, was fixed on insurrection at some stage, it was the example from Ulster and the culture of militarism then prevailing which was the influential backdrop.

At the time of the rebellion, Germany was expected to win the European war. Certainly there was not an expectation then that Germany would be defeated. The general consensus was that the war would be followed by a peace conference at which, the insurrectionists hoped, Ireland would be represented, but only if there had been a signal of a determination to achieve independence. That as the real objective of the Rising.

About 500 people lost their lives, most of them civilians caught in crossfire; about a third the number killed in the War of Independence and one eighth of those killed in the civil war.

The rebellion occurred without a democratic mandate but to most of the insurrectionists that was an irrelevance. The Act of Union had been contrived without a democratic mandate and the British presence in Ireland persisted without a democratic mandate. A clear majority had voted for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the previous election but it was then obvious that the democratically endorsed Home Rule Bill of 1914 was going to be frustrated by Loyalist, British army and Tory opposition.

Arguably, the consequences of the Rising also were to solidify the inevitability of partition and to signal that power came from the barrel of a gun at least as effectively as from the ballot. But another consequence was Irish independence far earlier than would have happened otherwise.

But then, has independence been of such value?

The Easter Rising 1916 was a defining point in Irish history, albeit one engineered by people who had no democratic mandate and in conditions of considerable violence. As argued here, it brought about Irish independence earlier than would have occurred otherwise – indeed had we remained part of the United Kingdom until in the 1950s it is doubtful we would ever have opted for independence because of the loss of huge subsidies that would have entailed.

It made partition inevitable – perhaps that was inevitable anyway. It was seen to legitimise the use of force without a democratic mandate.

The meaning and significance of the Rising are hugely controversial – the columns of Village are open to those who wish to debate those significances and consequences in the lead up to, and the aftermath of, the 90th anniversary. Email vincent browne