We had spent a good hour waiting in the queue to get in. In front of us were three teenagers. A girl and two boys. I got the feeling by the way they spoke and the things they said that maybe they were friends from some school or group for people with special educational needs. The girl and one of the boys were a couple, and from time to time they would smooch. If the other boy felt uncomfortable, he was good at hiding it. If the couple felt he was disrupting their day out, they were good at hiding that too. `
Behind us was a couple in their sixties, with their grandson. They were white, he was mixed race, around 9 years of age. The grandson was wearing a green fedora -maybe belonging to his granddad- that would blow off in the wind onto the decorative gravel. He would stomp off after it, relishing the crunching sound from the gravel under his feet. It was hard to place their accent. They were Irish but I thought that maybe they had been living in England and come over. The grandfather said to me that the Irish were great at queueing, a thought that had never occurred to me. No idea if it’s true, or how you might prove it, but my experience boarding trains in Dublin tells me otherwise.
It wasn’t the typical crowd you get at a museum in Ireland. For one, it was a crowd. Second, it was by and large made up of what people used to call, and sometimes still do, the plain people of Ireland. You never hear much talk about them on the airwaves, and you don’t see them much on TV either. When it comes to public gatherings, you’re more likely to see them at GAA matches than at museums, though not all of them will have the money to make the trip up to Croke Park if their county is playing. Many of them are poor and you can see it on their faces, in their dress, and in the way they carry themselves, as if they don’t want to fill out the space that surrounds them. They are warm and open and funny and caring and everything that those in this country who are not usually pretend to be.
When we eventually got to the door of the Rising exhibition, we were ushered in one small group of 10 or so at a time. The first thing you see are screens showing images of Ireland at the time of the Rising, captioned with facts about war, poverty, population and emigration. To your left there is a copy of the Proclamation on prominent display, and a voice reading it out, playing on a loop with a timer telling you when the next reading starts. With so many people around and wanting to get in you realise it is going to be hard to take in as much as you might like.
Personally, I don’t have much of a connection to the Rising or the Proclamation. As far as I know I had no relatives involved, since they were all living 80 or so miles up the road, and I don’t know anything about what those relatives 0thought about the events of the time. Whilst people in the south were taught about the great men of 1916 at school, I learned nothing about it in the primary school I attended, and later only in GCSE History, a subject that was optional. There were of course community organisations and groups and families that did treat all of this as part of their history, but it didn’t have much bearing on me. That the local GAA club was called the Pearse Ógs carried no deeper association for me. 1916 may or may not have weighed heavily on the brains of the people who were waging an armed campaign against the British State, but it wasn’t saying much to me. If anything, it was part of a backdrop I didn’t want much to do with.
When I was in primary school, still in the small children’s yard at playtime, there was a chubby awkward kid. His mother worked in the school canteen. One day we learned in the yard that his father had been shot dead by the IRA that Sunday. If I told you more about the circumstances, you might be able to find some explanation for it. You might be able to say that given the prevailing conditions, given the context, given the person in question, given the way others were being treated at that moment in time, it was inevitable that such acts would take place. And you might be right, and I might be able to agree. The next step in testing how firm your stance is might be to try the argument out on a five or six year old boy whose father has just been shot dead. If I mention this -I have plenty of other examples- it’s because it speaks to the fact that I grew up with a heightened wariness of the gap there might be between rhetoric and reality, a suspicion of things that come across as grand or heroic because of what they might obscure, and things like 1916 seemed to me like part of all that. However, wariness isn’t the same thing as wisdom. Wariness can be fed and exploited by others. Later on, as I read a bit more about it, I began to develop a fuller, more rounded sense of what that period was all about, but all the while keeping a certain distance: empathy – yes, sympathy – yes, admiration – yes, but it was not me looking upon ‘our’ history, as so many talk about it.
Something unexpected happened when we moved from the screens showing the historical images and approached the copy of the Proclamation and the recording of it being read out. It wasn’t so much a lump in the throat as the feeling you get after you’ve been hit full smack in the face with a football. I don’t know if it was intended as such but I listened to the audio as though it were a re-enactment of Pearse reading out the words in front of the GPO. There is a slick, officially-produced video in circulation at the moment featuring Irish people across the world reading out lines from the Proclamation. There are people standing in Hollywood, on Wall Street, and in front of the Eiffel Tower and the British Houses of Parliament. There are plenty of American accents, and accents from other places too. But there are none from Glasgow or Liverpool or Birmingham or anywhere else in Britain where so many Irish people have emigrated over the years. They read the words aloud with assuredness and poise. It is as though the Proclamation marked the beginning of a success story for globalisation. In the audio tape at the exhibition in Collins Barracks, however, the actor reads with an impatient urgency and it feels like a text written by people -ordinary people with shortcomings, not demigods- under conditions they have not chosen, people who have searched for the right words but they don’t know how it is really going to turn out, but you know how their story is going to end. The things they are calling for are -from the standpoint of today- reasonable and right, moderate if anything, and by taking a stand for them, by proposing to take what others will not give, they are going to be shot dead for it. What I feel hearing this is not some Kerrygold-greased feeling of exalted pride, or being in the midst of some grand historical sweep. It is anger.
Is one hundred years a long time? For me, at that moment, it feels like the executions happened a week ago. We proceed through the exhibition. The place is packed and the crowds are poring over every detail. The exhibits are accompanied by lots of text and the sheer number of people about makes it hard to take it all in. I’m familiar with the sequence of events and the groups involved but many other people seem more familiar, and for those who are not it’s a good introduction. I press the answers to a few questions into a screen and it tells me, BuzzFeed-style, that the figure I most closely identify with is Francis Sheehy Skeffington. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that in recent days I am sickened more and more by the thought of guns. When I see images featuring guns I find them repulsive, however just the cause that the images might celebrate. I have no doubt that there are times when firearms are necessary for the defence of just causes. But to have to resort to them is an awful and terrible thing, not a glorious one. James Connolly, one of those executed, wrote that ‘there is no such thing as humane or civilised war! War may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, of class, or sex. When so waged it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusions as to its elevating nature, or civilizing methods.’ This is why I will not watch the military parade the following day.
We get to the part of the exhibition focusing on the men who were executed. There are artefacts laid out belonging to them: equipment, personal effects. You can pick up an audio device and listen to testimonies gathered from the dead. As I write this a headline pops up on a newsfeed: ‘1916 Rising leaders were ‘egotists’, Arlene Foster says’. Unionism has long looked upon ignorance as a virtue. You can hear from what is said that those who were executed were deeply worried about what would happen to those they were leaving behind, and for not having done enough for those who depended on them, but yet confident that they were doing this for everyone. There is nothing to suggest they wanted to die. This area of the exhibition is quite cramped, the spaces devoted to each of those executed are quite close together. You get the feeling that there is little difference between the dead men and those now going over the things they left behind. It is a public exhibition, but it feels intrusive, almost. It reminds me of a couple of things. These days when we turn on a computer screen we read text generated through light and electricity in the here and now. But the text itself, the thoughts and effort that went into creating them, could have happened ten or fifteen years ago. Sometimes this dissolves our sense of past and present: I have long exchanges in e-mails and social media accounts between me and people who are now dead. And yet when you read the messages it is sometimes as if they are communicating to you there and then. It isn’t like when you hold a time-worn letter in your hand. That is what it feels like. What it also reminds me of is an event I attended two years ago, in the upstairs of a GAA club. It was James Connolly’s shirt, on display beneath the glass, that stirred this memory.
Upstairs in the GAA club was a display laid out to remember a close school friend of mine who had been murdered, along with another classmate, while they were playing an arcade game in a taxi depot. A loyalist paramilitary had walked into the taxi depot unmasked, and shot them both in the head. My friend’s school artwork was on display, photos of his hurling team, medals he had won, his schoolbag, and his grey school uniform shirt. The shirt was from the last day of school, unwashed. Boys and girls in the class had scrawled their signatures over it in biro, marking what felt to them like the end of an era. I think I did, too. But I found I couldn’t make out any of the signatures. At school I knew most people’s handwriting, but clearly it was not something I had committed to memory. You never imagine you might have to.
I have read a great deal in recent days about the political lineage of the 1916 rebels, and what it is their actions are supposed to have produced. Some of the claims are reasonable, others are ridiculous but are still treated as serious. Into the latter category I would place the claim that the Rising was ‘undemocratic’. Religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, the pursuit of the happiness of the whole nation and all of its parts, self-government: these are all basic and quite modest democratic ideals, however much they are covertly despised nowadays by people who proclaim themselves as democrats. The people who made a stand for these ideals in the midst of a cataclysmic war for Empire were executed. In a truly democratic society, one that believed in reasoned debate rather than simply paid lip service to it, the question of democracy would need to be weighed against what the attitude of the ruling powers was toward it. The executions were intended to send out a strong signal that democracy, in fact, would not be tolerated.
Into the same category I would place the claim -which is entertained with some relish in Ireland’s newspapers- that the rebels were the precursors of Al-Qaida or Islamic State. No: if there are any reasonable parallels to be drawn in this regard, it is such things as ISIL laying siege to Kobanî and the Helga firing on Liberty Hall. And while so much has been said about the supposedly harmful legacy of the 1916 rebels, has anyone said anything at all about the legacy of Maxwell’s executions? Has anyone said anything about any precedent that this might have established? Has anyone thought to imagine that we might trace a line from Maxwell through to the likes of the LVF in the 1990s? We are talking about hundreds of lives here, ignored by all these evaluations that feign even-handedness and celebrate the grand events of state where none of this is ever mentioned. It is conventional wisdom in Ireland that the British forces made a miscalculation in executing the rebels, because of the public reaction that created the groundswell for independence. Yet when this is spoken of as mere error or miscalculation, the question that they had any right to do any such thing is set to one side, accepted as a given. Has anyone considered, in these weeks supposedly dedicated to remembering, that the British forces might have subsequently learned from their errors, and that the strategy and tactics of a dirty war -supplying arms to paramilitary death squads as a means of terrorising the population- would prove more effective in achieving political aims in future? If they have, I have seen no evidence for it, in any of the coverage devoted to commemorating 1916.
Part of me wishes I could stop being angry about all this. Part of me wishes that the filament of anger inside me that I have had for decades. that began to overheat as I went through the exhibition, would fizzle out, once and for all. ‘Anger is an energy’, sang one child of working class Irish immigrants to England. But if anger as an energy can be a spur to action and enlarged sense of empathy, it can also degrade and erode. ‘They put a hot wire to my head/Cos of the things I did and said/And made these feelings go away/Model citizen in every way’. I’d be lying if I said it did not seem easier at times to let these feelings go, and become a model citizen ready to forgive and forget in accordance with whatever is being proposed. But overall I’ll take anger over betrayal any day.