With Easter Monday’s Reflecting the Rising, RTE (Ireland's national broadcaster) promised to share the unique sights and sounds and stories of 1916 and that's exactly what they delivered. The biggest public event in the history of the state, the event was an unforgettable mix of reenactment and commentary, and it was also an unqualified triumph. Cahir O'Doherty attended the Dublin exhibitions, walking tours, street events and more that brought long dead history back to radiant life.
How do I know that RTE's Reflecting the Rising, the biggest public event in the history of the state, was an unqualified success? Because 100 years after the events of 1916 it brought the sights and sounds of the week that changed Irish history vividly back to the Dublin’s streets.
The big official state commemoration had happened a day earlier on Easter Sunday, and it had been a dignified and stately affair. It had proceeded seamlessly too, from the arrival of President Michael D. Higgins to the dramatic flyovers by the Irish Air Corps.
But the most electrifying moment of the day belonged perhaps inevitably to the long dead Patrick Pearse. When Captain Peter Kelleher of 27th Infantry Battalion stepped out from under the Ionic columns of the GPO to read the Proclamation in the street, all of the predictable statecraft gave way to something richer and stranger, as it must have done for the bewildered passersby in 1916.
It's one thing to read the Proclamation, but it's another thing entirely to hear an officer in an Irish Army uniform read it aloud outside the very building where it announced the start of the revolution. History comes to life in front of your eyes. You realize you are all there today because Pearse once was.
This, you realize, changed the nation's destiny. It was more than just an ill-fated, poorly planned revolt. W.B. Yeats was exactly right. It changed everything.
Watching the events unfold from the media press box on O'Connell Street on Sunday afternoon, I imagined that nothing would top the sight of Captain Kelleher, who was wisely assigned the role and played his part to perfection. But I wouldn't have to wait 24 hours to discover I was wrong.
Monday the 28th of March was a glorious spring morning in Dublin. After a fortifying Irish breakfast I stepped out onto the street on my way to the media center that was the nerve center for Reflecting the Rising's national events.
Hoping for a shortcut, I stepped into the famous Stephen's Green to enjoy the light of the morning in a natural setting. The park never disappoints a casual visitor. The daffodils were up and catching the sunlight, and ducks sailed leisurely along the surface of the ponds eyeing passerby for bread crumbs. I stood for a moment to take in the tranquil scene when suddenly a bandaged and bloodied young Irish soldier ran past me.
Moments later six other young Volunteers followed after him, all of them racing toward an event further toward Grafton Street. I was startled by their sudden appearance. I'm not sure why, but the sight of that bandaged soldier so early in the morning was the most evocative sight I saw during the centenary weekend.
I met him alone near a bridge. He went running past me looking like he'd just come from a gun battle. I wasn't expecting it and the sight made me gasp.
The young lads that followed him were wearing impressive but slightly ill-fitting army uniforms (still a little too big for their teenage frames). It was poignant, I thought, because that's what they must have looked like in 1916. Still barely out of their teens, many of them.
Their courage in taking on the biggest empire the world has ever seen can't be understated. Of course I already knew that in my mind, but the sight of them running past made me feel it.
The old pictures I had studied as a teenager in high school took on a new unexpected urgency when those uniforms were filled with flesh and blood. That was the magic of Reflecting the Rising.
Like everyone else, I have complex feelings about Irish history and politics, but the dignity with which the nation commemorated 1916 this week has made my admiration for this country and this people unconditional.
Poets, philosophers (four of the 1916 Proclamation signatories were playwrights) and the young gave us our freedom, Reflecting the Rising reminded us on Monday.
The love they must have felt for their country and each other stops me in my tracks too. That's a thing to celebrate. It was right that we did.
Still reeling a bit from that ghostly encounter, I realized that I could faintly hear someone singing. The song, with its formality and high notes, sounded like something from the long dead past.
That's when I recognized the tune: “The Last Rose of Summer.” I follow the sound to a bandstand where a young woman in the fashions of 1916 was singing to an enraptured crowd.
Her voice was very strong and it carried as she sang: “When true hearts lie withered and fond ones are flown/Oh who would inhabit this bleak world alone?”
These are only the first sights of the morning but thanks to the inspired planning of RTE, I am already heart-shot. In a few minutes they have managed to do what two decades of school teachers couldn't: they made me feel as well as think. This event is genius.
Further along there's a Wishes Tree set up to commemorate the children who were killed in 1916. You were given a slip of paper, each with a different line from the Proclamation, then you were invited to write your own modern day wish and hang it on a nearby tree. Wishes that I read included, “I just wish to win the Lotto.” Another read, “I wish Naoise would kiss me.”
Events were already underway in a host of white summer tents on Stephen’s Green from early morning. The bread (Batch loaves and Blaas) and Gur cake of the period were baked and served to visitors. Walking tour guides told us that the volunteers had dug combat trenches in this very park, which saw heavy fighting. The most serene of places, we were all incredibly surprised to hear this.
Getting to O'Connell Street was easy as most of the city center has been closed to traffic. This meant I had the time and space to see the period dressed soldiers, and there were hundreds of them. There were also singing Cumann na mBan (the Irish republican women's paramilitary organization) members and even fancily dressed Anglo Irish aristocrats mingling through the crowds.
The Cumann na mBan women wore holsters on both hips and looked like they knew how to use them. Many of them had Easter lilies pinned to their breast. It was remarkable to see them dart though the crowds. It felt like time traveling.
Later on another tour through the General Post Office, the guide tells us that many of the men in the GPO were technically English. Children of Irish parents, they had come to Ireland from Irish strongholds like Liverpool and Manchester to avoid conscription in the Great War, only to find themselves up to their eyes in an Irish insurrection.
Many of the women fighting in the GPO were gay, the guide also informed us. One of them was Elizabeth O'Farrell, the spirited nurse who delivered the surrender note to the British. She had walked alongside Pearse (who was also rumored by some to be gay) as they surrendered, the guide told us.
He reminded us then what a progressive document the Proclamation actually is, with its appeals for social justice for both Irish men and Irish women, offering equal rights and promising to cherish all citizens. It's a promise that still has to be completely fulfilled he added, but the foundation was strong.
A Luas (tram) strike had made getting into town a nightmare for many, but they clearly managed. O'Connell Street was filled with visitors and the mood was festive throughout.
The day concluded with a major performance called Centenary with singers Imelda May, The High Kings, Sharon Shannon, Donal Lunny and others taking to the stage to raise their voices in support of the centenary.
The cultural emphasis of Reflecting the Rising was a profoundly successful reminder that it was poets, philosophers and playwrights that were the driving force of the revolution. It was also an unforgettable reminder of how much we owe them.