In the long story that is the history of the Irish people there have been many defining moments. Occasions when in the words of the American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt ‘’we have had a rendezvous with destiny.’’
In our recent history some of these moments have been:
– The 1798 Rebellion, which despite being a military failure, showed us a new way of organising society, a way which promised greater respect and regard for the dignity and freedom of the individual.
– The Great Famine of the 1840’s which decimated our people but created an Irish Diaspora which continues to define us at home and abroad.
– And of course, 1916, a week which proved to be the catalyst for so much that has happened to us subsequently as a people.
Like ’98, ’16 was a military failure, but it set our country on a new trajectory. The prevailing view of Ireland at the time was encapsulated in a remark made to the Duke of Rutland in 1784 “Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.’’
The men and women of 1916 refused to accept this analysis.
Writing of the Rising in 1966 Dr Garrett Fitzgerald noted that ‘’ it was planned by men who feared that without a dramatic gesture of this kind the sense of national identity that had survived all the hazards of the centuries would flicker out ignominiously within their lifetime, leaving Ireland psychologically as well as legally… an integral part of the United Kingdom.’’
1916, heroic, but doomed to fail allowed us to dream again, to imagine in the words of George Bernard Shaw ‘’things that never were and say why not?’’
In the words of Yeats those seven days of Easter ‘’ changed everything and a terrible beauty was born.’’ The beauty to imagine and the freedom to go where imagination led.
The words of President Higgins some years ago in New York could well be applied to 1916. Reflecting on the effects of the Famine he reminded us that ‘’ in transience an enormous creativity happens.’’
The transience of Easter Week, tragic and futile as it appeared at the time, released a great creativity, a great energy, again in the words of Garrett Fitzgerald, ‘ 1916 was an event of enormous emotional power.’
The men and women of 1916 dreamed of a social order which recognised and promoted the material needs of people but they also understood that in the words of Scripture ‘’man does not live on bread alone.’’
The 1916 Proclamation is explicit in its recognition of the transcendent. It begins ‘’ In the name of God ‘’ and it finishes by saying ‘’ We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the most High God.’’
I believe that the rest of the 20th century provides enough evidence to show that when societies are not underpinned by a sense of the transcendent, however beguiling materially, life can become soul-destroying, repressive and dehumanising.
Religion, despite sometimes falling spectacularly short of its ideals, gives expression to the side of our human nature which calls us to look above and beyond, the side which challenges us to be more than we think we can be.
1916 was a very public event, played out mainly on the streets of Dublin, though in the spirit of ’98 rebels turned out here in Enniscorthy too, and for four days the tricolour flew defiantly over the town until Padraig Pearse himself ordered the rebel surrender.
We sometimes forget that public figures like the people who led the 1916 Rising, are also private people, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, husbands.
We are so used to seeing them in their public role we can be blind to the fact that off stage, as it were, they loved and were loved, belonged to, and are still missed by their families.
The poignant lyrics of songs like ‘’Grace‘’ describing the love of Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford and their wedding in Kilmainham jail seven hours before he was executed brings this home to us in a very moving way, especially the Chorus Line ‘ there won’t be time for us to share our love, for we must say goodbye.’
The men and women of 1916 are gone from us physically and separated from us in time, but their memory remains, their love of country, their love of freedom, and their willingness to risk everything for what they believed in.
In looking at the 1916 leaders and their motivation let us not be afraid to acknowledge the influential role faith played in their lives. As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has observed recently ‘’ each of the leading figures had a personal story of faith which accompanied them on their journey.’’
1916 has been transformational, it has changed our country, it has changed us. As we remember the people of 1916 we are changed in the remembering, in that sense they are still touching us, still inspiring us.
On this centenary anniversary we remember all those who lost their lives on that fateful Easter week, the men, women, and children who died on the streets of Dublin, the equivalent number of Irishmen who died that week on the Western Front, the British soldiers and R.I.C. who perished in the Rising, many of whom were Irish.
All of them were caught up in events which had been set in motion many years before and which converged in bloody culmination on the streets of Dublin and the trenches of the Western Front in April 1916.
Easter Week 1916 set the Irish people on a new path. Not everything that has happened since has been glorious, not all the high hopes that fuelled the Rising have been realised, but because of that unexpected, and initially unpromising, rendezvous with destiny, we have been able to chart our own distinctive course as a free people.
A century later and the journey goes on, we are still writing our story, still trying to make real the promise and the dream of 1916.
We owe it to the legacy of 1916 to do it in the spirit of the Proclamation itself which states ‘’ its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation……cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’’
On this Easter Monday, we remember with gratitude the small handful of men and women who gave us the confidence to realise that we had, and still have, a story to tell, and a destiny to realise.
Ar dheis De go raibh siad.
Bishop of Ferns