Belfast Telegraph

Easter Rising commemoration should be multi-cultural

By Eamon Delaney and Paul Hopkins

Last week, I attended the 1916 commemoration on Dublin's O'Connell Street and mingled with my family among the large crowd. The event, a precursor to next year's centenary, had a feelgood atmosphere with an emphasis on period recreation and steam engines and people dressed in Edwardian costumes, as opposed to the usual focus on militarism and politics.

After an initial ill-preparedness, the Irish government has unveiled an exciting and imaginative programme for the upcoming 1916 centenary. Ironically, much of the credit for this turnaround should go to the Cavan-born culture minister, Heather Humphreys, an Ulster Presbyterian, from the border area, who took hold of the 1916 centenary and refused to let it be taken over by flag-waving tribalists and paramilitaries.

And yet on her appointment there were some snide insinuations about her pedigree from Fianna Fail politicians, which amazingly, in our internet age, went unnoticed and unpunished.

Thus is doubly ironic and disturbing, given that the "missing guest" in all of these 1916 celebrations so far is our long-vanished Protestant minority.

We've had lots of talk of inviting the British royals and of restoring respect for those who fought in the First World War in 1916. But this is mainly about those Catholic, Home Rule-supporting soldiers who enlisted.

We haven't heard much about the Irish unionists who opposed Home Rule and enlisted and whose surviving brethren then had to work within the new Free State, many of them very loyally and successfully.

They are not just missing from the conversation. They are also physically missing. As I walked home from O'Connell Street, I passed the many empty churches and halls of the now departed Irish Protestants, such as the so-called 'Black Church' on Mountjoy Street (the nickname says it all) and the old Methodist graveyard overgrown with weeds, and the lovely Presbyterian church in Phibsboro, adorned with the stone heads of Latimer, Tyndale and Hus - and now a solicitors' office. If you want to see the ruins of ethnic cleansing, come to Dublin.

And this is why we need a more honest debate about 1916. We need to face the awkward fact that, far from leading to a real pluralist state, it led to an often reactionary statelet in thrall to a suffocating Catholic ethos, just as Carson and the anti-Home Rulers said it would.

In its health and education system, not to mention the later horrors of the industrial schools and orphanages, the new Irish state surrendered power to the Vatican. With the ban on books and on family planning, not to mention the Church's own 'Ne Temere' decree, which specified that Catholics married to Protestants must raise their kids as Catholics, the Protestant minority felt marginalised and alienated. And then they just left, in high numbers.

Granted, the Protestant minority did not lose its economic power. The landed gentry kept their big houses and the Protestant community continued to hold disproportionate power in the Republic's banking and commercials sector right into the 1960s.

The south has nothing like the Protestant working class that the north has, so, in this sense, the discrimination of Protestants is not comparable to that experienced by much of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, it made them feel aliens in their own land and, ultimately, emigrants from it. And the Republic was greatly the loser for it.

The decline reinforced the conservative Catholic atmosphere and denied the state the cultural and mercantile talent of its minority. Many feel that Ireland would not have had a banking crisis, or its low-scale corruption, if we had retained the Protestant influence in our system. We would have been more North European and less Mediterranean.

So maybe in 2016, the Republic could make amends for this tragic exodus and political exclusion. In a now-multi-cultural Irish Republic, the idea of financially, or politically, assisting a specific Christian group does not make sense.

But the whole point about the Protestant minority in the Republic is that it is an Irish ethnic group with a clear political and cultural identity and much could be done to celebrate its heritage and culture.

The Republic could, for example, consider rejoining the Commonwealth and thus acknowledging its close ties to the UK and to the history of Empire, which Irish Protestants, in particular, hold dear. But most of all, the Republic could, in 2016, acknowledge the great wrong done after 1916 when the Free State abandoned its true republicanism and became a backward Catholic state which excluded its minority.

And a good way to begin that would be to have a full exploration and honouring of the anti-Home Rule movement of 1912 and of the arms importation of the Ulster Volunteers, which after all was what inspired the 1916 republicans to do the same, and stage their revolt.

Eamon Delaney is a commentator, author and former Irish diplomat

When I was a young boy growing up on the eve of the Sixties, my world was a more black and white affair. Dublin was a mere town yet to discover the anonymity of a city, Catholicism, of the Roman kind, ruled the Republic with the bishop's crozier and the terrors of the confessional, its meddling in state and rural affairs enshrined in the constitution, and good, healthy sexual intercourse had yet to be invented.

Protestants were seldom seen and seldom heard. Between the beginning of Home Rule and the end of the Civil War the Protestant population fell by 30% in the south and has hovered ever since around 5% of the overall population.

In the dominant Catholic-run schools, few, if any, Protestants applied. For they were the elite, private institutions of leafy south Dublin and the hallowed halls of Trinity College.

Until 1970 it was a "mortal sin" for a Catholic to enter Trinity until the Irish bishops' ban was lifted in1970. I can still recall the pride of my then girlfriend's family when her oldest brother secured a place at this fine establishment.

In my childhood, my parents' generation were still coming to terms with the bitter legacy of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Protestants, in many minds, were to blame: the Ascendancy - which erroneously equated with being British.

Such was still the memory of having to "doff the cap" that when Protestants were occasionally, out of some necessity or other, spoken of it was in hushed and revered tones.

And always, like what my mother would say: "Oh, Mrs Verso, such a lovely person. Protestant, you know …"

While Mrs Verso was busying herself with life, my uncle John came home from Coventry where he had gone after the war to drive a bus for a living. He was by then in his late 20s and announced to my grandmother that he had been stepping out with a lovely girl and intended to wed.

"You'll marry no Protestant girl," my grandmother announced. "Over my dead body."

My uncle John never did marry that Coventry girl, although nearly 20 years later he married a Cockney lass, but by then none of his family back home was bothered about which foot she kicked with, bar my old bat of a grandmother who treated her new daughter-in-law with a disdain of sorts.

Before my middle teenage years, when I learnt, to my utter amazement, that many Protestants had been to the fore in the "fight for Irish freedom" and in its arts and culture, I befriended a young boy, because we both fancied this older girl.

A nice lad, by the name of Wesley Pierrepoint, he was polite and well-behaved compared to a lot of young Dublin "gurriers" and spoke "posh". My parents left us to our own devices, but never actively encouraged the friendship, my mother even announcing one Sunday evening over tea: "You know, young Wesley's granduncle Albert was the last hangman in Ireland."

I did not bat an eyelid, secretly thinking wow, that's exciting and, anyway, our friendship eventually drifted apart, as is the way with fickle youth.

Wesley never did get the girl - nor I - and actually went on to take orders in the Church of Ireland.

Around the same time, my Mother's youngest sister, Minnie, who had been a Wren during the war, met and married an older man in Wales, a farmer and a Protestant and my cousin Jean met a young Newry man whose family, the Lairds, had migrated to Dublin in the 1950s.

"Walter is such a lovely man," said my mother, not failing to add her religion rider. I just wondered if his job as a mere van driver that was lowly paid had any bearing on him being a Prod.

But if the Catholic Church's constitutional grip on Irish affairs was to stay steadfast for another 25 years and ditto the ban on couples of a "mixed" marriage adopting a child from an orphanage (all Catholic Church-run), by the time Jean and Wally walked down the isle, we, the plain people of Ireland, were finally shaking off the bigotries of religious intolerance and the restrictiveness of its indoctrination.

Nell McCafferty and her liberated ladies had made it to Belfast and come back by train in one piece laiden down with French letters and all sorts of sexual contraptions.

But, equally, and sadly, we were indifferent to what was happening in a corner of this island in the name of religiosity.

Northern Ireland was a mere 100 miles up the road from the street of my childhood, but it took me 50 years to make the journey to work here, in 2007.

By then, the Catholic Church had long lost its suffocating say in state affairs, was being "outed" for its decades of clerical sexual abuse, De Valera's republican Sunday Press no longer sold 600,000 copies a week outside the church gates of Ireland and the state was opening its doors to immigrants of all colours and creeds.

We had taken our place among the nations of the world, ironically in no short measure as peacekeepers, and the old wounds of bygone battles were with O'Leary in the grave along with notions of a romantic Ireland. The comely maidens at the crossroads had long gone home. And we were not far off legalising the sanctity of marriage between couples of the same sex.

The politicians may well be still corrupt and inept and Sinn Fein's blinkered vision one way out for many at the next general election. The issue of abortion is still shrouded in spin and uncertainty and poverty and domestic abuse and drug wars now the order of the day. Most of us, though, have given up our "auld sins" and grown up, thank God. Religion? Who cares?

Northern Ireland surprised me then, eight years ago. Surprised in that I found no ogres among everyday folk, but folk just like us. As Irish as the rest of us.

And not everyone had someone, or knew someone, who had been sadly affected by the Troubles. Life had gone on. Surprised me in that so many were in "mixed" marriages and relationships and homosexuals and were having a gay old time of it with their annual shindigs and clubs and pubs across the province.

Surprised, too, however, by the bigotry of the few still there when you scratched beneath the surface, the defiance of those who would still insist on banging their drums and flying their flags where it is obviously still hurtful and uncalled for, and the cowardly ways of diehards and dissidents who believe the bullet and the bomb their Bible. And so much allegedly in the name of God and/or Realm.

I am still surprised by all this. And surprised, too, by those folk on the hill who, two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, still can't agree on two flies climbing up a wall, pull their collective fingers and get on with it so as every man, woman and child, of whatever colour or creed, can get on with their lives. In peace.

There's a lot done - a lot more to do. And I'm not so sure we really need God to achieve that. And, if by chance, we feel the need to pray to our god, well, let's go into our closet and do so without being intrusive.

For the sake of our future and all that we might - still - hold, if not divine, sacred.

Paul Hopkins is a freelance journalist

How 1916 will be remembered in 2016

Easter Saturday, March 26, 2016:

Remembrance ceremony for all those who died in the events of 1916 at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.

It will include music and poetry-reading.

There will also be a shared event for the relatives of those who took part in 1916.

Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016:

Wreath-laying ceremonies at the Sigerson Monument, designed by Dora Sigerson to remember the dead of 1916. Wreaths will also be laid at the graves of significant figures in the republican movement and at locations where the 1916 leaders were executed.

There will be a televised military ceremony at the GPO on O'Connell Street, where the Proclamation will be read and a wreath laid by President Michael D Higgins on behalf of the Irish people. This will be followed by a parade and an Air Corps flypast. Over Easter there will be official openings of Kilmainham Courthouse, the Tenement Museum and the Kevin Barry Room at the National Concert Hall, as well as exhibitions at the Pearse Museum and Garda Museum.

April 21, 2016:

A wreath-laying ceremony for Roger Casement at Banna Strand in Kerry, where he was captured. Casement was later tried and sentenced to death.

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