17 April 2006

In step with history

Irish Independent

**I am including this article not for the sentiments expressed, but for its description of yesterday's commemoration

More than 120,000 turn out to honour 1916 heroes

IT took some of us by surprise, this communal catch in the throat, when drums rolled and the Tricolour fluttered to the top of its flagpole above the GPO.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usFor a time on this special Easter Sunday, eyes misted over and the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets of Dublin found a common bond, united in a sense of national pride and belonging.

Photo: Bertie Ahern at Kilmainham Gaol - from the Telegraph

Outside of all the pomp and political posturing, an extraordinary groundswell of public emotion cut to the core of yesterday's 1916 parade in Dublin.

The atmosphere along the route was celebratory, yet reverential, good-natured and good-humoured, patriotic but not triumphalist.

This uncomplicated and confident response to what could have been a very controversial event will remain in the memory longer than any display of military hardware or any high-powered mustering of establishment big guns. Yesterday was about reinstating a 'pilfered' past to all the people of Ireland, allowing the nation to slip back in step with history again.

The size and the conduct of the crowd showed that we have recovered our appetite for looking back.

And we've always liked a day out.

The ceremony in O'Connell Street began just before midday, after the preliminaries of seating the VIPs had been accomplished.

Diplomats were placed on one viewing stand, relatives of 1916 and Defence Forces veterans in another and politicians had one all to themselves.

The politicians arrived by motorcade from their first reception of the day, and included the entire Cabinet, opposition leaders, and a motley collection of backbenchers and senators. Bringing up the rear was the sole Sinn Fein representative at the commemoration.

Louth TD Arthur Morgan, Easter lily stuck on his lapel, was the Shinner who drew the short straw.

The British Ambassador, Stewart Eldon, sat in the middle of the front row of the diplomatic stand and he looked happy to be out.

Thankfully, these are changed times, when a 1916 commemoration can be held outside the GPO and Her Majesty's representative in Eire is a welcome and honoured guest.

First of the big guns not to arrive attached to a jeep's tow-bar was Defence Minister Willie O'Dea.

According to the army announcer, he was "arriving on parade". We had to take him at his word, as Willie was escorted to his spot by two very large officers, and we couldn't see him.

The Lord Mayor, Catherine Byrne, was next, and she got a round of applause, which must have been a bit disconcerting for the minister.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usAs midday approached, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern marched purposefully towards the stand, followed soon after by President Mary McAleese, who wore a stunning military-style coat in an unusual shade of sage green.

President Mary McAleese - photo from Gulf Times

So far, so humdrum. But the mood was to change. With Her Excellency, the Taoiseach and Willie O'Dea standing opposite the GPO, the national flag was lowered, to a piper's lament, from above the portico.

Then Captain Tom Byrne stepped forward from behind the columns and read the Proclamation aloud in a strong, unwavering voice. When he finished, the crowd applauded.

After the Proclamation, the Restoration.

Thanks to Bertie's plan, 1916 was no longer the sole preserve of self-appointed "republicans".

The clock had turned midday. With the evocative strains of 'Mise Eire' lingering on the air, President McAleese stepped forward and placed a wreath in front of the historic building. There followed a one-minute silence - impeccably observed by the huge crowd and then the trumpeters sounded 'The Last Post'.

Among the relatives and veterans, old soldiers took off their spectacles and wiped away the tears.

There were tears, too, in the Taoiseach's eyes. He wasn't alone.

Interestingly, many in the crowd were too young to have heard the 1916 arguments rehearsed over the years, or to bother about stuff like revisionism, or the ownership of the struggle. But they were in their city for this Easter Sunday morning.

In the stillness, the President stepped back and the national flag was raised from half mast to full mast. When that happened, you could hear the applause swell from streets away.

On O'Connell Street, the crowd cheered - something they didn't do in 1916. Those discommoded masses of 90 years ago were replaced yesterday by a more comfortable and contented citizenry.

Dublin's 21st century response to the Easter Rising was warm and heartfelt.

After all the years of wrangling, the mythologising and the propagandising, it remains their history.

The band sounded Reveille before the familiar opening notes of the National Anthem struck up. Along the street, there was touching sight - scores of elderly men removing their hats for Amhran na bhFiann. A throwback to another era.

And people sang their hearts out. Among the politicians, Justice Minister Michael McDowell belted out the words, but getting a good run for his money from Education Minister Mary Hanafin. Sinn Fein's Arthur Morgan wasn't singing.

Arthur excepted, this was one of the most joyous and enthusiastic renditions of the National Anthem heard in recent years - outside of a football stadium.

And when this full-throated expression of the anthem finished, the crowd gave themselves another big cheer.

Time for the parade. Military parades don't float everybody's boat. Or in yesterday's case, they don't float everybody's rigid inflatable boats.

The Naval Service had three of these large dinghy-type vessels in the parade, stuffed to the gunnels with fully kitted-out officers, trying to imagine they were skimming the ocean waves instead of being pulled behind trucks down O'Connell Street. First past the main reviewing stand was a brigadier general standing up in the front seat of an open jeep and saluting.

The first of many big guns rolled by. Twenty-five pounder artillery pieces, towed by more jeep-type vehicles with officers standing up through the sunroof and saluting.

A bomb disposal display rumbled past, complete with a plastic figure of a soldier preparing to dismantle what appeared to be a rocket suspended from a frame. Arthur Morgan took great interest in this, while behind, Tony Gregory smirked at him.

There were lots of camouflage jackets and alarmingly large backpacks.

More big guns and a large number of armoured personnel carriers called Mowags of which the Defence Forces appear inordinately proud.

See one Mowag and you see them all, so we turned our thoughts to Sinn Fein's flag carrier, the amiable Arthur, and wondered what he was making of the parade, and whether he was having difficulty recognising the real Oglaigh na hEireann marching past.

Perhaps he was ruminating on the blood sacrifice made by the men and women of 1916 - although the emphasis for the parade commentary was very much on the accomplishments of today's armed forces, particularly in the area of peacekeeping duties overseas.

The passing pomp was being recorded for posterity by a battalion of photographers, perched on the roof the the Ann Summers shop, an emporium promoting a type of freedom the men and women of 1916 could never have contemplated.

A number of flypasts punctuated the occasion. The Air Corps might have a case for a few more planes, considering that the Government Jet was pressed into action to take the bare look off things.

And the gardai pitched in too with their two helicopters flying low over O'Connell Street. A bit late, granted, for the riots in February, but they meant well.

The might of the Defence Forces took an hour to rumble by. Then the politicians repaired to an exclusive reception in the GPO, while the relatives went for cocktail sausages and sandwiches in the Gresham Hotel.

However, mindful of how this might look, Taoiseach Ahern led a Cabinet charge across to the hotel a few minutes later.

Willie O'Dea and the de Valera political double act of Sile Dev and Eamon O'Cuiv were all in great demand for signing commemorative programmes, while we knew it was time to scarper when Minister McDowell declared the exercise "a spectacular success" and then began to reminisce about his days in the FCA. He confessed afterwards that he still has the coat from those halcyon days in 1971.

Then the Taoiseach put the fear of God in everyone, except people who call themselves consultants, when he ventured the opinion that every single day of the next decade still wouldn't be enough time to plan for the centenary commemoration in 2016.

Still, by anybody's yardstick, yesterday's parade was a success, touching a chord among the most cynical among us.

Some things never change, though.

Overheard coming through on a garda radio to officers in O'Connell Street: "We have a volunteer under the influence of alcohol, with a head injury . . . "

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