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It's time to tear down Easter Rising's hierarchy of victims

The 1916 murder of unarmed policeman James O'Brien was recreated for tourists on a Dublin side-street this week to mark the Easter Rising. But was it a re-enactment too far? Yes, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 30/03/2016

Re-enactment killing of Constable James O’Brien
Re-enactment killing of Constable James O’Brien
Re-enactment killing of Constable James O’Brien
Constable James O'Brien
Sean Connolly
Adrian Ismay
Adrian Donohoe
Garda Tony Golden

Waterford Whispers is an Irish satirical news website which pokes fun at whoever and whatever happens to be in the headlines. Monday was, officially speaking, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, so naturally that's what caught the satirists' eyes.

The most popular entry that day was a fake news story describing how some of the part-time actors out on the streets of Dublin in period costume re-enacting the historic events for spectators had got a bit carried away and started shooting at parties of British tourists.

"Quite a few Irish people were hit, too," the website added, "which is a fairly accurate re-enactment when you think about it."

It was funny, because it underlined the awkwardness of recreating the events of 1916 - from gun-fights in the streets of Dublin to full-scale skirmishes in Enniscorthy - while insisting that the centenary wasn't about glorifying violence.

Most observers preferred to gloss over that aspect of the commemorations, even as many of the children at these events were brought along in period costume, complete with replica guns.

Who knew there were so many vintage firearms still around? Decommissioning clearly didn't work back then, either.

The anniversary of the Easter Rising has been full of these strange contradictions. Gerry Adams saying, "let's have another Rising", for example, while condemning dissident republicans who are doing just that.

With Sinn Fein desperate to use 1916 as another opportunity to justify a brutal Provisional IRA campaign which went on, not for six days, like the Rising, but for decades, leaving thousands dead, the Irish Government was determined to make the commemorations "inclusive and non-triumphalist". By and large, they did as promised, striking a sensitive note which acknowledged the tragic deaths on all sides in 1916.

That went for most of the re-enactments, too. The reading of the Proclamation on the steps of the GPO was a well-judged piece of political theatre and even the militaristic nature of the parade in general was an understandable effort to demonstrate that the only legitimacy to bear arms in the Irish Republic now lies with the state - not with any of the various incarnations of the IRA which have tried to steal that mantle.

But there was a slightly more troubling re-enactment organised by those behind the centenary celebrations. It took place at Dublin Castle and recreated the moment when Captain Sean Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army shot dead an unarmed member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who refused to open the gate to a group of heavily armed rebels.

The dead man's name was James O'Brien and it was a cold-blooded murder by any standards. He posed no threat whatsoever to his heavily-armed killers.

Connolly, an actor by trade, also died soon afterwards, the first on that side of the fighting to die, and both men have recently been remembered on commemorative stamps in Ireland.

It was hard not to look at photographs of the re-enactment of the moment when these two met with fatal consequences without thinking, "Really? Someone thought putting this on for tourists was a good idea?"

There is always something rather comic about re-enactments of historic events. Part of the fun is a recognition from both players and audience of the ridiculousness of what they're all doing, as middle-aged accountants dress up and pretend to be Roundheads and Cavaliers at the weekend before everyone heads to the pub for a few pints.

Here, it was done with a straight face, even as the actor playing O'Brien, pretending to be shot, fell backwards with his arms flailing, falling to his knees.

In a film, a scene such as this would have a meaning, a dramatic purpose; in the recent RTE dramatisation of the Easter Rising, the same moment was shown with shocking effect, as the moment when it became clear that death had come to the streets of the usually peaceful city.

On screen, we don't get to see the moment when the actor opens his eyes, gets up again and heads off for a bacon roll. A film maintains the illusion of authenticity in order to provoke certain emotions in the viewer.

Simply played as a sideshow for tourists, the event loses all that horror and becomes silly, trivial. A crowd watching feels no deeper emotion than: "Well, that was interesting. What shall we go see next?"

It turns something which should have dignity into something tacky.

We don't need to see fake policemen pretending to be shot to know that real policemen die much less photogenically. Nor is the murder of those in public service safely confined to history. The awful murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay proved that.

This particular re-enactment happened on the same day that members of the Irish police force were marching in the parade in Dublin to commemorate fallen comrades, including Garda Tony Golden (36), shot dead by a dissident republican in Co Louth last October while dealing with a domestic incident.

The officer's death caused huge grief south of the border, as did that of Garda Adrian Donohoe (41), also gunned down by dissident Provos in Louth, 18 months earlier as he tried to prevent the robbery of a Credit Union office.

The members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who died in 1916 were no different from these men. That is why the organisers were keen to invite, among others, the family of policeman Charles McGee (23), from Co Donegal, who was shot dead during the uprising, to this week's ceremonies.

For too long, men such as McGee, like those who fought in the First World War, were overlooked as less important than other victims. Turning their deaths into a carnival sideshow suggests again that they were the enemy in some way. They were not.

They were just ordinary Irishmen in an Irish police serving fellow Irish people in what was, at the time, a united Ireland. Now there's irony.

The fact that Ireland happened, at the time, to be part of the United Kingdom is neither here or there. They were still only policemen.

Had there been similarly trite re-enactments of the executions of rebel leaders Padraig Pearse and James Connolly on the very spot where they were shot by firing squad, there would - rightly - have been complaints that the mimicry was making light of tragic events.

It should be no different simply because those whose deaths were being portrayed in this way found themselves on the wrong side of official history.

They deserve to be remembered with solemnity, too - especially when the legacy of those who murdered unarmed policemen a hundred years ago is still being claimed by sinister masked men and women in combat gear in villages like Coalisland on Easter Monday.

Belfast Telegraph

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