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1 August 2016

There are harder anniversaries to come, but the way we marked 1916 gives me hope for future

Mature and respectful commemorations brought ex-enemies together and righted old wrongs, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Nationalists and unionists have been commemorating the seminal year of 1916, which witnessed the Easter Rising (pictured) and the Battle of the Somme
Nationalists and unionists have been commemorating the seminal year of 1916, which witnessed the Easter Rising (pictured) and the Battle of the Somme

My 2015 was mainly spent writing a book about the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the seven men regarded as the founding fathers of the Irish republic whom few people knew much about.

I had thought there would be limited interest in The Seven, but instead I was inundated with invitations to literary festivals, summer schools and similar gatherings in the Republic, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland.

So in 2016, my major occupation has been talking and writing about these people and their time and listening to comments and stories from audiences in Ireland, England and Scotland who remain fascinated by the terrible events of 1916.

I've had my fair share of angry critics over the last few decades, and assumed I'd be meeting much hostility over what is a controversial book. But this time, whether the participants were nationalist, unionist or neither, discussions were dominated by genuine curiosity and a hunger for knowledge about what happened in the Irish rebellion/revolution/rising (take your choice) and the killing fields of France and Gallipoli.

I've listened to fascinating comments and stories from people uncovering their family history and realising that the simple narratives they'd been fed bore little relation to the complexities of Irish identity and the split loyalties in these islands during the Great War.

Some of the most affecting contributions have come from nationalists who have discovered grandfathers and great-uncles who wanted Home Rule for Ireland, but survived the war only to discover when they got home that only rebels were heroes and they were now an embarrassment to their families.

Airbrushed out of history, they are being rediscovered and given the position of honour they deserved.

I've written before about my admiration for the approach the Irish government took to this centenary year, first, by making it a commemoration rather than a celebration, and, second, by working hard to make it reflect the experiences of everyone.

Their intentions were evident two years ago when a Monaghan Presbyterian, TD Heather Humphreys, whose grandfather, Stewart, signed the Ulster Covenant, was put in charge of centenary events.

In the view this week of the usually waspish Irish Times political columnist Miriam Lord, Mrs Humphreys deserves an award "for her assured stewardship of the 1916 centenary commemorations".

When she was appointed, said Ms Lord: "there was a long list of interested parties waiting to be insulted or outraged if it wasn't handled properly".

What ensued was "a nationwide programme of events, with lots of community involvement and a special weekend in the capital that will be remembered for decades".

The able, energetic and effective man who was appointed Mr 1916 was John Concannon of Failte Eireann, who was on a panel in Armagh at the John Hewitt International Summer School last week along with me, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP and Tom Hartley of Sinn Fein.

Peter Osborne, chair of the Community Relations Council, was the moderator, and I wondered if he would have a sticky job.

I had a look at my website to see if I'd ever written anything about Messrs Donaldson and Hartley that might have caused offence, and saw I'd described the former as the DUP's canary-in-the-mine and the latter's "grumpiness and aggression" as the cause of a row that had culminated in me denouncing Sinn Fein as "fascists".

But in Armagh, dear reader, we all had a love-in, because we could agree that having learned so much in our explorations, we were wiser and more open-minded.

Mr Concannon spoke of what the hundreds of events organised by communities around Ireland had done for mutual understanding; Mr Hartley, who is an expert on cemeteries, talked eloquently of research on the gravestones of men who died in World War I; Sir Jeffrey spoke warmly of how helpful Mr Hartley had been when asked for help to deal with vandalism; and I even praised Martin McGuinness for laying a wreath at the Somme.

As ever, the audience provided thought-provoking and enlightening interventions.

There are difficult anniversaries to come (for instance partition, pogroms and civil war) but the people of Ireland, north and south have made a good start by dealing so maturely with that contentious year of 1916.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards