My beloved grandfather Kevin O’Rorke (1910-1990) was only a little boy of 6 in 1916, but he had three much older brothers who all took part in the Irish Easter Rising: Joe (1893-1980), Freddie (1899-1985) and Jack (1898-1943).
Of Freddie and Jack, I never heard much as a child, but Joe was a constant presence. After a revolutionary youth in Ireland and an adventurous middle age in Africa, he lived with my grandfather and his family as an invalid for the last 23 years of his life. He died just one month before I was born.
I was as strange and superstitious a child as I am an adult, and for the longest time I believed the world operated on a sort of “one in one out” system. I was convinced that I was the replacement for Joe, sure that this meant something. My grandfather was strange like me too, a retired Garda with many little crafting and studying obsessions. Grandad would sit for hours engaged in one of his very specific activities: drawing lilies, making extremely intricate lavender sachets, rolling cigarettes … while reciting poems and tales of wars long past to me, a rapt audience of one. These stories gave me a lifelong fear of soldiers (as a child, even a man wearing camouflage trousers would send me screaming) and a parallel appreciation of revolutionaries.
Joe was 17 years older than my grandfather, and by the time my grandfather was a toddler, he was already the secretary of the Dublin Irish Republican Brotherhood Circle (known to the outside world as the “Clarence Mangan Literary & Debating Society”). He was in the GPO and Fairview for the 1916 Easter Rising (while two of his brothers were stationed at Jacobs). He was jailed at Frongach and returned to fight (against his brothers) in the Irish Civil War, after which he escaped custody and went to Africa.
In Ireland, it’s not really the done thing to wave flags around, except at football matches. For me at least, proud nationalism seems like an awkward, distasteful, even a dangerous thing. There are too many associations with the horrors committed by the IRA. I often think of myself as European. As beyond nationality. As a citizen of such a tiny country, I am instead a citizen of the world.
Even celebrating the beginning of our country seems complex. An armed resistance, taken up against the will of many people, that led to civilian deaths. The Rising is not far enough in the past for mythology to allow the rebels the title of “hero” but it is far enough that the majority of the populace do not disdain them, as they did in 1916 - spitting and shouting insults at the rebels as Joe and his comrades surrendered. Not heroes, not villains: human beings.
There will always be those ready to defend the status quo, those afraid of change, those who would prefer to live in misery than uncertainty, those content to mutter bitterly and throw stones at those who stand up lest the “masters" punish everyone for the rebellion of the few.
On Easter Monday 100 years ago, a small band of idealists - mystic poets and dreamers - occupied Irish government buildings demanding a fair and equal society. Of course, they didn’t get it. They were jailed or killed, along with many innocent civilians.
Despite 100 years of progress, we still don’t have that fair and equal society now. But we are at least closer. Decade on decade, year on year, we’re inching ever closer to the beautiful socialist vision read out by Padraig Pearse on that day: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation."
To achieve that vision, we'll need more idealists, not less. More mystic poets with their eyes on the horizon, full of belief in a better world for all, willing to stand up against the injustices rampant in the modern world, in our modern Ireland.
Maybe in 2016 we can do it peacefully. We can stand up by voting for candidates who won’t sell us out to the banks, we can stand up by attending protests, we can stand up by refusing to accept that greed, cronyism, injustice and poverty are necessary or acceptable in a first world country blessed with an educated populace and myriad natural resources.
Not heroes, just human beings.
'Long since I played with ball and blade, the major wager staking;
Now almost all my comrades sleep the sleep that knows no waking.
And soon enough I, too, will seek them over the Divide;
To share their sober epitaph, “They failed, but, sure, they TRIED!”’
- extract from ‘Ave! Atque Vale!’ by Joe O’Rorke, 1979 (full poem text below)
You can read Joe’s full military deposition online here, including his accounts of 1916.