In the life of every nation there is a place for remembering the past. But as time progresses founding events and personalities can become more distant and less urgent. Acts of commemoration can be reduced to the level of repetitive protocol and formal gestures.
Well, not in this country and not as we mark the centenary of our most important revolutionary event.
This year the Irish people have shown a deep, personal attachment to the courage, vision and achievement of the men and women of 1916. In schools and communities throughout the country, as well as in major national events, there has been a spirit of pride and, even more importantly, a spirit of engagement.
The Irish people have not used the centenary to confirm established views, they have used it to broaden the breadth and depth of their understanding of a time we no longer have a personal memory of. And the more they have read and heard about the great generation of 1916 the more committed they have been to celebrating the events and legacy of 1916.
Tá muintir na hÉireann tar éis a thaispeáint gur féidir ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar ár stair ar bhealach oscailte, fial, dúslánach agus measúil.
Níl aon amhras ach go bhfuil gach údar againn a bheith mortasach as fir agus mna 1916 agus tá dualgas orainn cuimhniú orthu.
They were people of courage, vision and achievement. They were not defeated, they were triumphantly successful because they inspired a national resurgence and they fundamentally changed the hopes and opportunities of the Irish people.
They did not believe in fixing a point in time and never moving from it. They did not see their country as a place with a single identity to define all.
No, they fought for an idea of an inclusive, diverse and modern Ireland. An Ireland which stood with and learned from other nations. An Ireland which was proud of its culture and sought to renew and evolve it. An Ireland which would not forget the core duty to serve all of its people.
1916 is a founding event which any modern country would be proud of.
Throughout the commemoration two elements have taken centre stage: our national flag and the Proclamation. A hundred years on they both still inspire.
The tricolour is a reminder to us all that the goal of lasting peace between communities on this island is fundamental. This is not a country which can ever be defined by a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality. And we must never fail to protect ourselves from those who promote a sectarian and partisan view of Irish identity.
The Proclamation remains a noble assertion of national objectives and a challenge to us all. The first half of the last century was a time defined time and again by narrow nationalisms that ultimately brought Europe to one of the darkest moments in world history. At the core of this was the idea that anyone who didn’t conform to a single national ideal should be treated as alien.
While the men and women of 1916 were inspired by the national awakenings of their time they chose to take a very different approach. They wanted the national qualities of Irish culture to be revived and valued, but they felt that different traditions had to be recognised and included.
Thomas MacDonagh was a passionate Gaelic League activist – but he also devoted his academic career to arguing for the recognition of English language literature written in Ireland as a unique expression of the Irish people. Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett and many of the other leaders were widely read and profoundly engaged in international debates.
And so when they came to proclaim the Irish Republic they asserted values of respect across communities, of political rights for women and for a struggle which demanded honourable behaviour on the part of those who claimed to represent it. They didn’t just want to change control of government, they wanted a republican government genuinely in the service of the Irish people.
Every day today’s Irish Volunteers, Óglaigh na h-Éireann, the army of this state shows a commitment to these values. They have protected us and represented us internationally with honour and bravery. We should never take this for granted. The ovations which they have received during this year’s events demonstrate the respect with which we hold them.
What we’ve also seen this year has been the new focus given to personalities and events other than the national leaders and the main garrisons. The Rising involved many people and actions ignored by the headlines. They are now beginning to receive the attention and honour which they so rightly deserve.
It is in the stories of individual volunteers, so often men and women of little or no property, who risked all for their country that you see an inspirational spirit from which we can all learn.
Events in Galway, Meath, Kerry, Wexford and Cork have been marked with due respect – as have the contributions of volunteers from every part of the country. We have begun to move beyond the false narrative of a small Dublin-based event to see the Rising for what it was – the beginning of a national revolution.
And it was, by any fair standard an incredibly successful revolution. In the face of the largest empire the modern world had ever known, the right of national self-determination was asserted.
The state founded as a result of our revolution did not include all Irish people and we have in important ways fallen short of our founding ideals. But this state is today one of the world’s longest continuous democracies. It stands as a proud member of the international community. It is a force for peace and progress amongst nations. While it faces many challenges, these come nowhere near the challenges it has already overcome.
1916 belongs to no party, it belongs to the Irish people. However we in Fianna Fáil have every right to be proud of the central role which the 1916 generation played in founding and building our party.
Exactly ten years after the Rising, men and women who had led and fought for their country met to found a party dedicated to showing how republicanism could continue to evolve and respond to the needs of the Irish people. They rejected the idea that the methods and policies of true republicans could never change – that they had to be preserved intact until every objective had been achieved. Their commitment was to a living republicanism which embraced the new opportunities created during the Irish revolution.
At our head stood Eamon de Valera, the most senior surviving leader from 1916. He was then and he remains today one of the greatest ever Irish men. Over an unprecedented period he sought and won the support of the Irish people.
The constitution which he authored remains a triumph of the ideals of democratic republicanism and the objectives of his friends and colleagues who had died only 21 years before. It was the first constitution in world history adopted in a free democratic referendum. It secured the division of powers. It gave explicit protection to minorities who were at that very moment subject to extreme persecution.
Most of all it gave the people the power and responsibility to decide on major changes to their state. If there are faults and anachronistic parts of Bunreacht na hÉireann it is not his fault, it is the fault of all who have come since and not amended it.
The often crude and partisan portrayal of Eamon de Valera will never diminish his great achievements and will never prevent us from honouring his memory.
Nearly the entire founding generation of Fianna Fáil participated in the Rising. In the Chair at our first meeting was Constance Markiewicz, a Citizens’ Army leader from 1916. Shaping the programme was Seán Lemass, who had fought in the GPO when still only 16 years old. Present were men and women of all ranks – including the closest surviving relatives of Pádraig Pearse and Thomas Clarke.
From the very first moment Fianna Fáil was defined by the 1916 generation and by their spirit.
Tonight is about celebrating and honouring them. It is about acknowledging all that they did for our country – and the tradition which they passed on to us.
This is a moment to remember them. To express our thanks to them. Most of all it is a moment to renew our commitment to the republican ideals which drove them forward.