Easter Rising 1916 - When to Celebrate?

The Correct Date to Celebrate the Easter Rising in Ireland - When?

Rebels Monument in County Roscommon
••• Rebels Monument in County Roscommon. © Bernd Biege 2017

Easter 1916, the Easter Rising, one of the most important dates in recent Irish history. But just when should this historical event be celebrated in Ireland? This seems to be a slightly confusing issue, as the rather secular fight for Irish freedom seems to have become swamped by religious connotations. So much so as to make it a movable feast ... which a historical event should never be. Or should it?

Let us have a look at the facts, and just the facts, m’am …

The Actual Date of the Easter Rising

The initial attack of the Easter Rising by armed Irish rebels on the British forces in (mainly) Dublin took place on April 24th, 1916 - or Easter Monday. By accident, rather than planning. The original schemes hatched and plans drawn up by the cabal of the Irish Republican Brotherhood within the Irish Volunteers had called for the revolution to start a day earlier, but conflicting orders and counter-orders issued by fractions within the rebel leadership meant that the "manoeuvres" planned for Easter Sunday were called off at the last minute. A hastily re-drawn plan of attack then made Easter Monday the day ...

... which actually might have been a stroke of luck, as many British officers were enjoying the races at Fairyhouse (County Meath), leaving just a skeletal command structure in place. Thus the inauspicious beginning of the revolt by delay could have been a bonus.

The Commemoration of the Easter Rising

After 1916 and the War of Independence, an annual commemoration (mainly in the form of a military parade) was held on Easter Sunday. The largest celebration was in 1966, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The Irish government, however, discontinued the annual parades in the 1970s, mainly due to renewed violence during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

Another change of political climate re-established the official commemoration, the 90th anniversary in 2006 was celebrated with a parade in Dublin - again on Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday, March 27th, 2016 was also the day on which “Official Ireland” celebrated the centenary of the 1916 rising. Nearly a month too early. Though this might not have been noticed by many people, as there seemed to be some sort of commemoration on every March and April day in 2016.

The Wrong Day, the Wrong Date

If your grandmother was born on Christmas Eve, you will always celebrate her birthday on Christmas Eve. Which is somehow logical: Christmas Eve falls on December 24th with repetitive regularity. Because Christmas is not a movable feast, but a fixed calendar date. But would granny have been born on April 24th, 1916 ... you would surely have celebrated with loads of cake each year on April 24th, not on Easter Monday. Wouldn’t you?

This (slightly whimsical) example shows a major problem: Anniversaries are commonly celebrated on the calendar date they happened. There might even be adjustments for changing calendars, examples being the celebration of the Battle of the Boyne on July 12th (the battle happened on July 1st) and the commemoration of the October Revolution in November.

In Ireland, however, the actual, historical date of the Rising is almost totally unimportant - what seems to be much more important is its connection to Easter. Adding further confusion by choosing Easter Sunday in place of the historical Easter Monday does not help at all.

At a conservative estimate, when interviewing a thousand Irishmen and -women in the streets of Dublin, maybe only a hundred would be able to actually pinpoint the date of the Easter Rising. Most would simply answer “At Easter!” And many of those 900 opting for the religious holiday would struggle to make the correct choice between Easter Sunday or Monday when pressed for details.

Why Easter Sunday?

Easter Sunday might actually be an inspired choice, when you think of the economy and transport issues - most shops are closed on Easter Sunday in Ireland, there is no major footfall in Dublin, and closing off the streets for parades is no issue.

And the commemorations don't collide with the Fairyhouse racing festival (which is still held at Easter).

But Why Easter at All?

As mentioned before, (historical) anniversaries are usually celebrated on the day they happened all those years ago. So changing the date when a historical event is celebrated every year, the celebrations coinciding with the actual anniversary only once in a blue moon, is bordering on the hysterically funny. But enter stage left Patrick Pearse ...

One of the leading lights of the Irish movement for independence, and one of the (almost totally unsuitable) military commanders in 1916, Pearse developed his own philosophy regarding the armed struggle. In short: To be successful, you did not have to win. It would, instead, be enough to give a "blood sacrifice", to ensure the independence of future generations. Or at least to force the coming generations to continue the armed struggle. This rather mythological view of revolutionary activity was highly popular in the early 20th century.

No more so than, perhaps, in Ireland - where Catholicism espoused a similar concept of self-denial and salvation. As exemplified by none less than Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to save mankind. His "blood sacrifice" (though this idea seems rather pagan) led to the salvation of man.

In a swift (and often unconscious) move the insurrection was connected to the resurrection - the "blood sacrifice" leading to freedom. Religious imagery and ideas combined with nationalistic fervor made Pearse, a dreamer and brilliant orator, but a less-than-mediocre strategist, the savior figure of Ireland.

This is exemplified nowhere more than in the fairly new cathedral of Galway. Here, in the Chapel of the Resurrection (!), you will find a mosaic of Patrick Pearse. Alongside a mosaic of JFK ...

Time for a Change?

2016 would have been a good place to start - why not declare a new National Holiday on April 24th, and henceforth celebrate the Easter Rising on the right date, without forcing it into the lunar calendar alongside Easter? Agreed, there would be some logistical problems with closing Dublin off for a parade ... but those have not stopped Saint Patrick's Day from becoming the party it is today.

Alas, this was not to be … and so Ireland will continue to celebrate the political event as a religious holiday. On a different date every year, and rarely on the correct date.