“There are positive and negative reactions to the word ‘fenian’. Usually it’s negative if it’s followed by the word ‘bastard’.”

We are standing in the basement of the International bar in Wicklow Street in Dublin – myself, Jamie the photographer and a group of representatives of Failte Ireland, the Irish tourist board, listening to our host, Lorcan Collins, author, editor and founder of the 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. He is setting the scene for the next hour and a half: a walk through the streets of the Irish capital in the footsteps of the rebels who rose on Easter 1916.

Collins, who is both funny and informative, is telling us about the Easter Rising, the who-was-where-and-why of it all. Soon we will walk into the city and try to see it through century-old eyes. Collins will point out the bullet holes on Daniel O’Connell’s statue, will tell us about the 22 ducks killed during the Rising on St Stephen’s Green (probably the British army’s fault, if you must know), the Irish Republican Brotherhood (sometimes known as fenians) and the Irish Citizen Army, both of whom took part in the rising. He will have a go at rebel leader and later head of state Eamon De Valera (the word “misogynist” is used) and show us where the Provisional Government sat in Henry Street (somewhere behind a wall now covered by a poster for a Wet Wet Wet gig).

It is February, a few months before the centenary, and I’m in a city I’ve only visited twice in my life. The first time was in 1969, driving down from the north of Ireland in my dad’s Morris Minor Traveller. I was six years old.

I didn’t return until 2009 to watch Ireland beat England in the rugby at Croke Park on the way to a Grand Slam. In between the Troubles got in the way and, what with my dad being in the Ulster Defence Regiment, which was mainly made up of Protestant volunteers, we didn’t go south of the border apart from the odd trip to Donegal.

Growing up in an Ulster Protestant family, 1916 meant the Somme. But I’ve returned to Dublin to think about the republic’s 1916 foundational story and what it might mean 100 years later. So for two days I wander round, talking to tour guides and tourist board reps, a film director and people I meet in the street to ask them about Easter 1916. What might those events mean to people today?

“It’s something you learn in history class,” Ryan Murphy tells me when we meet on the campus of Trinity College. “And it’s something Sinn Fein will use in the election campaign, but for young people it doesn’t really have much meaning.”

Murphy is, like his friend Zack McGeough, 19 years old, and both are students. The centenary is not a big deal for either. “It’s important that we’re independent now,” McGeough admits, “but other than that …”

Will they join the commemorations? “I suppose I will go along when the time comes and everyone else is going,” says Murphy. “There must be a big commemoration, a parade or something.”


There is. On Monday Dublin will see a 21-gun salute marking the Rising, the culmination of a weekend of events. That said, they will be nothing like the 50th anniversary in 1966 which was marked by an official military parade through Dublin watched by 200,000 onlookers and the unofficial blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in O’Connell Street. In its place is a huge spike that Collins tells us as we pass is known locally as “the stiletto in the ghetto, the erection at the intersection”.

When he started his tour in 1996, Collins tells me the Rising was “a very niche subject”. And, he admits, the early days were a bit of a struggle. “It wasn’t paying the bills for the first few years.” But that has changed. Something else has changed too. Until recently his clients tended to be American, Australian and British. Only the occasional Irishman or woman would tag along “and they would almost be embarrassed”. That is no longer the case. The Saturday before we meet nearly everyone on the tour, he tells me, was Irish. “In the last few years the resurgence of interest among Irish people in the revolutionary period is phenomenal.”


Dublin in 2016 is much like any modern European city. Walk around and you’ll hear Irish accents, Northern Irish accents, Australian accents and eastern European accents. You’ll come across branches of M&S and H&M, you’ll see derelict buildings nestling against new office developments, homeless people sitting outside designer stores. When I’m there O’Connell Street itself is a mess of dug-up streets and wire fences in the name of Luas, Dublin’s light rail tram system.

This is a city that in the last 100 years has seen the Rising, the war of independence, the civil war that came after it, the establishment of the Republic, the entry into Europe, mass emigration, the badge of cool bestowed by cultural forces ranging from Riverdance to Roddy Doyle to U2, the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, the fallout from the clerical abuse scandals and the vicious bite of austerity economics. And for far too much of the second half of the 20th century the noises off that were the Troubles in the north.

When Collins started his tour two years before the Good Friday Agreement, he says the shadow of the Troubles was part of the reason people weren’t rushing to get behind it. “I remember when I went to Dublin Tourism to explain about this tour they were slightly horrified that I was going to promote this period. One person’s exact words were: ‘That’s the Ireland we’re trying to move away from.’”

All change. There are banners all over the city remembering 1916. On the front of the Ambassador centre in Parnell Street there’s a huge advert for the Revolution 1916 exhibition bearing the legend “Dublin the city that fought an empire”.


And on the 16-storey Liberty Hall on Eden Quay, on the site of which members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood – including Patrick Pearse and the Scottish socialist James Connolly – met to discuss plans before the Rising, where Connolly hung a huge banner proclaiming: “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser But Ireland” and where 1,000 members of the Irish Citizen Army gathered on Easter Monday 1916, there is a mammoth banner which declares: “There’s Another Rising Happening Right Now Help Us Fight Climate Change.”

Historical memory simplifies and covers up, absorbs and reroots. On Easter Monday 1916 some 1,600 men and women took part in the Easter Rising. In the days that followed 485 men, women and children, mostly civilians, were killed. It wasn’t a popular rising but attitudes turned when the British authorities started executing rebels including Pearse and the Edinburgh-born Connolly, who faced the firing squad on a chair having been wounded in the Rising.

But as Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole has pointed out, that same week 570 Irish soldiers were killed in a single German gas attack on the Western Front. Within a few months 20,000 British troops would die on the first day of the Somme, 2,000 of them from what is Northern Ireland but a further 1,500 from what is now the republic. Some historical deaths get written up in the story. Some get written out.

“It’s important to differentiate between the Easter Rising, the historical event, and the Easter Rising as an iconic event, as it’s remembered over time,” suggests Fearghal McGarry, reader in Irish History at Queen’s University, Belfast. “The latter almost always reflects the context in which it is occurring.”

In Ireland, 1916 was quickly framed by Yeats’s idea of a “terrible beauty” being born, the Rising reframed as Patrick Pearse’s hoped-for blood sacrifice. Almost immediately the rebels were embraced into a Catholic martyrology. “It’s a revolutionary event but it’s very rapidly remembered and reimagined as a more conservative, nationalist event,” suggests McGarry.

So much so that when I meet Neil Jordan, the Irish film director responsible for the most successful and contentious cinematic take on Irish history, Michael Collins, he argues that looking back at the Rising “it seems like an entirely theatrical event. It’s almost like they designed it for the iconography of the whole thing. Totally Catholic. I don’t know why James Connolly got involved.”

“We have to be careful with the term ‘blood sacrifice’,” counters Lorcan Collins. “That was a term used by revisionists to undermine the ideals behind the Rising. It’s hard not to say that Pearse was happy to die for the cause but the average 18-year-old taking part didn’t walk out that morning and say, ‘I’m going to die for Ireland.’”

We choose the story that fits our own narrative. Unionist politicians in the north contended that you can trace a direct line between the 1966 anniversary parades and the Troubles that began in earnest two years later. Former First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble says the parade led to the “destabilisation” of Northern Ireland.

“Because the Troubles happened so soon after, some people tended to overstate the causal link between the two,” argues McGarry. “I’d be much more convinced of the idea that commemoration reflects the present-day society.”

The link between physical force republicanism and Easter 1916 still seems to be in play. Earlier this month security analysts warned that dissident groups in the north were planning to “commemorate” the Rising with attacks on policemen and soldiers, a warning that came after the death of prison officer Adrian Ismay, who was seriously hurt when a booby-trap device exploded under his van in Belfast on March 4. A group called the New IRA claimed responsibility. In Unionist eyes the link between the 1916 rebels and the IRA in all its variations is clear.

And yet, Collins points out, the proclamation was actually an inclusive document. “The fourth paragraph, I remind you,” he quotes: “’The republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights, equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue happiness and the prosperity of the whole nation.’”

He tells me he once had a member of the UVF on one of his tours who told him that when he was in prison in Long Kesh (aka the Maze) he even had a poster of the proclamation on his wall.

The Troubles cast a long shadow over the way 1916 is remembered. In the north that shadow is still there. But maybe it’s possible now to look back through a different lens. Maybe now’s a good time to start talking about sex.


Brian Sheehan is in his late 40s. He grew up on the west coast but he always knew he’d have to leave. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, you couldn’t be openly gay in rural Ireland.

He came to recession-hit Dublin in the 1980s, an “awful time” in Ireland. He didn’t imagine he’d stay. Everyone was emigrating. “You knew London was safer, New York was safer,” he says. He remembers a study of the US census a few years back which found that there were more Irish-born women living with their lesbian partners in America than there were in Ireland. Catholicism and the fear of Aids meant in the 1980s that was almost inevitable.

“I didn’t ever know that I would be able to tell my family. I suppose my imagination became a little stunted because being gay was something you might have to hide all your life. Being open might be possible if you got to a big city but the concept of finding a partner and settling down and getting married or having a family – all those things seemed not even a fairy tale but unimaginable.”

But Sheehan got a job in a bank and stayed and as the years passed things got easier. He came out, got involved in activist politics. Now he’s director of Ireland’s Gay and Lesbian Equality Network and he has seen Ireland transform dramatically. In 1993 homosexuality was decriminalised, in 1998 and 2000 the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in 2010 gay and lesbian civil partnerships were allowed in law. Then last year the referendum to allow same-sex marriage won a resounding Yes vote. In LGBT terms Ireland, he points out, has gone from being “one of the most hostile places in Europe in legal terms to one of the most progressive in the world”.

When campaigning started for last year’s referendum, he says, it wasn’t so much a question of rights. As co-director of Yes Equality he found that on the doorstep it was the idea of equality that mattered. “Even in our own polling that was the issue that galvanised people. It galvanised them because, coming up to the 1916 commemorations, there is a sense of ‘what is the republic?’ We’ve been through horrible austerity measures. We’ve lost countless young people abroad. So there was a question at stake which was bigger than whether lesbian and gay people could marry, which was: ‘What kind of republic are we shaping?’”

Ireland has changed hugely in the last few decades, he suggests. Put it down to the breaking of the church’s stranglehold on moral, political and social order. “I suppose we’ve collectively faced up to the things we had let happen in our name.”

Add to that, he suggests, increased foreign investment and maybe even the impact of Ryanair and Ireland’s insularity has been broken down. And maybe that has allowed the country to re-examine its history. That is already happening in how Ireland remembers its First World War dead.

That story became what McGarry calls a “usable memory” in the 1990s during the peace process. Suddenly ideas of shared history – however simplistic that term might be – were very useful and the fact 200,000 men fought alongside Protestants on the Western Front was an example of that. Many more than took part in the Rising, of course, but that became an Irish story that was repressed in the years after partition.

This process of rethinking and re-remembering continues. In recent years, as austerity has ravaged Ireland, the more radical politics of those involved in the Rising has come to the fore. And so the fact that many were secular-minded socialists and feminists is part of the current public memory. Women who took part in and even fought in 1916 were written out of the story for decades. That is changing. And, McGarry points out, in the context of last year’s referendum on equal marriage it’s significant that the fact many of the women were lesbians is now becoming widely known.


The past is another country. Or maybe that’s the present. The idea that Ireland is post-Catholic is raised by both McGarry and Sheehan. There are children growing up who didn’t know about the Magdalene homes, don’t even know much about the Troubles. Context is never fixed.

Our final stop on Lorcan Collins’ rebellion tour is Moore Street, the last battle site of the Rising. It has been under threat of demolition for years. The Save Moore Street signs are loud and proud. Here is a very 21st-century city story. Progress – or what passes for it – versus heritage. The Irish High Court this week gave the street national monument status and gave the Irish government a headache.

The story of 1916 is still evolving then. What will it mean next? “I think it behoves on us to extract from that brave movement of ideas and blood and people that the 1916 Rising brought,” argues Brian Sheehan. “It isn’t uncomplicated, but it was idealistic and you can at least applaud that and take from it the core of what the new Ireland can be. What is our second century to be?”

To be continued, then.

For information on the 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour visit 1916rising.com. Remembering 1916: the Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland, edited by Richard S Grayson and Fearghal McGarry, is published by Cambridge University Press.