THERE probably has not been an Easter week quite like this one in modern Irish history. I have always liked Easter and although I have less connection now with the institution of the Catholic Church, Good Friday always is a special day for me. It is the one afternoon that I try to slip into a church to reflect on the life of Jesus and his execution by crucifixion all those years ago. This Good Friday the churches are closed. In fairness a church is not necessary for reflection. Any quiet place will do. But it will be strange nonetheless.
For those of us who commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising this will be a strange year also. There were Easters when repression and imprisonment, north and south, resulted in only a handful of activists coming together at gravesides and republican memorials to lay a wreath, read the Proclamation and list the names of our patriot dead. These were the Easters when successive Irish and Unionist governments banned such remembrances and used brutal tactics to enforce that ban. During the more recent years of conflict some Easter commemorations and republican memorials and graves were also bombed and damaged.
This Easter we face a different kind of adversary. A silent, deadly enemy – the Coronavirus. So the traditional Easter commemorations have been cancelled.
But that doesn’t mean that republicans will not commemorate our patriot dead. On the contrary this year commemorations will be more personal, more intimate, as we as individuals and as families participate in our own little commemorative events or join in the online programme devised by Sinn Féin and others during this unprecedented health emergency. This includes a programme of social media events and posts, videos - some historical, speeches, including the keynote Easter address by Party President Mary Lou McDonald TD, music, encouraging children to produce art work reflecting on Easter, poetry, the flying of our national flag and the wearing of the Easter Lily.
Many of us have favourite rebel songs and poems of struggle about the many different periods of rebellion in Ireland from 1798, through Robert Emmet, the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, to Easter 1916 and the Tan and Civil Wars, to the more recent decades of conflict. So as more and more people put video messages on social media why not consider posting your favourite rebel song? Or sing it yourself? But only if you’ve the voice for it. That leaves you out RG. Brón orm, chara.
Or pick a poem by Pearse or Connolly or Bobby Sands or the last words of republican heroes. If you are a relative or friend or admirer of one of our patriot dead consider putting up a photo and telling their story.
The book ‘Last Words’ by Piaras F. MacLochlainn is a personal favourite. It contains the letters and statements of the leaders who were executed after the 1916 Rising. The poems of Pearse and the defiant statement by James Connolly to his court martial are often quoted but I have always had a special grá for Tom Clarke. He spent 15 years in English prisons in the 1880s and 90s and endured long years of solitary confinement during which he was treated appallingly. In 1916 he was the first signatory of the seven who signed the Proclamation. In the early hours of May 3 his wife Kathleen, who was a prisoner in Dublin Castle, was brought to visit him in his cell under military escort. With a candle held by a British soldier for light and just hours before his execution Thomas Clarke gave Kathleen a message for the Irish people. It was brief but poignant.
“I and my fellow-signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom. The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief we die happy.”
The story of the love of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford is well known. ‘Last Words’ contains a letter from Plunkett to Grace on 2 May in which he writes: “Listen – if I live it might be possible to get the Church to marry us by proxy – there is such a thing but it is very difficult I am told. Father Sherwin might be able to do it. You know how I love you. That is all I have time to say. I know you love me and so I am very happy.”
At 8pm on the evening of May 3 Grace was brought to the prison chapel. Joseph entered accompanied by a party of soldiers with fixed bayonets. The soldiers remained while Fr Eugene McCarthy read the marriage service by the light of a candle. After the ceremony they had to separate. A few hours later in the early hours of May 4 Grace was brought back to the prison and met her husband in his cell. They had ten minutes. Plunkett was executed on the morning of May 4 along with Edward Daly, Willie Pearse, and Michael O’Hanrahan.
Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won't be time to share our love for we must say goodbye.
A century ago this November Kevin Barry was executed in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. The song, which commemorates this young 18 year old, is a firm favourite with many. It has never lost its ability to stir the heart and remind us of the courage of this young man and his comrades. It has been recorded and sung countless times over the years, including by Paul Robeson and Leonard Cohen. Robeson’s version can be found online.
A Nation Once Again
In an earlier generation the essays and poems of Thomas Davis reminded people of the 1798 Rising and of the awful impact of British colonialism on Ireland. RG has an edition of a book – Essays and Poems: Thomas Davis – published by the Gresham Publishing Company some time around the 1890s. Davis died at the age of 31 from scarlet fever in 1845 the first year of An Gorta Mór. One of his enduring works is ‘A Nation Once Again’.
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province be
A Nation Once Again.
Davis also wrote ‘The West’s Asleep’ which in more recent years has been made famous by the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers and others as ‘The West’s Awake’.
So, this week and next use social media to post a personal reflection of the events in Dublin and elsewhere in 1916 and of all those periods of struggle in Ireland’s long history of resistance and our demand for freedom. It can be something from YouTube or it can be you and those in your home or you and your friends singing, reciting, reading about Ireland’s patriot dead.
These are some of my personal words and poems and lyrics. Enjoy:
Have a great Easter. Wear An Easter Lily. Sinn Fein will be putting up a link to a site where you can download a Lily. I have also started posting a regular podcast based on the blogs.
Remember, those we commemorate and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916, are all about the future. That’s what we struggle for. It’s what we look forward to: The New Republic.