16 April 2006

Peace allows painful memory for Irish


Easter Rising to be celebrated for first time in 40 years

Sunday, April 16, 2006
Posted: 0212 GMT

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The Eden Quay area is in ruins after the Irish Republican Army's armed rebellion on Easter in 1916.

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) -- Imagine a United States that felt uncomfortable celebrating the Fourth of July. Or a France that greeted Bastille Day with mute embarrassment. That has been the strange story of modern Ireland.

But it's about to change in historic fashion.

On Sunday, for the first time in 40 years, the government will preside over a major celebration of the Easter Rising, the 1916 insurrection in Dublin that inspired Ireland's war of independence from Britain.

The timing and scale reflect a recognition that, with Northern Ireland's bloodshed ebbing, it's again safe to celebrate the memory of that earlier bloodshed -- that an event linked in the public mind to the outlawed Irish Republican Army can be reclaimed for the whole nation.

"Just as nobody should seek to own Irish history, nobody should seek to disown it either," Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said in opening a National Museum exhibit of the rebellion, the 1919-21 war of independence, and the fledgling Irish state's civil war of 1922-23.

Sunday's commemoration will be highlighted by a military and police parade past government leaders at the General Post Office, the iconic headquarters for the weeklong rebellion whose marble columns still bear bullet marks from 90 years ago.

The Rising was mounted by about 1,500 revolutionaries who seized key British government buildings in Dublin and waited for British soldiers, many of them Irishmen, to shell and shoot them out.

"In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom," said the rebel manifesto.

A week later, about 450 civilians, soldiers, police and rebels were dead. As they were led away in handcuffs, the rebel survivors were spat upon and cursed by their fellow Dubliners, many of them wives of the more than 140,000 Irishmen fighting and dying in British uniform on the Western Front of World War I.
'A terrible beauty'

Yet a 'pathetic failure' became a political triumph, historians agree, because the British executed 16 rebel commanders and subordinates, transforming them into martyrs and radicalizing the Irish electorate in favor of guerrilla warfare for independence. "A terrible beauty is born," went an immortal line in W.B. Yeats' poem "Easter 1916."

But arguments abound on practically everything else, fueled by the fact that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the two biggest parties of modern Ireland, are descended from the political forces that formed opposite sides in the civil war to come.

Fianna Fail's founding father, Eamon de Valera, led the opposition to the 1921 treaty that forged the new southern Irish state -- a pact that, to critics, kept Ireland too symbolically tied to Britain. Fine Gael's forebears accepted the treaty and crushed de Valera's rebels. Yet it was de Valera who would become independent Ireland's dominant figure.

Another major party of today, Labour, celebrates a faction in the rebel ranks that hoped the Rising would spark a Marxist revolution.

And then there's Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that claims direct descent from the rebels. Its leaders are addressing more than 100 commemorative events across the island this weekend, many by the graves of long-dead rebels.

Ireland's parties are engaged "in a scramble for the bones of the patriot dead," said Diarmaid Ferriter, a history lecturer at Dublin City University.
Debate lives on

Over the past week, history's what-ifs were fought out in newspapers, public debates and pubs: Was the Rising necessary? Or could Ireland have negotiated peacefully for gradual freedom? Does support for the rebels mean support for the IRA? Does criticism of the rebels equal an absence of patriotism?

Had the island not been partitioned in such disputed circumstances "there would be no sense of discomfort now about remembering the beginnings of independent Ireland," columnist John Waters wrote in The Irish Times.

Ireland's political establishment stopped celebrating the Rising after the IRA started a campaign of bombing and shooting in hopes of ending British rule of Northern Ireland. The IRA called a cease-fire in 1997 and last year disarmed.

That farewell to IRA arms has made an official commemoration of bloody 1916 possible again, analysts agree.

But they say Fianna Fail, Ahern's long-dominant party, is also concerned that peace in Northern Ireland has boosted Sinn Fein's popularity south of the border. Some forecast that the party, so long in the political wilderness, could win enough parliamentary seats in elections next year to hold the balance of power.

"Fianna Fail want to reclaim the legacy of 1916 because they see Sinn Fein as a big electoral threat," said political analyst Stephen Collins.

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