I haven’t felt like writing a blog about anything in ages and now I am half terrified writing this, in case I come across like a complete thick. Truth is, I know flip all about the 1916 Rising, or Irish History in general. My only calling-card in this regard is my knowledge of ancient Irish Art History that I studied for teaching Leaving Cert. art students - If you want to know what a corbelled vault is, I’m your woman. I could blame my history void on the fact that I didn’t study history in secondary school. But given that I left school in 1991, I’ve had ample opportunity to catch up in the meantime.
My half-baked understanding of 1916, struggles for freedom, differences of opinion and all that came after it were influenced by my experiences in my late teens and early twenties. I spent a lot of time in Portadown, Co Armagh, with my then boyfriend. The town was largely Protestant. It was known locally as a ‘Black Hole.’ My boyfriend’s surname and address identified him as Catholic. In fact, he may as well have had ‘fenian bastard’ tattooed on his head. Encounters with RUC officers and soldiers, with me, the ‘Free Stater’ were intimidating and tense.
My poor mothers heart was in her mouth every time I headed North. Oh, and I did I mention that the boyfriend had a motorbike too? Stress City for any Irish Mammy.
On the 27thApril 1997 Robert Hamill, my boyfriend’s second cousin was kicked to death by a group of Protestants after a night out in Portadown Town Centre. An RUC land rover was parked twenty feet away during the attack, but the officers did not intervene in the attack, despite pleas for help. Robert never regained consciousness after the attack and died of his injuries eleven days later, aged 25. Years afterwards, night-time chants about jumping on Robert Hamill’s head could often be heard on the streets in Portadown. To date, no RUC personnel have been prosecuted for their part in Robert’s murder.
In 1999, Robert’s solicitor, Rosemary Nelson was assassinated by the so called ‘Red Hand Defenders.’ Allegations that the British state security forces were involved in her killing led to a public inquiry. The inquiry found no evidence that state forces directly facilitated her murder, but could not exclude the possibility that individual members had helped the perpetrators.
Eleven days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed on Friday 10th April 1998, I got a call from my boyfriend to say that his good friend Adrian Lamph had been shot in the head, while he worked at an amenity centre. Adrian’s patched up, swollen head laid out in a coffin looked nothing like the 29-year-old fella that we knew.
‘The Twelfth’ is forever synonymous for me with the events around an Orange Order march on 6th July 1997, when 1,200 strong Orangemen were forcefully allowed to march down the nationalist Garvaghy Road to Drumcree Church. I watched in horror on TV from my flat in Dublin, as Ian Paisley and David Trimble shook their joined fists victoriously in the air as the march was pushed through. The triumphalist look on their faces was sickening and I despaired that it would ever end. Ian Paisley roaring ‘NEVER’ scared the life out of me. ‘Incitement to hatred’ if ever you seen it.These personal experiences and the countless other atrocities across communities in the North made me really question the cost of ‘freedom’ when no middle ground seemed achievable. Thankfully, 1997 was the last time that the Orange Order march along the ‘G Road’ was allowed to take place and (in my humble opinion) the Good Friday Agreement has transformed Northern Ireland.
I visited Portadown last summer, not particularly aware that it was the eve of the 12th July, prime marching season. There were remnants of massive bomb fires the previous night, union jack flags aplenty. On the way home that evening, the children counted the distinctive white RUC riot jeeps heading in the opposite direction towards Belfast. There had been trouble there the night previous. Although I didn’t feel in danger, I was I was happy to be driving away from it in my car with a southern registration plate.
I read an article in the Irish Times recently. A number of young people, who were born in the year that the Good Friday Agreement was signed, were interviewed. In reading it, I was struck by how quickly things move on and how, largely, they could take it for granted that they will grow up in a safe and peaceful environment. The stories of just one generation before has quickly been placed on the ‘archive’ shelf. The stuff of ‘the olden days when you were young Mammy,’ as my children put it.Fast forward to present day and I am one of the organising committee on the Kildare 2016 programme, the rest of the committee more knowledgeable about all things 1916 than I. I bring ‘other skills’ to the table, I swear. We have been working on the programme for almost a year now. 2016 Fatigue was setting in towards the end of last year. Now that it has kicked off proper, I feel energised about it all again.
I launched one of our major projects recently – ‘Little Stories, Little Prints,’ an exhibition of 60 fine art prints on stories and incidents around 1916 – in the Little Museum, Stephen’s Green. I was slightly panicked at the thought of speaking at the launch, knowing that there would be many people there 1916 savvy.
I had a flashback to the launch of a previous exhibition of prints by the Leinster Printmakers, based on ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ the novel by James Joyce. I was due to speak alongside a Joycean scholar, Bruce Bradely S.J. My good intentions of studying Joyce in the weeks preceding the launch came to nothing, so I left the ‘science bit’ to Bruce. Besides, who wants to hear two people delivering the same speech?At the ‘Little Stories, Little Prints’ exhibition, I adopted the same attitude, avoiding mentioning ‘The War’, so to speak and let the prints speak for themselves. I have learned so much from the stories behind the prints already. It’s a wonderful exhibition, curated by Pamela De Bri, who was assisted by Margaret Becker. It has generated a lot of interest around the country and is touring throughout 2016. How lovely that each of the participating artists to say that they (quite literally) have made their mark in 2016. When I seen it on the gallery walls, and the accompanying catalogue, I regretted that I hadn’t participated myself, to be part of that 2016 story, that legacy.
My mission for 2016 is to educate myself on Irish history. I feel that I (and you) have an obligation to do that. I’m gathering some information from the family archives and I’ll write about that another time.In the meantime, my interesting ‘fact’ for the day is …. I’m kinda related to Peader Kearney, who wrote "Amhrán na bhFiann" in 1907, which became our National Anthem. According to my cousin Nicola Carroll, in as far as she can establish, Peadar’s great grandmother Mary Hickey, was a sister of our great-great grandfather, making us second cousins twice removed. I’ve always felt pride in that little piece of information, but particularly on the days when I stood in Croke Park with my father, waiting on a Meath match to kick off. It gives me a pain in my chest just thinking about it.
One of my fears for 2016 is that people will not engage, that only 100 years later, we just ain't that bothered. I was heartened though, by two major events last year, that demonstrated how getting involved makes a difference. Firstly, the turnout to vote for the Marriage Equality referendum and secondly, the response to the Waking The Feminists movement, a backlash to the poor representation of female directors on the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme.I hope that young people especially, get off their asses and vote in the upcoming election.
You must be registered to vote by 5pm this Tuesday, 9th February.