Reflections On The Significance Of Easter Week 1916 (Part Two)
(Part One of the Ambassador’s talk was published in the April edition of Tinteán. see: Reflections
Former Ambassador Richard A O’Brien
Ireland’s ‘exaltation among the Nations of the World’ – as so emphatically proclaimed by Padraic Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office on Easter Monday morning 1916 – would in a relatively short period of time become an imposing – and for many an inspiring – reality.
This became the case at the very outset of the celebrated Versailles Peace Conference – and on to the League of Nations – then to the United Nations – and now through the European Union’s ongoing and detailed dialogue which is focussed on the confronting foreign policy issues of our times and through which Ireland and all the member states attempt to reach out to the countries – and seemingly countless international agencies – that constitute the international family of the 21st century. In all of these forums and institutions – assemblies and conferences – successive Irish Governments and their designated representatives have sought to advance the vision and the values – the inspiration and the interests – which were proclaimed at the birth of the new Ireland in Easter Week 1916.
Indeed, the first fifty years of Ireland’s new statehood would coincide with further traumatic developments in geopolitics as the members of the international family – emerging from one global conflict headed almost immediately into another – and in the process the nations of the world became increasingly interdependent both in peace and in war.
The 20th Century was to be a century of horrific violence – a century that would witness ongoing conflicts and confrontations – cold wars and bloody wars – terrorism and genocide – the spread of weapons of mass destruction – the militarisation of scientific advances – and the use of nuclear weapons against an Asian nation.
And yet there was much hope for a new era that would be characterised by peace and prosperity at the opening of the Versailles Peace Conference on 18 January 1919 at which Ireland’s first international delegation was led by Sean T O’Ceallaigh – who was to become Ireland’s second President. He was ably assisted by George Gavan Duffy – the youngest son of the then long retired Victorian Premier Charles Gavan Duffy. George Gavan Duffy had been among the successful Sinn Féin candidates who were swept to power in the 1918 General election – and went on to establish the First Dail – the first Provisional Parliament – which met in the Round Room of the Mansion House in central Dublin on 21 January 1919 – which was also the first day of what we now call ‘The Irish War of Independence’. In 1921 George Gavan Duffy would be among those who travelled with Michael Collins to London to participate in the negotiations that would lead to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Interestingly another member of that delegation was Robert Barton whose distant cousin Edmund Barton had already served as Australia’s first Prime Minister and represented the beautiful town of Port Macquarie where I now have the joy to live in retirement.
But let me revert briefly to Melbourne and George Gavan Duffy – and to add that he would later become Ireland’s first Foreign Minister. However, it was in June 1919 that he joined Sean T O’Ceallaigh in presenting to George Clemenceau and the Members of the International Peace Conference the Official Memorandum in support of Ireland’s demand for recognition as a sovereign independent State. On the margins of the Conference the Irish Delegation were to forge what were to become enduring links with the Delegations of Egypt, India and South Africa – as indeed each of the four – regularly working in close cooperation – sought to advance for all nations the recognition promised by President Woodrow Wilson in his much acclaimed State of the Union address to both Houses of the US Congress just a year earlier on 18 January 1918. That was the occasion on which the President of the United States solemnly proclaimed that ‘it will be our wish and purpose that the processes of peace, when they are begun, shall be absolutely open’ and ‘that the new era of post-war peace will enable the subject and stateless peoples of the world to freely choose their own destinies’.
The President was at that moment – we are assured – entirely unaware that on the other side of the Atlantic two gentlemen – the Englishman Mr Sykes and the Frenchman Mr Picot – had already carved up – in the name of their respective Governments and in the spirit of the much vaunted Anglo-French ‘entente cordiale’ of the colonial era – the entire area which today we call the ‘Arab Middle East’. In doing so they bequeathed to the world in which we live a frightening legacy that so tragically continues to unfold across one of the great centres of ancient civilisation. It was a colonial process that the Irish of 1916 would have fully understood for Ireland had long experienced, and indeed had long been the all too convenient laboratory, for earlier colonial experimentations.
Yes – 1916 was the great break with the past! In 1924 – less that two years after the conclusion of the Anglo Irish Treaty establishing the Irish Free State – Ireland became the first of the member states to break free from the then Commonwealth practice of collective representation through the network of British Embassies in third countries when W T Cosgrave the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State appointed an official Irish Government representative to the President and Government of the United States. Some seven years later Ireland was similarly represented in France, Germany and the Holy See as well as by a Permanent Delegation in the City of Geneva which was accredited to the League of Nations.
In 1930 Ireland was elected to a Permanent Seat in the League of Nations – an event that underlined the accuracy of the remarks by the then Foreign Minister – Patrick McGilligan – that Ireland was widely recognised across the membership of the League of Nations ‘as one of the main upholders of the complete independence of smaller states’. However, 1932 would see the election of a new Parliamentary majority in Ireland and the democratic transfer of power to Eamon de Valera and his recently established Fianna Fail Party. Eamon de Valera would become the dominant figure in Irish political life (even during the two relatively brief periods when he served as Leader of the Opposition – and during which in 1948 he made an historic visit to Melbourne) – until his election to the high Office of President of Ireland in 1959.
Eamon de Valera’s service as President of the Executive Council and subsequently as Taoiseach from 1932 to 1948 coincided with Ireland’s turn to provide the President of the Council of the League of Nations. Mr de Valera decided to take on that responsibility himself – and he served as President of the League of Nations in the crucial years of 1938 and 1939. During his Presidency he lost no time in advocating a strong role for the League which he argued should be at the forefront of the ongoing efforts to find peaceful ways to resolve disputes between the member states. He strongly favored developing a system of collective security although he hesitated about the militarisation of such a system.
Within the League of Nations de Valera spearheaded the Irish Government’s and the League’s last great effort to avert the clearly looming cataclysmic conflict of World War II – in part by seeking support for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to give substance to the soon to be discredited Anglo-German Agreement reached at Munich in 1938. Working closely with Eamon de Valera was the renowned and resourceful Irish Diplomat Sean Lester – who at the end of Mr de Valera’s term as President was elected Secretary General of the League of Nation. It was a position which Sean Lester – who had been born in the beautiful Antrim town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland – held until 18 April 1946 when he formally transferred the functions and assets of the League of Nations to the incoming Secretary General of the newly created United Nations. In 2011 Sean Lester’s granddaughter – Susan Denham – was appointed Chief Justice of Ireland’s Supreme Court.
As with the League of Nations it was a Fine Gael led Coalition Government that took Ireland into the United Nations in 1955. The Soviet Union had used it’s power of veto in the Security Council to obstruct Ireland’s earlier membership – in reality Ireland briefly became an unwilling victim of the rapidly deteriorating international climate and the then emerging cold war tactics of procedural gamesmanship within the new United Nations whose Charter had bestowed the right of veto on the Five Permanent Members of the Security Council.
However, the 1957 General Election saw the formation of a Fianna Fail Administration and the beginning of a twelve year era in Irish foreign policy throughout which one man – Frank Aiken – held command of the portfolio of Minister for External Affairs. Born in Camlough Co Armagh – Frank Aiken had joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914 – campaigned for Eamon de Valera in the Clare by-election of 1917 – and became a founding member of Fianna Fail in 1926. When he retired from Dail Eireann in 1969 he was Dail Eireann’s second longest ever serving member.
Under Frank Aiken’s leadership Ireland gained an impressive reputation across the UN as a small country with a superbly focussed sense of engagement and a equally determined sense of responsible independence. Indeed, Ireland was seen to act with a determined independence – at times in defiance of the wishes of the great powers – in bringing forward proposals across a range of controversial issues that ultimately made vital strategic contributions to international peace and security. At the time Ireland’s ideas invariably – and at least initially – divided the dominant powers within the Security Council – the entrenched rivals throughout the era of the Cold War. Ireland’s focus included the critical issue of nuclear disarmament – and in 1958 Frank Aiken introduced the controversial – and later much celebrated – Irish Resolution aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons. Following 10 years of controversial debate and detailed negotiations the 1958 Resolution was opened for signature on 1 July 1968 and Frank Aiken was afforded the privilege of placing Ireland as the first signatory state on the new international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty continues to this day as the main and major political obstacle to the spread of nuclear weapons.
Ireland went on to advocate other controversial reforms and changes which it regarded as central to safeguarding and advancing international peace and security – including the admission of the People’s Republic of China to full UN membership. Ireland also strongly supported – and regularly sponsored – the UN membership applications and claims for financial assistance of a number of then recently decolonised African nations. In addition, Ireland provided votes, financial resources and military personnel to UN Peacekeeping operations. I well remember going with my father to O’Connell Street in Dublin to witness the State Funeral of the Irish UN Peacekeepers who were killed in the Niemba Ambush in the then Belgian Congo in November 1960. While I served as Ireland’s Ambassador to the Arab Middle East from 2002 to 2006 – I travelled each year to a small hillside in Southern Lebanon – near the town of Tibnin and overlooking the Northern Israeli Border – to lay a wreath at a most impressive but isolated monument honoring the 49 young Irish Army Peacekeepers who served with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and who tragically never made their journey home. Indeed, one of the remarkable realities of the story of Irish independence – inaugurated in Easter Week 1916 – is the fact that over the last 56 years since Ireland first participated in UN Peacekeeping Operations there had not been a single day when Irish military personnel have not been found serving as peacekeepers – in a zone of conflict or confrontation across the international community – under the Blue Flag of the United Nations.
The commitment of successive Irish Governments to UN Peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance has ever been strongly supported by Irish people both at home and abroad. And that same spirit of commitment to the welfare of the international community – reflected over the centuries in the dedicated service of Irish missionaries – priests, nuns, brothers and lay missionaries – is also today reflected in the extraordinary fact that out of that small Island nation in northern Europe there has emerged two of the world’s leading international aid organisations – GOAL and Concern.
Having served in the Middle East – North Africa – and in South East Asia – I have been privileged to see at first hand the inspiring work of these and other Irish organisations – including Trocaire and the Agency for Personnel Services Overseas. They all engage with enormous energy and inspiring skill in countries as diverse and geographically distant as East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines – Jordan, Egypt and Syria – as well as Namibia, South Africa and Sudan.
These deeply inspiring young people – and there are a few who are not so young – who work as volunteers across the developing world are an especially vibrant and valued part of the rich diversity we call the Global Irish family which comprises some 70 million people of Irish birth and heritage. You will find Irish women and men in virtually all the countries of the international family. Of course Australia holds a very special place in that family since – with some 7 million Australians of Irish descent – this country is proportionately the world’s most Irish nation beyond the shores of Ireland itself.
Fifty years ago Dr Garret FitzGerald – who served as Irish Foreign Minister in the 1970s and as Taoiseach in the 1980s – and whose father fought beside Pearse and Connolly and others in the General Post Office throughout Easter Week 1916 – remarked that the Easter Rising ‘was planned by men who feared that without a dramatic gesture of this kind, the sense of national identity that had survived all the hazards of the centuries would flicker out ignominiously within their lifetime, leaving Ireland psychologically as well as legally, like Scotland, an integral part of the United Kingdom’. At the heart of these remarks lies the conviction that Easter Week 1916 was the founding act of modern Irish democratic nationhood. And Easter Week 1916 was also filled with acts of enormous courage that in turn ensured that Ireland would become an inspiring role-model at the outset of the 20th century for other countries – large and not so large – across the international family whose people demanded the right to self-determination and self-government – the end of Empire and the abolition of colonial rule. What also is entirely indisputable is that the heroism of Easter Week 1916 transformed the meaning and focus of Irish nationalism – the context and therefore the very meaning of being Irish – it created a fresh mindset which it infused with a new idealism – and it challenged an entire people to be true to the values and ideals of their historic sense of nationhood.
I suggest that in a dramatic and poignant way these are sentiments that go to the essential meaning and message of Padraic Pearse’s famous last poem – written on the eve of his execution in Kilmainham Jail on the 3rd of May 1916. He was executed by military firing squad – holding we are told his mother’s crucifix in his hand – and his last poem is dedicated to his mother – a mother who some 24 hours later – on 4 May 1916 – would lose her second son to military execution by the same firing squad. In his poem, the words and the voice of ‘The Mother’ are both intimate and universal. It is – I believe – a poem that points to the enduring significance of the Easter Rising while reminding us of the interweaving realities of strength and fragility – of joy and sorrow – and ultimately of that most unique of all human – and even of divine – accomplishment – the great miracle and mystery of the ‘triumph of failure’!
I do not grudge them Lord: I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart,
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Around my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers
We suffer in their coming and their going
And tho’ I grudge them not I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow – and yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought!
Richard O’Brien, former Irish Ambassador to Australia.