“A Living Soul for Ireland:” The Poetic Legacy of the Rising
By James W. Flannery, Contributor
February / March 2017
On Sunday March 27, 2016, with other representatives of the Irish diaspora, I attended a remarkable ceremony at the General Post Office in Dublin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Both the GPO, the headquarters of the Rising, and O’Connell Street, the center of the city, had lain in ruins a century before. Now, in exactly the same place, hundreds of thousands gathered to watch the ceremony slowly unfold in silence and reverence.
My father fought in the War of Independence that followed the Rising, and I proudly wore his IRA medal as I sat in the viewing platform. I often thought of the struggle for their country’s freedom that he and other young men and women embarked on as a direct response to the ideals and example of the 1916 rebels.
As I experienced the stately procession of Commemoration 2016 move down O’Connell Street, I was increasingly conscious of being present at a singular moment in time – a liminal moment of transition in which the Irish people at length celebrated their spiritual, cultural, and intellectual triumph over the troubled circumstances of the past. As such, it was also a vindication of the extraordinary vision and practical idealism of Padraig Pearse and the other leaders of the Rising whose heroic sacrifice enabled the proud and independent Ireland of today to be born.
Pearse had launched the Rising in front of the GPO by reading a statement that announced the establishment of a provisional Irish Republic and the democratic principles by which it would be governed. One of the most moving moments of the commemoration was the reading of the 1916 Proclamation by an army officer in the same location Pearse had stood. As the words rang out, I was struck by the acknowledgment of the role played, throughout Ireland’s long struggle, by her “exiled children in America.” My father was one of those exiles who had kept the faith. And there were many others who, like me, had come from across the globe in fealty to the commitments of their ancestors.
Not far from the minds of those in attendance was the great failing of the Irish revolution, the abandonment of the nationalist people of Northern Ireland through the partition of the island and the awful suffering that ensued from that decision. That turbulent experience along with the hope promised by the Good Friday Agreement were recognized through a beautiful “Prayer for Remembrance” read by the head chaplain of the Defense Forces that called for a “new song” for all the people of the island:
“A song of compassion, inclusion, and engagement; a song of unity, diversity, and peace; a song of Céad Míle Fáilte and of care for our environment.”
The theme of reconciliation was honored by four children, representing the four provinces of Ireland, who each laid a wreath of flowers while a piper played a lament to the air of “The Salley Gardens,” that haunting song Yeats composed out of his own soul’s longing for transformation and transcendence.
The climax of Commemoration 2016 occurred with the raising of the tricolor, the national flag of Ireland with its green, white, and gold symbolizing the union of the different traditions on the island that was the fundamental goal of the Irish Republic proclaimed by Pearse. To men like my father, the realization of that goal was the defining mission of their lives. In some ways, the purity of the republican vision at the heart of the Poets’ Revolution of 1916 was sustained more fervently by the American Irish who brought about the peace process and its continued hope for the unification of Ireland than it was by those who remained at home and had given up on that dream.
In one of his last poems, Pearse the schoolmaster spoke of the simple truths that remain the source of his lasting legacy now and in the generations to come:
Of wealth or of glory
I shall leave nothing behind me
(I think it, O God, enough!)
But my name in the heart of a child.
Walking back to my hotel room after the event I was stopped by a young couple who asked if they could take a photograph of my father’s medal. The woman, who identified herself as “a Dub,” asked whether she could touch the medal. After holding it a moment, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I never knew before today where we really came from. Or who we really are.”
For this witness-bearer to the commemoration of 1916, the look in the eyes of that woman as she held my father’s IRA medal is what remains with me. They were the eyes of a child whose heart has been awakened to a love of country. My father awakened the same emotion in me many years before, a love summoned in poetry and song that, he believed, would ultimately transcend the artificial divisions of race, religion, politics, and geographical boundaries through the creation of a communion of living souls known as the Republic of Ireland. ♦
James W. Flannery is the director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation and a member of the Global Irish Network appointed by the Irish Government. From 1989 to 1993, he was the executive director of a Yeats International Theatre Festival at the Abbey Theatre devoted to promoting peace and reconciliation through the arts.