2016 is the centenary of an event in Irish history that set the template for a nation. On April 24, 1916 a handful of men and women, led by a motley group of poets, writers and revolutionaries, took on the might of the British Empire and the Crown forces, to declare the birth of the Irish Republic. For six turbulent days, they fought before they were overcome, Dublin city destroyed and more than 500 died.
In the aftermath of this disturbance, Ireland was put under martial law and within three weeks, 14 of the Rising’s leaders were tried by court martial and then shot by British firing squads. Then public opinion was charged with outrage. Public opposition to the armed disturbance turned to support for their separatist ideals and condemnation of the British government.
The blood sacrifice of the defeated insurrectionists of 1916 rallied the population to their aspiration for a free Irish state, independent of the British Empire.
Within two years, Sinn Féin (Ourselves Alone), the political party that championed their ideals, swept up more than 90% of the seats in a general election and then refused to take their seats in the British House of Commons. Instead, they established the first Dàil, a separate Irish parliament and declared their independence.
Two years of armed struggle ensued as the British sought to quell this new challenge to their hegemony in Ireland but the republicans had learned their lesson from the slaughter of 1916 and fought a guerilla war. By late 1921, overtures for peace were made and by August, 1922, a treaty was signed and the Irish Free State was established.
The treaty brought with it many headaches. Its terms, a separated Ireland of 26 counties with six northern counties retaining membership of the United Kingdom, brought bitter division between the forces that had fought for independence and a bitter Civil War followed. Those divisions have remained central to the political culture and history of the following century.
Anything that followed, including the declaration of an independent Irish Republic and the subsequent turbulence in Northern Ireland, has been defined by the aspirations expressed in the 1916 Proclamation. This created an anomaly in the political identity of the country, as though anything that followed has been measured against the political aspirations of a tiny group of revolutionaries, motivated by their own beliefs and without any popular, democratic mandate.
Those revolutionaries were made up of not one, but three, revolutionary groups. First, there was the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary group within the Irish Volunteers, that traced its lineage back through a century of clandestine insurrection. Second, was the Irish Citizen Army, an armed force established in 1913 by revolutionary socialist and trade unionist, James Connolly, expressly to defend striking workers against the repressive actions of the Dublin Metropolitan police. Connolly was recruited into the IRB and was a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation. Finally, there was Cumann na mBan, a paramilitary group of Irish women that became an auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers who fought in 1916.
Left to right, clockwise…Dublin brigade of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, Declaration of the Irish Republic, badge insignia of Cumann na mban, the Irish women’s auxiliary of Volunteers
The involvement of these three separate groups informed the aspirations and ideals of an Irish Republic expressed in the Easter Proclamation.
This year Ireland is commemorating the 1916 Rising but even the nature and style of the commemoration plans have been fraught with controversy. The Government’s initial plans were attacked by historians who accused them of trying to write the revolutionaries and what they stood for, out of the picture. The coalition government, on the other hand, is made up as it of a majority party that traces its origins back to the pro-treaty forces that established the Free State in 1922 and a Labour party whose own history and political development has been stunted by Connolly’s actions in subsuming the socialist revolutionary aspirations of his own movement into the drive for a separate, nationalist state, effectively turning their role in the Irish Republic’s political development into little more than a footnote.
And ranged against them is Fianna Fail, the old guard party of anti-treaty forces and the modern day, Sinn Féin, a political force grown out of the nationalist armed struggle of the past 40 odd years and more, in Northern Ireland. Of course, to complicate things further, neither of these opposition parties could acknowledge their common ground as to do so could diminish their own proprietorial claim to the legacy of 1916.
It’s as though, while the rest of the world goes about existing in the 21st century, Ireland struggles with its own political identity, stunted by a debate that began with an armed revolution, 100 years ago.
So, all these things considered, myself and some friends, decided to adress these issues in a short film drama. In our film, 1916, Souls of Freedom, two Irish republicans; one a wounded officer of the Irish Citizen Army, the other, a young, Irish Volunteer; find themselves hiding in an abandoned house in Dublin in the final days of the Easter Rising, 1916. But as the film ends with them meeting a bloody end, we realize it is not 1916, but 2016 and these two combatants are ghosts, trapped forever in their own past and tragic end, some moments echo forever.
Left to right, shooting 1916, Souls of Freedom; actors, Paul Ronan and George McMahon, cast and crew, on location