Ireland’s centenary (1916-2016)

As far as cultural memory and memorialization go, this Easter weekend’s events in Ireland are heaven for the interested. It will take me a bit of time to process all impressions from the country’s major celebrations for this centennial anniversary of its Easter Rising (1916). But here are three thoughts to start with: about parallels, about information, and about congeniality of the ceremonial.

Remember, reflect, reimagine — motto of the Centenary Programme

1.  The majority of Dubliners in 1916 were far from crazy about the people organizing the rebellion. It was, to put things in a fairly simplified way, a general inconvenience during that Easter weekend. But when the rebels were executed by the British authorities (with one so heavily wounded that he couldn’t stand to be shot — he was famously killed while sitting), the Irish rose in fury.

One cannot but ponder some parallels to recent events in Ukraine, where a bunch of (mostly) students went to sit on a square in 2013. It was not they, but the police brutality towards them, that shook the residents of the country into rising in 2013.

In another similarity, the Proclamation of the Republic called for “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, […] oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.” Today, such “carefully fostered” differences are powerfully engaged in the war in east Ukraine, leaving it up to the residents to hold themselves together as one nation.

2. The big parade in Dublin — Easter Sunday State Commemoration Ceremony and Parade — did not differ from most military parades around the world: various armored vehicles passed by cheering crowds. However, some things struck me as unusual, given my experience of such parades in the Soviet Union in the past. Among these was the authorities’ painstaking effort to keep the crowds constantly informed.

Prior to this anniversary weekend, numerous details — full of dates, facts, and pictures — were spread around all public places (like this DART rail car we took to Dun Laoghaire). Just by being in Ireland these days, I learned more about the Easter Rising than from anything I may have read earlier.

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DART rail car in March 2016 (Dublin, Ireland)

On the day of the parade, Easter Sunday, a loud voice from outdoor speakers incessantly announced every single thing that was to happen during the ceremony, as well as why it was happening. The announcer not only narrated every move of the event’s main participants, but also gave previews of all upcoming parts of the ceremony. Honestly, for those standing in the perpetually-changing weather of the island (we were heated by the sun and slapped by rain in the course of a few minutes), it felt a bit like the informative reassurances you’d want to hear from your doctor when you can’t quite tell what she is doing. Meanwhile, giant screens offered broadcasts of the main parts of the commemoration ceremony, and played various brief educational clips (e.g. “The Women of the Rising”) as well.

3. Balancing pride with grief is not a skill known to most governments. Yet Ireland seems to have managed it this year, weaving celebration into mourning (and vice versa) in its Centenary Programme. And despite the solemn occasion, I was impressed by a distinct atmosphere of good humour in the crowd.

When buses with solders passed us by, for instance, we saw a young man snoozing against the window in the back of one of them. He was completely gone, his cheek pressed against the glass like a baby’s. The crowd had a good laugh, and someone said behind me: “Imagine what time that poor fellow had to get up, you know, to be all ready to go this morning!” These same good-natured folks took off their hats at the sound of the national anthem.

That unfortunate snoozing soldier, embarrassingly still behind all his waving comrades, turned out to be quite symbolic of the general congeniality of events, in which the military personnel readily smiled from their vehicles. I’m not a fan of war machinery by any means, and so remained consistently unimpressed with the technical details specified by the tireless announcer for the crowds. But I could appreciate the unfathomable (for a Soviet parade) balance of the military’s apparent approachability with the undeniable seriousness of the occasion.

It’s worth adding that no one — and I mean no one — spoke around me during the two (separate) minutes of silence. I’m not sure I’ve experienced this before.

In a prayer said as part of the ceremony that morning, a priest asked god to guide the people of Ireland in holding no malice against anyone. This was, in fact, the first thing he said at the microphone. A fairly atypical move for most ceremonies involving grief and war, it appears to be fundamental to what the country is trying to do this year. I’m so glad I got to witness it along with the many, many visitors who joined the Irish people this weekend.

For more information and historical coverage, visit http://www.ireland.ie. Meanwhile, here’s a song I heard on the radio in County Donegal, my father’s homeland:

“Daddy, please don’t go across the river.
I won’t sleep tonight if you’re not here.
Today I heard mom crying in the kitchen…
Daddy, tell me, what’s a volunteer?”

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