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Will the truth about the Rising and Somme be heard this year?

By Alf McCreary

Published 16/01/2016

Dublin in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising
Dublin in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising

In their joint New Year message, the Irish Church leaders expressed the hope that in 2016 "our memories and commemorations of the past, alongside our hopes and longings for the future, may strengthen our resolve to live together in harmony".

These are fine words that reasonable people will applaud, but there are many unreasonable people on this island, and one wonders how far the hopes of our Church leaders will be fulfilled.

Already new First Minister Arlene Foster has stated firmly that she will not take part in official commemorations of the 1916 Rising, and that is hardly a surprising reaction from a new leader of the DUP.

However, it is interesting to speculate if Dr Ian Paisley would have accepted such an invitation from Dublin's political leaders, about whom he mellowed in his advancing years.

One of the difficulties about remembering the past is that so many people know so little about it. To republicans, the 1916 Rising was the holy grail upon which all modern nationalism is founded, and in the coming year we will see many reflections of this not only from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, but also from Dublin.

Recently I had to re-read my way through Irish history while researching for a book about a prestigious Dublin medical college, and the facts about the 1916 Rising are not what modern republicans want to hear. The Rising was greeted, initially, by the Dublin population with a mixture of surprise, bewilderment, indifference and outright hostility. However, the over-reaction of the British in suppressing it, including the execution of the leaders, finally swung public opinion behind the insurrection.

In six days of fighting, 132 soldiers and police were killed, but only 79 rebels. However, there were greater civilian casualties - 318 people, including women and children, died, and 2,217 were wounded. One suspects that not a lot will be heard this year about the civilian casualties.

Soon after the Rising, the 36th (Ulster) Division suffered horrendous casualties at the Battle of the Somme. In the first two days more than 5,500 officers and other ranks were killed and wounded, or were rendered missing.

There was supreme gallantry from the Ulster men and many others, but also the massive incompetence of British generals who sent the men to their inevitable slaughter, thus earning the vivid and deserved description of "lions led by donkeys".

How much of this will be reflected in this year's Somme Centenary commemorations? The reality of history sits uneasily on all of us, and the best that can hoped from the commemorations is that people on both sides will open their minds and learn something about what actually happened.

This point was well put by the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin, who warned in his New Year's message: "We must resist being so indifferent to the other's suffering that we engage in revisionism or false glorification of the past with its tragic loss of human life on all sides."

Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry also urged caution when he said: "How we remember the Easter Rising and the Somme can sometimes say more about how we see the future than about the facts of historical events. If we plunder their memory for selfish ends, we demean the best in ourselves. Only the truth will set us free."

Now, where have you heard that last quotation before, and from whom?

'Our memory of them can say more about how we see future'

Belfast Telegraph

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