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1916 and its commemoration

In 1843, John Kells Ingram wrote a famous Irish political ballad, with the refrain ‘Who fears to speak of '98'?’, referring to the United Irishmen's uprising of 1798. This was an effort to evoke the memory of '98 in order to inspire a new generation, some of whom will have become involved in the romantic nationalist Young Ireland movement of the 1840s.

Now there are very good reasons why someone might fear to speak of 1916, for, with the seemingly endless slaughter on the battlefields of the First World War, that year was among the most calamitous in human history. For all its tribulations and the human suffering imposed by a series of regional conflicts, 2016 doesn't come close to matching the horrors of 1916 or of those terrible wartime years of the 1940s.

There was a time when Ireland's memory of 1916 raised apprehensions in some quarters. Wrongly, I think, there are those who blamed the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising for stirring up passions that contributed some years later to igniting what turned out to be a protracted conflict in Northern Ireland. And it is fair to say that in Ireland during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the public memory of the Easter Rising was dulled by a reluctance to give any succour to those who claimed to be following in the patriotic footsteps of the men and women of 1916.

Some observers approached the centenary of 1916 with a degree of trepidation and uncertainty as to the potential impact of this commemoration of the most influential, and contested, event in modern Irish history. I did not share that apprehension. My view was that the passage of 100 years, and the progress made in Northern Ireland since 1998, would provide space for a calmer, more detached appreciation of that formative era in Irish history.

As Ambassador in London, I was determined to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising with a programme of events that would match its significance for Ireland and for our relations with our nearest neighbour. I made the point also that the Easter Rising was a landmark event in British history also, leading as it did to the break-up of the 19th century State brought into being by the Act of Union of 1800.

It was fortunate that we were able to engage with 1916 and its legacy against the backdrop of unprecedented warmth in Irish-UK relations following on from the successful exchange of State Visits. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth paid her respects to those who participated in Ireland's independence struggle when she visited our Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. Three years later, President Higgins stood alongside members of the British Royal Family in Belgium at the commemoration marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. This reciprocal show of respect for each other’s national memory cleared the way for a more inclusive approach to the events of 1916. Ireland has also been represented at commemorations at Gallipoli (2015) and the Somme (2016) and I have laid wreaths at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

Dublin's General Post Office during Easter Week 1916 was one of the birthplaces of the independent Ireland I have had the honour to represent in London since 2013. I am conscious, of course, of the political and moral controversies that swirl around the Easter Rising and its aftermath. It would clearly have been preferable had had it been possible for Ireland's independence to have been achieved by exclusively peaceful means, but that was not to be. Looking back at the lives of the 1916 leaders, it is difficult not to sympathise with their predicament, drawn, as many of them were, from cultural nationalism into radical separatism in response to the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14.

It is clear to me that the idealism that characterised the 1916 generation was to be found on the Western Front just as much as in Dublin during Easter week. With this in mind, I contributed a piece to The Guardian drawing comparison between the lives of Thomas MacDonagh, executed in Dublin in May 1916, and Thomas Kettle, killed at Ginchy in September of the same year. I came to the conclusion that their parallel lives captured the subtlety and sadness of that troubled era in Irish and world history.

The Embassy organised and participated in a wide range of commemorative events throughout the past 12 months. I was particularly pleased to be able to speak about the Easter Rising at such locations as Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Oxford and Liverpool Literary Festivals, Stonyhurst College in Lancashire where Joseph Plunkett studied, the Universities of Liverpool, Durham, Aberystwyth and Glasgow, Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice and Edinburgh’s Central Library. It was a special pleasure for me to participate in a wide range of commemorative events organised by Irish community organisations in Britain. The many events in which we were involved had the aim of deepening understanding of the events of 1916 and their significance for Ireland and for a century of Irish-UK relations.

We have, I think, done justice to 1916, remembering that heroic/tragic year in a measured way while shining a light on some of its previously neglected dimensions. Furthermore, I sense that the inclusive character of this year’s commemoration has left a positive mark in Ireland and around the world. There should no longer be any need to fear to speak of 1916. The memory of the Easter Rising is, it seems to me, now comfortably afloat on what the late John Montague has called 'the wine dark sea of history', rightly occupying a privileged place in our national memory.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London