Let’s not pretend the 1916 Rising was about water charges or smashing the patriarchy

Which moment of the 1916 Rising will you most celebrate: the bit when The O’Rahilly charged down Moore Street shouting about Irish Water, or the bit when Padraig Pearse used his last breath to berate the British for the lack of gender balance on the firing squad?

As we get closer to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the list of causes the Rising leaders stood for will steadily grow.

We got a taster of this last year when it was claimed that the passing of same-sex marriage would be a fitting way to pay tribute to the Rising. The passing of the referendum was a hugely important moment in Irish social history but it does seem questionable to claim it as the legacy of former Ancient Order of Hibernians member Sean MacDermott.

The coming months will see the patriot dead unwittingly intervene in a range of policy debates and current affairs. The Government will tell us that the Rising leaders fought for employment and economic prosperity, while the Opposition will declare that Plunkett and MacDonagh would have opposed the property tax and probably not liked Denis O’Brien very much.

Without doubt an election candidate in a rural constituency will contrast the importance of the GPO with recent government policy towards their local post office. Somebody will probably reveal Thomas Clarke’s opinion pedestrianisation of College Green.

post office closures in ireland
The 1916 commemorations will reopen old wounds about the closure of rural post offices.

The difficulty with commemorations is that we tend to use them in order to publicise the bits of history we think will best serve our current agenda. How closely this tallies with what actually happened is a secondary concern.

That is why we will hear much about all the good stuff in the Proclamation and not so much of the ultra-nationalistic jargon that accompanied it. Don’t expect to see “#bloodsacrifice” trending any time soon.

The new RTÉ series Rebellion, which is based on the events of Easter Week 1916 in Dublin, provides a glimpse of this. The main characters in the series are all Irish Citizen Army members (i.e. socialists) and predominantly female, promoting an interpretation of the Rising as a gender-equal popular revolt against the ruling class.

Rebellion is a thoroughly enjoyable series and an excellent dramatic production but we have to accept that the main characters are not representative of most people who manned the barricades that week.

Just over 2,500 pensions were given to people acknowledged to have actively participated in the 1916 Rising. Of these, roughly 250 were Irish Citizens Army and 230 were women. In other words, approximately 10 per cent of the Rising participants were socialist and 10 per cent were women. How any of them felt about same-sex marriage or Irish Water is unknown.

It would give me great pleasure if the 1916 Rising had been dominated by the Irish Citizen Army and jointly led by women, but it simply isn’t the case.

Despite this, there appears to be a growing belief that Patrick Pearse marched into the GPO with the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in one hand and Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’ in the other.

The 1916 Rising was essentially a nationalist insurrection. The over-whelming majority of those taking part simply sought national independence. Some were socialists, some were feminists, a handful would later go on to become fascists, but the vast majority believed in the traditional nationalist craze that was sweeping European battlefields at the time like some sort of insane ideological Macarena.

The 1916 Rising was a seismic moment in Irish history, one which undoubtedly changed the future course of this island. Some of those changes were positive, while others were profoundly negative. Any analysis that air-brushes this fact has as much credibility as a North Korean opinion poll.

Even discussing the legacy of the Rising is to lose sight of the fact that historical events are precisely that: moments of their time that should not be viewed through modern lenses. The Europe of the early 20th century was dominated by nationalist thinking, which is why Patrick Pearse could say things like “the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields” and still be regarded as a suitable school headmaster and not, for example, an ISIS recruiter.

The simple truth is that you can’t leap inside the minds of the patriot dead to find out their take on the woes of a liberal, democratic state floating in the ocean of an integrated EU and globalised economy because Ireland of 2016 is so completely alien to what they knew.

And, of course, the fact that they were all killed (as per their plan) meant that they never had to stand over any actual policy decisions, which is probably for the best because, let’s face it, Patrick Pearse was an iconic revolutionary but probably nobody’s first choice Minister for Trade.

This is a Benetton ad and not, as some would believe, a portrait of the 1916 leaders.

Remembering the 1916 Rising as a gender-equal people’s rebellion led by liberal poets may make us feel all fuzzy inside but it also does a disservice to our history by deliberately misremembering an historical moment to comfortably fit in with a modern view of how we would have liked it to have been.

We want the Ireland of 2016 to be a liberal, egalitarian paradise and so we construct a simplified interpretation of the Rising to promote that agenda, ignoring the fact that those who took part came from a huge range of backgrounds and would not all have been considered natural Guardian readers.

The Rising is important because of its place in our history and that’s why it deserves to be commemorated, but those commemorations should not feel the need to glorify it, criticise it or put modern interpretations on it.

Mark it. Reflect on it. Think about it. Celebrate it or complain about it as you see fit.

Just don’t tell me it was about the need to improve cycling lanes in Dublin.

5 thoughts on “Let’s not pretend the 1916 Rising was about water charges or smashing the patriarchy

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      1. It is a very common mistake, even around his homeland in Tipperary many people spell it wrong.
        On another note the plaque to Sean Treacy on Talbot St where he fell has his name spelt wrongly also. It was erected in 1937 and spells it Tracey which is the girls name. While the plaque is well meaning I do feel it is an insult to the man’s memory.


  1. Great piece, really enjoyed it. Id have the same view on colonialism. It was also a by product of its time and blaming Britain for 700 years etc etc should be taken in context. Main issue i have with the rising is it was totally against what the vast majority of Irish people wanted at the time. They didn’t want to be allied to Germany no matter how horrific the war was in europe. The most important revolutions in history have been through the mass uprising of the people, however 1916 was a tiny minority who were incredibly arrogant in declaring themselves to be absolutely correct in their actions. Such a mentality was and is dangerous, it proved to have a toxic legacy also in inspiring future Irish ‘revolutionaries’ to act how they saw fit despite being in a tiny minority.


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