I’ve never spent much time in Dublin. The feeling in Belfast among the people I knew there in the 1980s was that the south of Ireland was a very different place. Down there, no British troops patrolled their streets, no sharp metal walls severed their neighborhoods. No warring flags, no paramilitary parades, no plastic bullets. Like it or not, Dublin lay on the other side of a border. Besides, it wasn’t where the action was—the craic, as my Belfast friends called it. We didn’t go. And so it may be the case that Dublin was always jam-packed with protests and people strolling around on historical walking tours—but I doubt it.
This year marks the centennial of a defining event in Irish history. The Easter Rising of 1916 inspired anti-imperialists the world over, from Gandhi to Lenin to W.E.B. Du Bois. Propelled by history, grinding poverty, a sense of grievance, and the whiff of possibility, on Easter Monday, April 24, some 1,500 Irish men and women took up pikes and clunky rifles and took on the war-worn British Army. The rebellion was joined by radicals and romantics; secular socialists and Catholic nationalists; suffragists, nurses, and millworkers; poets and a countess. Led by, among others, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, (Countess) Constance Markievicz, and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, the rebels took over central Dublin and proclaimed an independent republic. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies,” they declared. After centuries of discrimination, they pledged that in their republic, all citizens would be equal. It would “cherish all of the children of the nation” and “all of its parts.” That’s not what happened. After six days of urban warfare, the rebels surrendered and the British authorities responded by executing 16 of the leaders, including Connolly and Pearse. (The women’s lives were spared, to their chagrin.) The firing-squad executions (Connolly, already wounded, had to be propped up to be shot) and the British firebombing that flattened much of the city stoked enough anti-British sentiment to bring independence within reach—but it came only for part of Ireland, and at a price. A 1922 treaty drawn up in London split the state in two and created the north/south border.
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One century later, the Irish are in a propitious mood for a yearlong consideration of the Rising. Victims of one of the most spectacular bursts of speculation in the global financial crisis, Irish workers are looking for a viable alternative to casino capitalism and trickle-up neoliberalism. Irish voters just took a political pike to the parties of the Irish establishment. The bums are out, but it’s not clear who’s in. In Northern Ireland, what’s called the “Good Friday Generation” will vote for the first time in the next election. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement pulled most British troops out of the province, disarmed the paramilitaries, overhauled the police, and re-created a power-sharing regional government. This May, the first class of school graduates and job seekers born since the accord will be eligible to vote in elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. They’ve grown up in relative peace, but in a decade of Tory cuts, and their patience is limited.