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Fighting at the GPO all over again as Easter bells begin to toll

(by Robin Livingstone,

So there I am trying to get the pin through the Easter lily without leaving too big a hole in the lapel of my best suit, when the annual RTE debate on the legacy of 1916 begins. And I give it up as a bad job, for the day at least, because I get so angry that I’m afraid I’ll prick myself and spill blood – my own, of course, and on the good suit too.

Generally speaking, radio and television pundits fall into three categories in relation to their view of the men and women of the GPO. The Irish Times NUJ Cumann, Kevin Myers Branch, thinks that they were blood-soaked headcases who would have been cutting up children and burying them under the floorboards if they hadn’t had the Easter Rising to distract them. This line goes down particularly well when branch members are entertaining Daily Telegraph executives, or seated in wingback leather chairs sipping brandy from balloon glasses in a members-only London club.

Then there’s the Independent Group NUJ Cumann, Countess Eilis O’Hanlon Branch, which takes the line that while they weren’t necessarily clinically insane, they were definitely a few rounds short of a bandolier. Oh, and you might think one or two of them – the university-educated ones especially – might have had the foresight to see what a malign influence their actions would have on the future of the island, and on poor David Trimble in particular.

Then there’s the Beard-Strokers Cumann, Ruairi Quinn Branch, which prefers to pretend the Rising didn’t happen at all, and when occasionally confronted with irrefutable proof that it did, shake their heads sadly and mumble something profound about the baleful legacy that the cult of blood sacrifice has bequeathed to modern Ireland (that’s Irish blood sacrifice... naturally).

I take an altogether more old-fashioned view. I swell with pride at the thought of 1916, much in the same way, I imagine as people in other countries do when they consider glorious episodes from their homeland’s history.

Margaret Thatcher might not be able to articulate it today as well as she could this time last week, but I’m sure her rheumy old eyes still fill up when she remembers the pictures on the Downing Street walls of that tiny contingent of plucky Brits standing up to the full might of the Zulu nation at Isandhlwana in 1879; or when she recalls the paras in Port Stanley in 1981 (the ones who retook it – not the ones who surrendered to three whalers a few weeks earlier ... obviously); or when she thinks of the Tommies in Port Said in 1956 with their Lee Enfields, long socks and knobbly knees putting it up old Nasser for having the cheek to run his own canal (before they hiked up their long shorts and made a bolt for it ... needless to say).

The funny thing is that in her country, Maggie’s allowed her pride in all these things, while my pride in the poets and paupers who took over the GPO in 1916 means I’ll never achieve my twin goals of working for the BBC and addressing the Workers’ Party annual conference.

Strange that, because those military encounters that the British like to draw on plates and sell in the colour supplement of the Mail on Sunday were blood-spattered colonial adventures that took place thousands of miles away from home, while the men and women of 1916 were fighting against overwhelming odds in their own city, in their own streets.

Norman Tebbit’s famous test of nationality – British nationality, of course – relied on what team a person supported at cricket.

I’ll turn that round a bit and say that a good test of nationality on this island would be to ask who you support when you watch Zulu this Easter. Are you cheering for Michael Caine and Stanley Baxter, or are you roaring on Chief Cetshwayo and his assegai-wielding warriors? Go on, tell the truth now...

March 30, 2002

This article appeared first on the web site on March 28, 2002.