- Projections and Reflections:Irishness and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising
On 18 March 1966—almost fifty years after the Easter Rising—the Sligo Champion reported that a man from Gurteen was to be returned to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin on remand from a court in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. At the end of the proceedings the prisoner "asked if he could see Nelson's Pillar," and "Justice Coughlan told him he could get a glimpse of it on the way."1 It was not really the monument to Nelson, but rather the rubble it had recently become, which had prompted the prisoner's curiosity. The pillar on O'Connell Street glorifying the famous admiral who had won the Battle of Trafalgar had been blown up ten days previously by a group of maverick republicans. The Dublin correspondent of the Sligo newspaper was much less enthralled by the destruction of Nelson's monument than was the prisoner from Gurteen; the journalist remarked acidly that while "the men with the child-minds who caused the explosion may be congratulating themselves on having struck a [End Page 11] blow" for Irish freedom, pictures of the aftermath of the explosion "have gone around the world to strengthen the opinion about those wild Irish who are so destructive."2
It might be argued that the blowing up of Nelson's Pillar on 8March operated as a suitable opener for the subsequent fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1966. That jubilee is often characterized as having projected an aggressive triumphalism in its assertion of Irish nationalism. It was the most elaborate commemoration of the Easter Rising in the state's history and was marked by a week of events across Ireland; its centerpiece was a parade down O'Connell Street, watched by some two hundred thousand people. It was also the first commemoration to be broadcast on the recently established Irish television network, Telefís Éireann, and came at a point when Ireland was acutely conscious of its image in the outside world. The acts of remembrance projected a distinctive self-awareness arising in large part from the size of the perceived audience.
The anniversary occurred at a significant moment for the Republic. Under Taoiseach Seán Lemass the emphasis—economically, socially, politically, and rhetorically—was on modernization. The government was moving the Republic toward membership in the European Economic Community, a free-trade agreement with Britain (made effective on 1 July 1966), and improved relations with Northern Ireland. The old political coordinates definitely appeared to be shifting. In fact, what was placed on view during the jubilee was not an introspective preoccupation with the past, but rather a keen desire to project outward a more positive view of Ireland and its future. The task was more difficult than is suggested by the common image of the commemoration as a moment of unrestrained self-congratulation. Domestically, long-standing economic and social problems provided ample ammunition for those wishing to indict the state and its governing party. The languishing position of the Irish language, the continuation of partition, and the scale of emigration gave added force to the charge that the ideals of the Easter-week rebels had not been achieved. As a result, underneath the external bravado of the state's commemoration of the 1916 Rising lay a significant [End Page 12] undercurrent of uncertainty and ambivalence. This was also true in relation to the promotion of the anniversary abroad.
The Politics of Promoting the Rising
The central message that Irish diplomats intended to convey to an international audience during the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising was that Ireland was a modern, forward-looking nation. This required a degree of management for an anniversary that purported to be celebrating a moment from the past involving an attack on Britain in the midst of the First World War. Moreover, under certain readings of Irish history, the Easter Rising could be viewed as an act of rejection of the modernity associated with the British empire, and indeed as confirmation of Ireland's backwardness. It therefore seemed important that the event be promoted as a positive assertion of independence rather than...