by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
I was five years old in April 1966 when Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. I can still see in the entrance hall of my school the framed copy of Poblacht na hEireann, the famous proclamation of independence read out by schoolmaster, poet and rebel leader Pádraic Pearse in the portico of the GPO in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. My sister remembers being required to learn the proclamation off by heart but she was 11 at the time and considered of an age to be able to do so.
I also recall lots of chat at the time concerning my grandfather, Thomas Lyng, and how in the days after the rising he went out to buy a newspaper in Dun Laoghaire only to be arrested and detained for months at His Majesty’s pleasure in the UK. It was extraordinary to be directly connected to the events of 1916 through grandparents who had lived through it, to the point of being dragged into it, even if it was a case of mistaken identity.
50 years later, I’m 55, a grandfather myself and my country is celebrating the centenary of those events that led, eventually, to our independence. But how does a country mark key moments from its past, particularly when those moments pivot around insurrection, violence, rebellion, acts of war and the loss of innocent lives? What’s an appropriate way to remember that’s also properly reflective, that casts light on the past both through the filter of the intervening decades and through the hopes and aspirations we harbour for the future?
Whatever the answer, I believe we got it right this week in Ireland. Following a week of extraordinary public events that, above all, highlighted the rich depth of our culture and the resilient creativity of our people, I’m left with a glowing sense of pride and a renewed hope that this country can deliver on the words of the proclamation:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares 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 …
The Power of Live Events
As a professional in the events industry it was gratifying to note how events – both live and hybrid – were the fulcrum for the entire commemoration and, indeed, the reason for its resounding success. On Easter Sunday and Monday over one million people attended events linked to the commemoration according to estimates from An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s police force. Key aspects of the live events were also broadcast by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, reaching millions more on terrestrial and digital channels.
The parade on Easter Sunday, a vainglorious, triumphalist military showcase in 1966 was, this time, a highly impressive, hugely dignified cavalcade of state corps including military, navy, police, coast guards, civil defence, ambulance and our famed UN peace corps. That afternoon, 100 Years a Nation, a newly commissioned orchestral piece with spoken word by poet Paul Muldoon was premiered and broadcast live from Collins’ Barracks. Muldoon’s long journey through the swerves and bends of our history – his text begins at Newgrange, 5000 years ago and takes us right through the Celtic Tiger years to the present day – was delivered to the accompaniment of Shaun Davey’s magnificent score played by the RTE Symphony Orchestra and sung by a choir of 1100 voices.
The formal commemorations of Easter Sunday became decidedly more informal on Easter Monday as Dublin went into full festival mode with stages on O’Connell Street, St Stephen’s Green, Smithfield and Merrion Square. On Easter Monday in 1916 life for the citizens of Ireland’s capital was disrupted by violence and loss of life. One hundred years later it was disrupted again but this time by life affirming celebration. Many took to the streets in period costume while all over the city there were actors staging dramatic vignettes of scenes and incidents from 1916. Outside the GPO you could take to the podium and read the proclamation yourself. The streets of Dublin were reclaimed for and by the people and thankfully our celebrations were both full-on and, largely, alcohol free!
On Easter Monday evening Centenary was performed at the Bord Gais Theatre in Dublin for a live audience of some 2000 attendees. It was also relayed live by RTE to almost 700,000 additional viewers. It was an outstanding conclusion to the 2 days of national commemoration and likened by many to Riverdance as a show that perfectly caught how our relatively young nation has been shaped to date and how she continues to evolve into the future.
GPO Witness History
Also this week I visited GPO Witness History, the brand new immersive visitor attraction at the GPO in central Dublin that opened on Tuesday last as a permanent commemoration of the events of 1916. Destined to become a must-see attraction for all visitors to Dublin, GPO Witness History offers an un-filtered, non-prescriptive “witness” point of view of the happenings before, during and after the Easter Rising. This is particularly evident in the centre piece of the exhibition, Fire & Steel – Birth of a Republic, an audio-visual presentation that affords you a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint as events unfold in the rebel camp inside the GPO but also in Dublin Castle, HQ for the British authorities and on the streets of the city.
Using panel displays, electronic touch screens, video content and authentic artefacts GPO Witness History, created by Ireland-based Martello Media, allows you to walk back 100 years and immerse yourself in the events that played a defining role in the future history of our country. It demonstrates clearly how there’s no epidural solution to ease the birth pangs of a nation. It’s brutal, painful, messy, and bloody before, eventually, something new and vulnerable and beautiful emerges. GPO Witness History presents all of this, fairly, factually and faithfully with great balance, delicacy and grace.
The post script to the exhibition, located upstairs on the Commemoration Gallery is particularly well done. Firstly there’s a timeline explaining how Northern Ireland came to be created and detailing the complex relationship between Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland since partition in 1921. It heartening to note how in 2016 this relationship has never been better. Likewise you can take a poll that asks for your reaction to key questions and statements about 1916 and its legacy such as “How should we regard the proclamation a century on from 1916?”. Pádraic Pearse, James Connolly and the band of brothers who occupied the GPO in 1916 would be proud to know that over 80% of those who took the survey believe that the proclamation “outlines progressive values and aspirations” and offers a “blueprint for a future Ireland”.
Meetings and Events Professionals will be thrilled to hear that GPO Witness History is available for exclusive after-hours hire and offers banqueting options for up to 120 guests. Contact General Manager Aline FitzGerald – [email protected]
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique agency offering services around marketing, strategy and training for venues, hotels and destinations