The Easter Lily

Rebecca Black  of the Newsletter posts: News editor asks me, got an Easter feature ideas? Immediately go ooohh not yet but I’ll have a surf and a think and come up with some options. Two minutes later suddenly think, whaaatt? Easter?! Yes we are all nuts in newspapers!

I replied: Rebecca, This is the article I published in the Newsletter several years ago, following an Emergency Debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 10th April, 2001, concerning the display of Easter Lilies in the Entrance Hall.
The recent debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly concerning the display of Easter Lilies in Parliament Buildings shows again how deeply divided we have become in our symbolism.The Easter Rising of 1916 celebrated by Republican Nationalists had its roots in the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth century. In 1884 was formed the Gaelic Athletic Association which promoted Hurling and Gaelic Football and forbad the playing of foreign games. In 1893 the Anglican, Douglas Hyde, founded the Gaelic League, which had as its aim the de-anglicisation of Ireland. From this sprang Gaelic nationalism “Ireland not free only, but Gaelic as well, not Gaelic only but free as well.” Strangely enough a pseudo- Celtic twilight culture was created which anglicised the old Gaelic literature out of all recognition. The political manifestation of this Gaelic revival was the foundation of Sinn Fein – “Ourselves Alone” in 1905. This movement was soon attracted to and taken over by the veteran and militant Fenian movement.

At the same time there was a growth of Marxist philosophy and an active socialist movement was led by James Connolly and James Larkin. Connolly, however, tried to use Gaelic nationalism to further his own ideals, thus compromising the labour movement in both Britain and Ireland. The blending of Roman Catholic and Celtic mysticism created in people as diverse as Patrick Pearce and James Connolly the myth of the blood sacrifice which was thus to have lasting consequences.

1913 saw the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force under Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig to resist such threats to their British heritage. James Connolly set up the Irish Citizens’ army and Owen Mac Neill of the Gaelic League formed the Irish Volunteers. But the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 averted civil hostilities and Irishmen of all persuasions sailed to Europe to fight either for the King and Empire or for the independent rights of small nations. The Irish Republican (Fenian Brotherhood) leaders saw this as an opportunity for revolt and a republican uprising was effected without success during Easter 1916.

This insurrection and the subsequent execution of its leaders evinced a terrible beauty in the eyes of Yeats at a time when thousands of Irishmen were dying unsung in Flanders. On 1st July 1916 the 36th Ulster Division sustained 5,500 casualties at the Battle of the Somme, a sacrifice greater by far, as were the losses of the mainly Catholic 16th Irish Division. Nevertheless, in 1918 Sinn Fein won a majority of Irish seats at Westminster and the first self-styled Dail Eireann (Government of Ireland) met in Dublin the following year.

The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, tried a compromise settlement in 1920, which provided for separate parliaments in Northern and Southern Ireland. Northern Ireland consisted of the whole of Old Ulster (Ulidia) ie Antrim and Down, as well as four other counties of the contemporary English provincial configuration of Ulster,which consisted of nine counties.

The other twenty-six counties became the Irish Free State in 1922 ,following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but the dominion status of the new State was not acceptable to Republicans. Civil War then erupted between pro- and anti- treaty factions, the former led by Michael Collins, the latter by Eamonn deValera. During the last six months of this war nearly twice as many Republican prisoners were executed by the authorities of the Free State as were executed by the British in the whole period from 1916 to 1921. In 1926 deValera formed his Fianna Fail (Warriors of Destiny) Party. The Free State Party lost power to Fianna Fail in 1933 and changed its name to Fine Gael (Tribe of Gaels) the following year. How many of either party were Gaels in either language, culture or ethnic origin is open to question. Most were actually of British decent . DeValera’s basic Catholic Nationalism was highlighted by a radio broadcast on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1935, when he said “since the coming of Saint Patrick, Ireland has been a Christian and a Catholic Nation, she remains a Catholic nation.”

This statement demonstrates, according to Conor Cruise O’Brien, the peculiar nature of Irish Nationalism, as it is actually felt, not as it is rhetorically expressed. The nation is felt to be the Gaelic Nation, Catholic in religion. Protestants are welcome to join this nation. If they do they may or may not retain their religious profession but they become as it were Catholic by nationality. In 1937 deValera was thus able to produce a new constitution which was in essence a documentation of contemporary Roman Catholic social theory.

During the second Great War in 1939-1945,the Irish Free State remained neutral. The Gaelic nationalists had much in common with Fascist Spain but baulked at assisting the German Nazis. During April and May 1941, as the price of its loyalty to the allied cause, Belfast suffered four air raids by German Bombers. There was heavy loss of life – almost 1000 died – 2500 were injured, many of them seriously. In the air raid of Easter Tuesday 1941 no other city in the United Kingdom save London, suffered such a high death toll in one night. No other city except possibly Liverpool ever did. Following the war Southern Ireland left the British Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland was formally instituted on Easter Monday 1949.

Thus it is that both Easter and 1916 have different connotations for different sections of our community. It is particularly unfortunate that the Easter Lily, which in reality symbolises the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, should be used as a partisan symbol in our society. As the people of Northern Ireland take their first tentative steps on the road to a new pluralism ,we would be better served by adopting symbols which make us more fully aware of the extent of our inter-related characteristics, not just with each other but with the other peoples of these islands, rather than persisting with those which divide us.
The recent debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly concerning the display of Easter Lilies in Parliament Buildings shows again how deeply divided we have become in our symbolism.

This entry was posted in Article. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.