Oldcastle native Frank Cogan is a former Irish ambassador.

The 1916 series: 1916 and the Rise of the Nationalist Spirit

by Frank Cogan

Congratulations to the people of Carnaross, and the organising Conmmittee who conceived and implemented the plan to bring this event to fruition, to commemorate the 1916 Rising and, in particular, the effort made by the Volunteers from Carnaross to be part of that historic episode which led to the creation of our independent Irish state.

The seeds of the Rising go back to the struggles of the 19th century, to the fall of Parnell (who, it should be recalled, represented Meath as an MP) and the realisation by a small group of scholars and forward-thinking nationalists that, while the ever-elusive political aim of Home Rule was desirable, this was not enough to save the identity of the Irish nation from being diluted and marginalised for ever. Douglas Hyde and Eoin McNeill, in founding the Gaelic league in 1893 began a profound transformation of Irish society, not only in a cultural sense but in a political sense as well. The ancient frontier territory of North Meath also played a strong role in this dynamic development: one of the chief inspiring figures of the Gaelic revival was Fr Eoghan O’Growney from Athboy (he learned his first Irish phrases in north Meath, which still had a number of native Irish speakers then), while another early founding figure was Dr Agnes O’Farelly, from the neighbouring parish of Lurgan (Virginia), who was also a founder of Cumann na mBan. The first branch of the league in Meath was founded in Dunshaughlin in 1900 and from there the influence of the league spread rapidly; by 1906 there were nearly 1000 branches throughout the country.

The League provided not only the opportunity for people, especially young men and women, throughout the country to learn and practise the Irish language but also to become involved in the cultural renaissance which accompanied it - in literature, music, dance, folklore, history and archaeology. Gaelic League branches became centres of cultural and social activity – not only language classes but venues for Irish music and dance and amateur dramatics. As first the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, leading to the foundation of the Volunteers, and then First World war, appeared on the horizon these cultural gatherings also became centres of political debate and mobilisation.

At the same time the cultural movement was broadened, under the influence of poets such as Yeats, who was also one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in 1903, into the fields of drama, (Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge) English and Irish literature (AE, Moore, Colum, O’Flaherty) – by writers and artists who were consciously attempting to create a distinctive Irish artistic creative environment and tradition which would be different from the hitherto dominant English culture which was associated with Empire and colonialism.

When the Unionists in the North staged an armed mutiny in 1912 against the Home Rule Bill, and were allowed to do so with impunity – even to the extent of having its implementation postponed, despite the fact that it had been approved by the British parliament in Westminster - a challenge was laid down to Irish nationalists, many of whom placed their trust in the British government to deliver on their commitment to implement the decision of their own parliament. However, events proved that this commitment was a hollow one and that more respect was paid by the British politicians to the wishes of the Unionist minority than to those of the nationalist majority. This, together with the mounting toll of casualties from the First World War, gave rise to a sense of frustration and disillusion that emerged strongly, especially in the aftermath of 1916 with the transformation of opinion from support for the National Party of Redmond and Dillon to overwhelming support for Sinn Fein.

In the current context of commemoration of 1916, historians and members of the public have benefitted from the greater availability of first hand records of the period, of those involved on all sides; much new interesting research has shed new light on the events and on the motivations of those who took part. This has in turn given rise to different interpretations and much questioning by scholars and journalists of the motives of the 1916 leaders – including questioning of the wisdom of going ahead with the Rising, even after the confusion caused by the McNeill countermanding order, or of the basic morality of the action of the Rising itself. Others have asked whether it would not have been better to trust the British to deliver on Home Rule, which might have given us sufficient autonomy to eventually achieve independence. This questioning, while some might find it irritating, is a healthy sign of a mature society with the ability to examine in diverse ways the origins of our present state. Similarly, we are able to pay respect also to those who joined up in 1914 and later to fight - and die - in what was supposed to be the “war to end all wars” – these included some distinguished sons of Meath, like our great writer, Francis Ledwidge from Slane, who himself wrote that great poem in tribute to his friend and fellow-poetThomas McDonagh, “He shall not hear the bittern cry……”

Of course, historians ultimately have to deal with facts – what actually happened rather than what might have been if things had been done differently - and we all know that nothing can change the fact that 1916 happened and that had a dramatic and transformative effect on the thinking of Irish people and on the course of our subsequent history. “All changed , changed utterly….” The chain of events led on to the foundation of our state and that is why we commemorate it today.

We now live in an Ireland which has come to terms, to a great degree, with the issues which divided us bitterly in the past. Even the division of our island, for so long such a bitter pill, is seen in a different light, both north and south and we have reason to be very thankful that the dark times of “the Troubles” have given way to peace and mutual respect. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, has come to us, as the head of State of a friendly neighbouring state, and has bowed her head at the Garden of Remembrance to honour the founders of our independent Irish republic. We can still, of course, retain our aspiration for a united Ireland some day but we respect the opinions of those who do not share that aspiration and wish to retain the link with Britain. It is good that the Good Friday agreement and its related texts embody the principle of parity of esteem for all traditions and all sections of the population. It follows that the same spirit of open questioning – whether of the personalities and actions of 1912, 1914 or of 1916 – should apply to all sides. Simply asserting that we are right and “the others” are wrong – or indeed, asserting unilaterally that we are the only ones who made mistakes and that we should have acted differently – does not solve the problems of the past or the present.

The words of the Proclamation of 1916, and the true Republican spirit which inspired them, indicate an inclusive and generous spirit – “its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally” – which strikes the right note for this, our centenary year, a precious ideal which we should guard and cherish as we remember those, like the men of Carnaross – the Farrellys the Dunnes, the Tevlins, Lynches and the others, who took part in those historic events. We remember them with pride.

Ar dheis De go rabh a n-anam.