Athy’s commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising concluded on Sunday 17th April with a formal ceremony at Emily Square. The proceedings opened with the following address which I am reproducing as this week’s Eye on the Past.
‘In this the centenary year of the Easter Rising we come together to commemorate with pride and dignity the vision, courage and sacrifices that marked the events of Easter week 1916. We do so in the knowledge that constitutional nationalism and armed rebellion which fused in the years following the Rising transformed Irish political life. It led to the first Dáil, the War of Independence and regrettably the Civil War but independence in the face of military oppression by the largest empire in the world was an achievement of historical proportions.
There are many conflicting interpretations of the Easter Rising and commemorating an armed Rebellion which occurred without the people’s support is always going to be challenging. Questions may be asked about the legitimacy of the Easter Rising – but it is not for us to justify or condemn but to try to understand.
Insurrection was far from the minds of most Irish men and women at the start of the 20th century. In 1798 the United Irishmen inspired by the republican ideals of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution had raised the country in revolt. Robert Emmet had led a revolt in 1803, the Young Islanders in 1848 and the Fenians in 1867 at a time of agrarian discontent. All had failed.
In 1914 the leaders of the Irish Volunteers were secretly organising for an armed revolt. From the radical socialist James Connolly to the nationalist poet, Padraig Pearse, they were committed to changing Ireland’s political situation. The execution of the 1916 leaders turned the tide of public opinion and led to a radically new direction for Irish Nationalists. The effect of the Rising of Easter week 1916 termed by the Irish historian, Desmond Ryan, as – ‘one of the most arresting examples in all history of the triumph of failure’, was as Pearse foresaw to shake Ireland from her sleep of apathy.
Those who had little sympathy with the aspirations of the 1916 leaders while they lived began to change their minds after the executions in Kilmainham jail. George Russell, the Irish poet better known as AE would write:-
“Their dream had left me numb and cold,
But yet my spirit rose in price,
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died
Or were shut in the penal cell.
Here’s to you, Pearse, your dream not mine,
But yet the thought for this you fell
Has turned life’s waters into wine.”
Athy in 1916 was a town which had made a huge contribution in terms of young men who volunteered to enlist to fight overseas in the 1914-18 war. Another young man born in Russellstown was at that time working in Dublin and as a member of the Irish Volunteers he served under Comdt. Ned Daly in the Four Courts. Mark Wilson was the only Athy man confirmed to have participated as a Volunteer in the Easter Rising. Following the surrender ordered by the rebel leaders he was imprisoned in Stafford Detention Barracks. Today we are privileged to have in attendance his son, also named Mark, who is here with other members of the Wilson family.
It was the bravery of men such as Mark Wilson which helped change the public’s attitude and in time led to the resurgence of Nationalist fervour culminating in the establishment of a Sinn Fein club in Athy in June 1917. Chairman of that club was local shopkeeper Michael Dooley of Duke Street in whose honour the 1932 Housing Estate on Stradbally Road was named Dooley’s Terrace. Others associated with the Nationalist cause included Bapty Maher, Eamon Malone, Joe May, Dick Murphy, Christine Malone, William Mahon, P.P. Doyle, Michael May, Tom Corcoran, Joe Mullery, Julia Dooley, Alice Lambe, Hester Dooley and the O’Rourke and Lambe brothers.
If the Easter Rising was the seminal event in the establishment of the Irish State the involvement of these men and women from Athy in the struggle for independence was a significant continuation of the town’s previous participation in the national struggle which stretched back to the Confederate wars and the 1798 Rebellion.
In our final 1916 commemoration event here in Athy we acknowledge the significance of the contribution of Mark Wilson and others to the shaping of modern Ireland. While not all of the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation have been realised today, nevertheless in this centenary year it is appropriate for us to acknowledge with pride the part played by the men and women of 1916 in furthering the cause of Irish freedom.’
Thanks to all those who contacted me regarding Athy’s 1966 Commemoration of the Rising. I am still anxious to see if photographs of that event have been retained by anyone.