There is something about the Centenary of the Easter Rising that gives me a feeling of deja-vu. i have seen it all before. Remakes like Steve Martin’s “Sgt Bilko” and David Jason’s “Still Open All Hours” are rarely better than the original. So it will be interesting to see how the critics judge the 2016 Production.
For that is what it is…a production.
At Easter 1966, I was 13 years old…almost 14. And I lived in a long “mixed street” in West Belfast. The street was the first of a series of mixed streets. The streets to the west of us were Catholic …the heartland of Raglan Street, Leeson Street and the Pound Loney. And the streets behind us were mixed and then Protestant.
My parents married in 1951 and were one of the first Catholics in the street. The Union Jacks flew at one end of the street every July. On the Twelfth morning an Orange Lodge from Sandy Row marched with a band into the street to pick up the Lodge Master.
Every Saturday lunch-time two nuns would come into the street and they would get threepence at our house #24 and my father would tell them that the next Catholic house was #42. So that even at ten years old I was aware of the differences.
It was to be frank…a slum street…especially our row of houses which leaned backwards. Our row of houses was knocked down in early 1970 …my parents had always assumed that they would be compensated (they dreamed of £700) as the M1 …Westlink was being built. As it turned out they got nothing at all except a Housing Executive house in Upper Springfield Road.
There was a protocol to life in a “mixed” street in the 1960s. The Catholic children went round the corner to the Catholic school and the Protestant children went to their school…I dont think I ever saw it.
And while the number of Union Jacks dwindled as the street became more Catholic, it was as much to do with the closing of the local RUC Barracks and the inability to provide a 24-hour watch.
Certainly emboldened Catholic neighbours took to playing Irish rebel songs on record players and leaving their doors open. While moderate Catholics considered this to be very bad manners, the alternative view is that “themmuns” had it their way for too long.
There was an unwritten rule about not playing football on a Sunday as it would offend Protestants but that rule changed with the Demographics….and on balance thats a pity because I liked that our street football team played impromtu matches in all parts of the city….on a Saturday morning we would walk to Botanic Gardens, Ormeau Park, Woodvale and once Falls Park. And there was a curiousity about looking out the back bedroom window at the boys going to that once-a-week meeting where they had a a strange sailors uniform.
It was after all circa 1965 and we all liked the Beatles and Manchester United. Oddly nobody ever mentioned Celtic and Rangers. Why is that? All I can say is that it is part of that protocol…what people thought behind closed doors might well be different.
And yet there were times when it seemed to touch us. That football team needed a set of cheap jerseys and the cheapest available was Green…and we bought them but the Protestant boys drifted away.
And much much earlier…I was maybe four years old and in a neighbours house watching TV….and they had me standing up singing God Save The Queen. No doubt they enjoyed that. My parents said that I couldnt go back as it was too late at night for me. But really it was because they didnt like me being a source of entertainment.
So we had this curious reality of Catholics being second class citizens but (as we thought) the worst excesses of unionism had long gone. The Unionist Prime Minister, O’Neill was visiting Catholic schools and taking tea and cake with the nuns.
Of course after the eleven plus, I went to the local Christian Brothers grammar school. And I met a new kind of boy. Indeed not just the boys who lived in Glengormley, Andytown, Bangor, Lurgan and Portaferry….but the boys who lived much closer to me in West Belfast…..Leeson Street area, Clonard and Beechmount.
Going into houses in Leeson Street, Clonard and Beechmount, it was obvious there was a very different protocol to life there. The houses often had republican as well as Catholic icons on the walls….and as my father became aware of the names of my new friends, he would often say …ah thats a grandson of XXXX XXXXX “a 1920s man” or a son of XXXXX XXXXXX, a “1950s man”.
My father did not particuarly mind my new friends. Indeed there was an admiration for such men…..often pointed out to me on summer night walks….older and middle aged men who watched GAA games at Corrigan Park or wore “fáinne” at An Ard Scoil and the men with pioneer pins who had fought for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
And besides there was no violence in the mid 1960s and violence wasconfined to the history books.
So no big deal that some of the boys in my class and some of the boys in the junior Legion of Mary had militant republican backgrounds. To be honest, I dont think I really knew the full extent of this until Easter 1966.
Certainly at least two teachers…one a lay teacher and the other a Christian Brother …suspended our Religion and Maths class to talk about being schoolboys in Dublin, fifty years previously.and while you might be buying these weekly installments of re-produced newspapers from 1916, I urge you to visit a library and look at the special edition of the Sunday Press (Easter 1966) …I still recall it spread over our living room floor.
My parents, sister and I watched the Parade on Falls Road. …opposite Falls Baths. The younger brother of my best friend was in the front line. …dressed in his GAA colours and carrying a football. He would have been 12 years old. Whatever happened him? He is not a politician but he is one of the best known figures in “Civic Society”
And within the parade was a school-friend. Whatever happened him. Within a decade, he would be killed “on active service” in the streets of west Belfast.
The issue of 1916 north and south is different. In Dublin, it is a symbol of (eventual) victory and in Belfast a symbol for nationalists of a glorious “lost cause”. The cause of Irish Freedom …and as causes go, its a damned good one….cant be right in Lifford and wrong in Strabane. It cant be right in Banna Strand and wrong at Murlogh Bay.
It is either right or wrong and I choose to believe Easter 1916 was right.
Parades are usually for Victors…look at Poppy Day. Shame is for the Defeated. There are few or limited parades for German veterans.
Yet look at the American Civil War. There were plenty of veterans of that conflict (1861-1865) in 1916. And indeed they were still having veteran campa at Gettysburg around 1929.
Yet ….the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy were more open about parading their lost cause…a very bad cause ….years after Defeat….or was the South really ever defeated until Martin Luther King a century later….or has it really been defeated at all?.
HISTORY is not merely about Events. It is the ongoing interpretation of Events. And effectively this Centenary of the Easter Rising is the second time in my lifetime that this Event has been interpreted. …twice by the Republic of Ireland “establishment” and people and twice (by default) northern republicans of the specifically militant kind. Mainstream nationalist/republicans of the type who wont be giving first prefernce votes to Sinn Féin have been deliberately marginalised by the SF organisers….and/or have marginalised themselves.
But a word of caution …the 1966 Belfast commemorations were organised in the Clonard area and the first killing of the (modern) Troubles was John Scullion in the Clonard area…in 1966 in Clonard…a full three years before the date usually given as the commencement of violence. Mr Scullion was killed by loyalists who were targetting one of the main organisers and Mr Scullion was shot dead instead.