‘Match’ that lit Irish rebellion of 1916 remembered


Alan Stanford, center, the director and actor at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, performs an inspirational graveside eulogy by Padraig Pearse on Saturday for O’Donovan Rossa that is largely thought of as the triggering event of 100 years ago that led to the establishment of the Irish Republic. The event was held at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in the Strip District. Photo: Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

When Padraig Pearse spoke at the graveside of an elderly Irish nationalist 100 years ago, his brief speech was compared to a match that lit the straw of rebellion.
“Ireland unfree shall never be at peace,” Pearse told his listeners at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery on Aug. 1, 1915, at the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

The Irish actor/director Alan Stanford repeated Pearse’s words Saturday in the courtyard of St. Patrick’s Church in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. The artistic and executive director of PICT Classic Theatre, he spoke at the inaugural event commemorating the Irish Easter Rising of 1916.

Mr. Stanford’s podium was a wooden coffin, draped with an Irish flag. The coffin was similar to the one in which O’Donovan Rossa had been buried. Evan Kenepp, of Beechview, played the Irish bagpipes — the uilleann pipes — for the brief commemorative ceremony that drew about 75 people.

Libby Kelly, 24, was one of the younger people to attend the event. She came with her father, Mike. Both live in Wilkins. Her interest in Irish history was sparked in part by a 2008 trip to that country with 17 family members. “I’d go back in a heartbeat,” she said.

Jim Green and Sara McAuliffe-Bellin are the co-chairs of the “Pittsburgh 1916 Easter Rising Committee,” which sponsored Saturday’s re-creation. A similar event was held some hours earlier in Dublin at O’Donovan Rossa’s grave, Mr. Green said. Commemorations also took place in other cities around the world.

The local committee has planned a series of activities next year to mark the centenary of the 1916 events in Ireland. The Easter Rebellion was one in a long line of Irish efforts to regain freedom from Britain. Although it was unsuccessful, the uprising is considered the opening battle in Ireland’s final war for independence. It ended with the establishment of what is now the Republic of Ireland on most of the island. The six counties of Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom.

Pearse, age 35, was from a much younger generation when he spoke at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral. The older man had been a lifelong fighter for Irish independence who had been exiled to the United States after spending years in British prisons. After O’Donovan Rossa died at 83 on Staten Island, his body was returned to Ireland for a public funeral and burial.

“We stand at Rossa’s grave not in sadness but rather in exaltation of spirit,” Mr. Stanford said, repeating the words of Pearse. “The clear, true eyes of this man almost alone in his day visioned Ireland as we of today would surely have her: Not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.”

“They think they have pacified Ireland … but … they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

The “Fenian” movement was the name attached to several Irish fraternal and political organizations that sought independence for Ireland through both peaceful and armed resistance.

The Easter Rising, centered in Dublin, began on April 24, 1916, and lasted about six days. The rebellion took place during World War I and the rebels had looked to Germany for support. Britain moved quickly to quash the revolt, flooding the Irish capital with thousands of troops.

Historians calculate that more civilians than rebels and soldiers were killed during the street battles and shelling. Estimated casualties totaled about 500 dead and 2,600 wounded.

Among the 16 Irish leaders quickly tried and shot after the rebellion was put down was Padraig Pearse. New information about his death was published Friday in The Irish Times.

A British soldier, Sgt. Samuel Henry Lomas, wrote in his diary that Pearse had whistled on his way to his execution on May 2, 1916, according to an anniversary story in the Irish newspaper. Fenians Thomas MacDonagh and J.H. “Tom” Clarke also were shot that day.

Lomas had taken part in several of the Easter week battles and was at the executions that followed. He wrote down his impressions in a diary, taking note of the courage of the rebels. “It was sad to think that these three brave men who met their death so bravely should be fighting for a cause which proved so useless and had been the means of so much bloodshed,” he wrote.

Peter Gilmore, of Squirrel Hill, wore a green shirt with the image of James Connolly printed on it. Connolly was another of the leaders of the Easter Rising executed by the British.

While the Easter Uprising failed in the short term, revulsion throughout Ireland to the heavy-handed British response helped pave the way for eventual independence, Mr. Gilmore said. Most of the civilian casualties resulted from British shelling, he said. And the wounded Connolly had to be carried in a chair to his execution.

The “Easter 1916: Pittsburgh Remembers” commemoration will be organized around a three-day weekend in April.

The tentative schedule of events will include dramatic presentations linked to the Easter Rising and a performance by some members of the PICT Classic Theatre (formerly the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre); Irish football and hurling, a form of field hockey, hosted by the Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletic Association; and an evening social event with Irish music and dance featuring the Pittsburgh Ceili Club. A Sunday luncheon and panel discussion will address topics relevant to the Easter Rising and its place in Irish history.

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