Monday 11 December 2017

Gerry Gregg: We're still haunted by the ghosts of 1916

fiasco: Centenary of the Rising is just a year away and it's still unclear how it will be commemorated. Why? asks Gerry Gregg

Gerry Adams, TD, President of Sein Fein takes a selfie with Jim Roche and Dave Swift, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army at the launch of Sein Fein's National Programme of Events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising
Gerry Adams, TD, President of Sein Fein takes a selfie with Jim Roche and Dave Swift, dressed in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army at the launch of Sein Fein's National Programme of Events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising
1916 Rising: GPO and Metropole Hotel, Dublin
Sinn Fein Easter Rising 1916 commemoration ceremony and march. Gerry Adams.
Picture shows the damage done to O'Connell Street

When he stood up to address the apprehensive ranks of the Irish Citizen Army in Liberty Hall on Easter Monday, James Connolly told his troops that they were "going out to be slaughtered". It turns out that it was ordinary Dubliners who did most of the dying for Ireland.

This week, the Glasnevin Trust revealed that 485 people lost their lives in Easter Week 1916.

Most of them were civilians. Over 80 were children and teenagers. They died because they were in the way. One of them was William Gregg (right) of Simpson's Lane in Ringsend. He was my great grandfather. He died from gunshot wounds while on his way to do a day's work.

Nobody knows whether the lethal round was fired by a rebel or a soldier. It doesn't matter now. Like all the other civilians, he did not willingly die for Ireland. William Gregg and hundreds like him were collateral damage. Unlike the national heroes who staged the carnage that destroyed the city, the civilian dead have been forgotten for nearly a century.


A hundred years ago in Dublin, Padraig Pearse and James Connolly were marginal figures lurking in the twilight zone of Irish politics. Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen were voluntarily serving in a conflict most believed was a just war against German aggression. During Easter Week the vast majority of Dubliners regarded the insurgents as traitors.

When they surrendered, the rebels were jeered and pelted with missiles as they were paraded through Dublin's gutted city centre.

Few imagined that some of these men would be deified and that one day some would lead a post-imperial Ireland.

To appreciate that turnaround in sentiment, imagine a scenario whereby the killers of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo are commemorated in Paris a hundred years from now? Impossible unless somehow or other France falls to the fanatics of Islamic State in the years to come.

The executions of the Rising's leaders changed everything. "A terrible beauty" was indeed born.

Some years ago, I was making a film on the legendary Brookeborough Raid of New Year's Day 1957. This was the ill-fated IRA attack on the Fermanagh town that cost the lives of Sean South and Fergal O'Hanlon.

1916 Rising: GPO and Metropole Hotel, Dublin

I recall speaking to Ruairi O'Bradaigh, one of the founders of the Provisional IRA about his role in the attempt to end partition by force. O'Bradaigh chuckled at my innocence and confided that while he didn't have a mandate from the people, he did have one from "history".

"That mandate of history" has been the source of much of our woes in Ireland for the last hundred years. It lies at the heart of all the hassle about what are we going to do about 1916.

Only this week, the Sinn Fein-dominated Dublin City Council voted down a proposal for what the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Heather Humphreys bizarrely called a "lovely interpretative centre that would reflect well on the area around Moore Street".

The commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising is turning out to be a fiasco. In a way we shouldn't be too surprised about that. The Rising is contentious. All our political parties lay claim to the spirit of Pearse and Connolly. But in reality the Coalition and Fianna Fail are frightened by these patriotic ghosts.

The elitist vanguard of 1916 took their mandate from "history". They didn't care much about the will of the people. In fact, Pearse felt the people had let Ireland down and needed to be shown how to love her.

The goals of the founding fathers of this state have yet to be achieved. The problem is they never will be. The Proclamation imagines a paradise.

An island of harmony, flowing with milk and honey. In reality, the insurrection coming in the middle of World War One severed the country. It created not one but two states. Northern Ireland, with its Protestant majority seceded and has resisted all attempts to coerce it back into the fold.

One party, Sinn Fein, proclaims that they alone are still dedicated to achieving the mystical Republic declared on the steps of the GPO. Uniquely Sinn Fein can boast that they have both history and many of the people behind them in their quest to end partition and make the dreams of Pearse come true. But the credentials of Gerry Adams and his comrades to "cherish all the children equally" rings hollow as the victims of Provo paedophiles come out of the darkness and demand justice. Nor can they produce a single Ulster Unionist who has seen the light and defected to their cause.

The 1916 Centenary is too important to be left to Sinn Fein and shadowy secret armies to exploit. The challenge will be to bolster the values of Irish democracy. To do that we must put the Defence Forces of this state at centre stage. They are the "volunteers" who protect us from those who follow the merciless mandate of history. They are the custodians of our freedom.

In Glasnevin Cemetery, a new 1916 Memorial will be unveiled. It will bear the names of the 485 who died. Under the protection of our soldiers and sailors would it not be a "sanctifying thing" to see the relatives of the fallen, be they Irish or English, rebel or civilian, laying wreaths on a weekly basis in memory of the dead?

That way there will be no hierarchy of victims. That way we might ward off the ghosts who bay for more blood. That way restless souls like William Gregg may be allowed to rest in peace at last.

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