The last time I was in Dublin, a few years ago, it was in the company of a woman I was in love with, the sun was shining (at least in my memory) and we were on holiday. My latest trip, to give a talk to the annual Energy Ireland conference, where the delegates’ suits were as grey as the skies outside, was not quite so charming.
But I was pleased to be visiting Dublin, the capital of Ireland, in the year 2016, the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter rising of 1916. Perhaps not as famous as some other European revolutionary events and wars of independence, the rising was the beginning of what became an Irish republic, independent of its ancient occupier, Britain, and a country that now, after many years of struggle and setback, is emerging again as a self-confident nation.
1916: the Easter Rising
On 24 April 1916 a group of Irish Volunteers (uniformed rebels) occupied the General Post Office in central Dublin, the symbolic heart of British power, as part of an operation to take control of central Dublin. There followed a violent fight between the volunteers and the British army, in which 1,400 people died, mostly civilians. The Irish were outnumbered and out-gunned by the British artillery, which was used to devastating effect. The operation was never expected to lead to a military victory, but to rally the Irish people to the republican independence cause. The rebels lost, but they declared the foundation of the Irish republic, which was their aim (see the declaration below).
Taking place in the middle of the First World War, in which thousands of Irish were fighting in France for the British, the action was widely unpopular and seen as a stab in the back of the British. Before the war, the British parliament had come close to giving “home rule” to Ireland, a partial form of independence similar to that of the former colonies of Canada and Australia. The war – and the bitter resistance of pro-British Protestants in what is now Northern Ireland – led to home rule being postponed but there was a general expectation that it would follow eventually. The violent republicans (who wanted full independence, including ending any allegiance to the British monarchy) were seen as jumping the gun.
But the British, in their ham-fisted way, converted military failure into a huge symbolic victory by the republicans. They executed most of the ring-leaders, stoking sympathy for their cause. The only leader not to be executed was Éamon de Valera, the future prime minister and eventual president of the Irish republic, because he was born in the US, and as an American citizen enjoyed some protection. A war of independence and a bitter civil war lay between the 1916 rising and the eventual independence of Ireland (shorn of the six counties in the north which had Protestant majorities).
The anniversary is being celebrated with exhibitions and an historic walk, which unfortunately I had no time to do. With Ireland now much more at peace with itself and with the UK, the celebrations are less nationalistic than the 50th were. Historians have shown that the rising was a more complicated event than the triumphalist republican mythology. But it was a major part of modern Irish history.
The Croke Park massacre
The Energy Ireland conference was held at Croke Park, a stadium and conference centre that is the home of Irish (Gaelic) football. On 21 November 1920, during the war of Irish independence, a group of British police and auxiliaries (irregular and often poorly trained troops, known as the “black and tans” after the colours of their uniform, which was different from the main British army) entered the stadium in the middle of a Gaelic football match. They opened fire on the crowd, killing 14 civilians and injuring at least 60 others.
The killings were retaliation for the murders earlier that day of several British intelligence officers (known as the Cairo gang because they had previously been working in the British colony of Egypt) by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), a descendant of the Irish Volunteers which had stormed the GPO in the 1916 rising. It appears that there was no official intention to kill civilians, only to search the crowd for weapons. Nerves and poor discipline led to the massacre, which became known as Bloody Sunday.
There are several Bloody Sundays in Ireland’s sad history, possibly the most infamous being the shooting of civilians in 1972 by British paratroopers in Derry, in Northern Ireland. Those troops were originally sent by the UK to maintain peace between the Catholic and Protestant populations of that divided city but the Catholics saw British troops as de facto occupiers and a long period of war, known as “the Troubles” followed. The peace settlement which ended the Troubles is potentially at risk from a British vote to leave the EU.
Croke Park today is a huge stadium (see picture below) and the 1920 massacre is remembered but not celebrated. Ireland has grown up. A country that defines itself in opposition to another (for good historic reasons) cannot get on with the more peaceful business of deciding what it is for and what sort of nation it wishes to be. Despite the shameful treatment of Ireland by the European Commission during the “bail out” of 2010, which led to a very deep recession, the Irish economy is recovering – there are cranes once again in Dublin, unlike when I was last there. The Irish people are resilient and I wish them well.