The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Easter Rising

You have not misread the Headline. I have chosen my words quite deliberately.

The year 2016 will mark not merely the Centenary of the Easter Rising. It will also be the fiftieth anniversary of the fiftieth anniversary in 1966. I was almost fourteen years old then, living in West Belfast and I remember it quite well.

I recall a teacher at our West Belfast Grammar School …we regarded him as an old man but he was probably around the age that I am now….tell us that he was in Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin when a British Lancer was shot and fell from his horse. I remember believing him……….before deciding a few years later that he was exaggerating. Now I am not so sure. If the Troubles taught me one thing, it is that we all got to see things at close quarters. We all have an anecdote. Or several anecdotes. On reflection, I think he was telling the truth in 1966.

The year 1966 was a turning point. The Republic of Ireland had grown up. It is true to say that Ireland was never the same again after joining the Common Market in 1973. Arguably it is true to say that it will never be the same again after Mrs Windsor visited in 2011. But I tend to consider that 1966 exorcised the ghosts of 1916.

Official commemorations in the Republic of Ireland. Illegal ones in the North of Ireland. West Belfast, where I lived was not exactly as typically nationalist as South Armagh but it was the spiritual capital of “Northern Nationalism”, the alternative State in which we lived. Casement Park…the Falls Road…Gerry Fitt would soon be MP at Westminster……..one of the turning points.

I recall that Easter Sunday Parade. Watched it with my family outside the Royal Victoria Hospital. The odd thing was that some of my school friends took part in it. It was on reflection….a peek into the semi-clandestine world of West Belfast Republicanism. I might have been aware that some guys were more overtly “Irish” than the rest of us. Had fathers who were “1950s men” and grandfathers who were “1920s men”. Many of my school friends would become “1970s men”. But it seemed a closed world. I watched the Parade. They were in the Parade.

The Police as I recall stayed away. A few weeks later, a man (John Scullion) from the Clonard area was shot dead, allegedly because his loyalist killers could not locate the intended target, the main organiser of the 1916 Commemoration. Bizarrely it was not known that Mr Scullion was shot dead until his body was exhumed.

During the Summer of 1966, Peter Ward, a West Belfast Catholic was also shot dead. Rising tensions in part due to Easter 1966 were blamed…..which I think lets the nakedly sectarian murderer Gusty Spence off the hook too easily. Again this event is one I recall well. I first heard of it on the Sunday morning that I got ready to go on a Church outing to Bray in County Wicklow. Later that afternoon in Bray, a market stall holder told us all that it must be awful to live in Belfast.

July 1966, I saw Rev Ian Paisley, just becoming familiar on TV news as he led a parade…..actually a loyalist mob down North Street from the Shankill Road.

The thing about commemorations is that they tell us as much about the year in which the commemoration takes place (1966 or 2016) than it does about the actual event in 1916.

I am no great fan of a manufactured “shared history” and I hold in total contempt the historians who have allowed themselves to be manipulated into organising “shared history” for the perceived Common Good rather than Historical Truth. Anyone who has a History degree has an obligation to tell the Truth.

But I believe that the present obsession with the Decade of Centenaries……..Ulster Covenant (1912), Easter (1916), Somme (1916), Partition (1922)………deflects from a Decade of Half-Centenaries…….the O’Neill Years (1963-70), the first murders of the modern Troubles (John Scullion and Peter Ward in 1966), the first Civil Rights march (Coalisland 1968), the Battle of the Bogside (1969), formation of SDLP (1970), Internment (1971),Bloody Sunday (1972) and Bloody Friday (1972). Too many to mention.

But realistically the decade of the half century commemorations are potentially more toxic than the decade of centenaries.

People will talk about dealing with……or handling the Past. I do not believe that we should try.

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4 Responses to The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Fiftieth Anniversary Of The Easter Rising

  1. Pingback: Why half centenaries are deadlier than the decade of centenaries just about to begin… « Slugger O'Toole

  2. Turgon says:

    FJH,
    Good to remind people that the sectarian murderers like Gusty Spence are indeed just that. All too often there is an explanation which is code for justification. Spence is now dead long enough that although we should not celebrate anyone’s death we can speak ill of the dead for assuredly in Spence’s case that is the most important set of things to say about him. He was a murderer and to the end of time that is the most important thing to say about him.

  3. Lucy Hossli says:

    Thank you for sharing FJH.

    I asked Unionists on Slugger if they had read the history of Ireland for the past 400 years. And if they had done so..couldn’t they understand why the Irish natives keep on fighting and hoping that someday the occupiers will leave them alone on their Island.

    I did not receive a single reply.

    • Thank you Lucy. The “problem” with the “shared history” approach to the issue is that it supposes there is an “equality”.
      If we used this example in (say) South Africa we would never say that it is all 50-50.
      No historical dispute is 50-50 and it betrays History and makes it valueless if we say well theres no point to History because everybody is wrong and everybody is right.
      The job of a Historian is to sift the evidence and reach a conclusion. It is not the job of a Historian to say ………….well everybody is right and everybody is wrong……..and to then find the evidence to prove that History is “shared”.

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