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A bar or two of the Hallelujah Chorus.

April 1, 2016

Just to the west of Dublin’s city centre, between Stoneybatter, Smithfield, and the green expanses of the Phoenix Park, is an area known as Arbour Hill.

It is composed largely of narrow streets of terraced houses, and is separated from the Liffey quays to the south by the former Collins military Barracks, which is now part of the National Museum of Ireland.

In a quiet street behind the barracks, dating from mid nineteenth century, are a line of grey stone buildings, composing a former military prison and an ornate church with a round tower. This is now the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Church.

Behind the church, is a cemetery, with weathered gravestones and many indecipherable epitaphs. From the few legible inscriptions, it becomes clear that this was a burial ground for the men and families of the adjacent barracks in Victorian times, under British rule.

As so often the case in cemeteries which are no longer used, there is an air of calm. In fact, it is more like a park than a burial ground, and locals come here to walk their dogs, or read, or have a quick lunch in the peaceful surroundings.

This is despite two unexpected additions to the surroundings.

Alongside the back of the church juts out a high modern wall with a watchtower placed in its angle, some thirty feet above the ground, its creamy concrete and reinforced glass windows a harsh contrast to the uniform grey of the other buildings. It is a severe reminder that beyond the peace of the cemetery lies a still functioning prison.

Beyond this, on a terrace raised up two or three steps above its surroundings, is a long grassy rectangle surrounded by granite sets. This is on the site of the former prison yard; on the sets are written, in English and Irish, the names of the 14 Leaders of 1916 who were buried here, in a mass grave under quicklime, after their executions at Kilmainham Jail. Behind the rectangle a white wall curves round gently, with the words of the 1916 Proclamation – again in Irish and English – inscribed on it. The national flag flutters from a single staff.

Given it’s the burial site of national heroes, it is very understated and, perhaps because of that, seemingly not one of the major tourist destinations in the city. Certainly though the years, when I have visited, there have been few people present, and it seems that visitors only go to Arbour Hill if they want to pay their respects to the leaders of 1916 – which, I would think is as it should be. Most of the men who died in Kilmainham, I would imagine, would prefer to be recognised in an atmosphere of peace rather than grandeur, and by those who respected their contribution to the state, rather than tourists with a checklist.

On Easter Sunday, at the end of the Centennial Parade, I made my way through the streets to Arbour Hill, passing ever smaller groups of people. At the plot itself there were no more than twenty folk and the ambience was respectful and reflective.

The Rising has always been important to me, the more so since a first visit to Kilmainham Jail in the early 1970s, when it was being painstakingly restored by a dedicated group of volunteers – some of whom had been imprisoned in the building in the 1920s. To meet those men, and to start to learn the personal stories of those who were “out” in Easter Week, turned the event from an iconic and historical moment to something much more emotionally human and accessible.

Whenever I am in Dublin, I make a point of going to Arbour Hill and paying my respects. It’s a private thing and I seldom write about it. In Scotland the Rising is a topic mostly reserved for academics who discuss “the sociological effects of Irish immigration on the west of Scotland”, left wingers who wish to promote Connolly’s socialist but not nationalist credentials, and football fans who demean the whole event by using its songs to bait opposition supporters. I try to treat the Rising as being above tribalism and something which, in terms of inspiration and humanity, can belong to all – of any persuasion or background.

I like the fact that my own family history is mirrored at the plot – with Seán Mac Diarmada of Leitrim commemorated next to James Connolly of Edinburgh.

On Sunday, I was lost in my thoughts, as is often the case at this spot, when I suddenly, and distinctly, heard Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” It was an extraordinary moment: the church was closed and there were only a handful of people about. Handel’s first performance of this work had been at St Michan’s Church – only a few hundred yards from this spot. I did wonder, for a moment, if I was imagining the music – after all, it was a very emotional day to be in Dublin.

Then I recalled that there was a celebration of choral music scheduled at Collins Barracks across the road. A burst of sustained applause at the end of the Chorus confirmed that I had not completely lost it!

However, it did set me off on a reflective trail, and one linked to the theme of thanksgiving.

For many in Ireland, the Rising is a little like the lost island of Atlantis. Most of the time it is invisible, but every now and then it rises out of the mist and above the waves and cannot be ignored. At that point, folk compete to produce the most accurate description of the mirage, but only succeed in imposing their own likeness on the apparition before them.

One hundred years after the Rising, there are many attempts to make it all things to all men. Everybody – from physical force Republicans to neo-con politicians – claims a connection, irrespective of whether their own views, or their own actions, reveal any similarities at all with the 1916 ideals. It is condemned for being “anti-democratic” – by folk who are incapable of producing a single example of a revolution which was based on a properly constituted democratic mandate. Pearse is denigrated for believing in “blood sacrifice” – with scant reference to the fact that millions were being slaughtered on the Western Front as a result of that same, contemporarily popular concept, and we are told that Ireland would have been better off, or would have achieved independence, “if they had just waited”. That last view merits some very hollow laughter here in Scotland.

Revisionism has become a major industry in Ireland as far as the Rising is concerned, and hindsight is employed with the subtlety of a howitzer cannon. To blame the leaders of 1916 for the subsequent ills of the 26 county state can only make sense if you are following your own, less than balanced, agenda. Again, those who say the Rising only achieved any success through the clumsy over reaction of the British, with their multiple executions, are making a redundant point.

The Rising is what the Rising was. The event and its aftermath cannot be changed. Idle debate on its advisability, or on the motivation of its individual leaders, or its structure and organisation, may pass the time in lecture halls, but cannot change or affect the facts, as far as we know them. Certainly it seems a difficult quest to blame the negative aspects of an independent Ireland on the actions of Leaders of 1916 without equally admitting to their responsibility for the positive aspects of Ireland’s nationhood.

Those involved were of their time – on both sides. They lived in a world where military action had long been seen as a justifiable means of achieving political ends. Wasn’t that what the might of “the most successful Empire in history” had taught them? Wasn’t that the example being set by Haig and Rawlinson, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff?

The IRB in 1916 made a decision based on the information they possessed, the beliefs they held, and the circumstances forced upon them. Had they not acted when they did, there were rumours of a round up of activists, Connolly was threatening to “go it alone”, and a triumphal Germany or Britain, after the War, would have hardly prioritised the freedom of Ireland. This may not justify their action, but it explains it.

The details of the fighting hardly suggest that the Volunteers were irresponsible in their treatment of civilians, and to all accounts the call for the surrender was based on the fear of more local people being killed. MacDiarmada, even in the midst of the retreat, was so affected by the accidental death of two civilians in Moore St that he repeatedly offered to conduct an enquiry, then and there – only to find the grieving family more understanding of the damage of war than later academics appear willing to be.

That the Rising set Ireland on the roads to regained nationhood cannot be denied – though, of course, people have the right to argue whether that is a good or bad thing, and so it was right that the State commemorated its centenary. Colm Toíbin made the good point when he insisted that the State had to take charge of the commemoration for fear of leaving it to others to claim the position.

My experience in Dublin over Easter weekend was that the Irish state superceded the ‘acting government’ and produced a fitting, appropriate, and moving acknowledgement of those men and women – combatants and civilians – who gave their lives in the pursuit of Irish independence. It was, as far as it could be, an occasion above and beyond politics, which drowned out the begrudgers, the naysayers, and those pushing their own agenda. It recognised the bravery, idealism and selflessness of those who fought in Easter Week without mythologizing the brutal realities, or forgetting the casualties. It paid respect to an event which was of its time and place.

There was no glorification of violence, no mass singing of rebel songs, no amnesiac approach to the fact that people died and suffered. The people I mixed with on the streets of Dublin showed sober pride in the country which has made its way through the past century. This was no St Patrick’s Day of drunken revelry, or hubristic celebration of “Sure, aren’t we great???”

The Parade, including the Defence Forces and the Emergency Services, was a reminder that the military can be a positive representation of a country’s ethos. Ireland has made a huge contribution to peacekeeping around the world. It must be good for servicemen to be able to look in the eyes of their families and fellow citizens, and be proud that their work is in defending the country, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and cooperation with the civil powers. They have joined no campaigns which have caused people far away to hate their country, performed no invasions, bombed no innocents. To see the Air Corps flypast was to be reminded of thousands of medical evacuation flights, to visit the Naval Service ships on the City Quays was to recognise the thousands of migrants they have saved in the Mediterranean, to watch the Army UN detachments marching was to be aware of the major contribution Ireland has made to peacekeeping around the world for decades. The Irish military may have been born in violence, it may have suffered in a brutal civil war, but its professionalism and commitment to peace and support in modern times is perhaps one of the greatest tributes to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation, as were the numbers of female officers and other ranks throughout the parade.

On Monday, “Reflecting the Rising” brought a different sort of pride. With large parts of Dublin traffic-free and the citizens in holiday mode, it was a joy to be part of the inclusive and inspired celebrations of all elements of Irish culture. With a family atmosphere, there were venues for music, drama, children’s entertainment, historical reenactments and visual arts. Many Dubliners dressed in the clothes of the 1916 era, guides showed people around, Guards helped out with selfies. The space in front of GPO was teeming with people, looking and watching, gazing at the Tricolour and the green and gold flag of the Irish Republic, flying once more above the iconic pillars. It was like a colourful and happier echo of the familiar monochrome picture of sightseers viewing the wrecked Post Office after the Rising had ended.

It was hard not to think that Ireland can still aim for the high aspirations of the Leaders of 1916. And that, just as current failures to “cherish all the children of the Republic equally” still have to be addressed, so a pride in the men and women who first articulated those ideals can be an important part of the motivation to do better.

The gardens in Merrion Square were covered with colourful tents for children’s circus entertainment; the streets around filled with veteran cars, buses and traction engines. Strolling past the elegant Georgian facades, every house had a story to tell – of Wilde, Sheridan, George Russell, O’Connell, Yeats, Schroedinger – reminders of what Ireland has brought to the world.

And it struck me how much the Easter Rising was actually as much about culture as it was about politics. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”, wrote Pearse: “A land without its language is a land without its soul.” He was referring, of course, to Irish – but it is an observation which can also be related to culture in general, culture being the country’s means of articulation.

The conditions for the Rising, the underlying enthusiasm for the regeneration of “Ireland” as opposed to “West Britain”, were very much created by the cultural revival – in language, drama, literature, the arts and sport, which had been gathering pace since the millennium – and so many of the leaders and influential voices in the Nationalist and Republican movement were culturally involved in the language or the arts. Connolly and Plunkett were, for the times, incredibly well read and, crucially, well travelled,, Plunkett, a poet, had helped found the National Theatre. Connolly was a published writer and orator. They brought a perspective to the enterprise – as did English Literature lecturer and poet Tomás MacDonagh, Ceannt was a musician and Irish scholar, as was O’Hanrahan, who was also a novelist. Pearse is sometimes dismissed as a dreamer, but his ideas on education were advanced for the time, as was his understanding of the power of words and imagery.

Economist David McWilliams has made the point that, economically, Ireland was better off in 1916 than it had been for some time. Like Scotland, it was still reaping the benefits of the mighty British Empire and its resultant world trade. You could make the point that the Rising, the Civil War, and Independence – followed by DeValera’s isolationist policies, did great damage to Ireland economically – but you could also point to the rapid decline of Scotland’s economy and industry in the later 20th century, and suggest that staying with Britain hardly preserved its economic successes.

It may well be that history will suggest that the great service done to Ireland and the world by the Rising and the country’s eventual, if partial, independence, was not in economic or political terms, but in cultural terms. It halted the subjugation of Irish culture into an amorphous “British” mass, it built on what was already there, and enabled the continued flowering of Irish culture through Jack and WB Yeats, Flann O”Brien, O’Faolain, O’Flaherty, O’Connor, Behan, and down to McGahern, O Riada, the Chieftains, Planxty, Gallagher and U2 – a continuing flow of creativity in different fields which helps preserve the diversity of culture in western Europe in the struggle against globalised, homogenous dumbing down of the arts and traditional cultures…

I had the feeling moving round Dublin on Easter Monday that people had a sense of that, a notion that they could be proud of Ireland outside of the tourist paddywhackery, the senseless drinking, the subjugation to the Church, and the record of the failed and cynical political and financial classes. I think there is the sense that a new Ireland is possible – that the words of the Proclamation, so hurriedly composed 100 years ago – of its time and place in so many ways, but visionary and inspiring in others – could still inspire a consensus for a better country, a better treatment of its people. It no longer feels like Ireland is a country which needs to bolster its confidence by declaiming what it is not, nor by constantly delineating its differences from the old enemy and holding on to grudges. If Britain has any influential meaning in the modern Irish state it must be as an example of decline and insupportable attitudes – neither a model to copy nor a standard to try and beat.

Sinn Fein – “ourselves” – need no longer apply only to a political party. I felt on Easter Monday, possibly for the first time, that Ireland’s people were realising they could kick on from a hundred years of establishing their credentials, from the in fighting, the excesses of the Tiger, the pain of the Crash, the kowtowing to Church and politicians, the constant looking across the Irish Sea for comparisons. I felt confidence returning that the citizens of a Republic can work ‘for the people’ – that inequalities can be tackled, injustices righted, bridges built, – and the past used to inform, rather than to suffocate, the future. That’s what a strong culture will do for a country.

I think, now, the Rising can be seen in a different context. At the RDS on Saturday evening, speaking to descendants of those who were out in the Rising, An Uachtarán, Michael D Higgins, mentioned the importance of “family”, that, whatever was gained from the Rising, the losses on all sides were borne by families. He mentioned how, when Tomás MacDonagh had kissed his sleeping daughter, Barbara, just one year old, as he left his home on Easter Sunday night, she had briefly wakened and hugged him. Such human moments remind us that, irrespective of politics, those who pay the price for revolution, on every side, are ultimately sons and daughters, wives and siblings, parents and loved ones. Perhaps that is the way we should remember all who lost their lives in Easter Week 1916.

In Capel St on Sunday afternoon, as I walked towards the memories interred at Arbour Hill, I had a sudden and vivid sense of the new Ireland. This was no longer the Capel St of Little Chandler in Joyce’s “Two Gallants”, it had a cosmopolitan air to it, and folk of many nationalities had hung tricolours from windows to acknowledge the anniversary. In front of me, and behind, were people speaking Arabic, enjoying the day, excited by the commemoration. Crossing the road, I suddenly recognised a familiar, half forgotten, aroma – it was the smell of turf smoke. Turf smoke and Arabic – symbols of a new, inclusive, and expansive Ireland.

I felt I was in the Ireland of which I had gladly become a citizen as a second generation Irishman. With the emotion which I had carried with me all through the day, I recalled the words of brave and fearless Margaret Skinnider – school teacher, Citizen’s Army sniper, and suffragette; like me, born in Scotland, in her case, in Coatbridge:

“Scotland is my home, but Ireland is my country!”

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