24 April 2016 Sunday afternoon, Providence, Rhode Island
We’ve been back from Ireland for nearly a week now and most of us are rested and recovered from jet-lag. But our Irish history lesson is not yet at an end. On the radio this past Friday, I heard Rhode Island Public Radio political correspondent Scott MacKay interview Donald Deignan, the founder of the 1916 Centennial Remembrance Committee of Rhode Island. The group had raised money to construct a memorial, a plaque mounted on granite stone, to honor those who fought in the Easter Rising, and planned an unveiling ceremony on the centennial anniversary of the Rising. Several of us thought this would bookend our trip nicely, so Frances, Bob and I made the journey downtown after church.
Ireland had been under some form of British rule going back as far as the 12th century and this was formalized in the Union Act of 1800, which dissolved the Irish Parliament and created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Moderate Irish nationalists supported some form of home rule as a compromise of sorts, but the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) wanted complete independence from the British crown and planned the insurrection that would become known as the Easter Rising. The rebellion was launched on 24 April 1916, beginning with Patrick Pearse’s reading of the Proclamation (an Irish declaration of independence), signed by Pearse and six others. The Rising had been planned for months, with participation from the Irish Citizen Army and the women of Cumann na mBan. Despite the fact that the British were involved in World War I, it took the British Army only six days to quash the rebellion. The seven signers of the Proclamation, along with eight others in leadership positions, were swiftly executed, most by firing squad. (Eamon de Valera, born in New York City, was spared probably because the British wished to avoid a confrontation with the Americans. He would later journey to Rhode Island to ask for support during Ireland’s War of Independence.) Prior to the Easter Rising, support for Irish independence was tepid at best, but the brutality of the British response turned the tide of public opinion toward support for independence, with the executed revolutionaries viewed as martyrs. The War of Independence and an Irish civil war followed the Easter Rising. The hostilities ended in 1922, with 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland becoming the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Ireland) and the northern six counties—Northern Ireland—remaining a part of the United Kingdom.
In 1916, one in four Rhode Islanders had some connection to Ireland. The vast majority of Rhode Islanders with Irish heritage—either themselves or their ancestors—emigrated here during the potato famine. The failure of the potato crop, which sustained many subsistence tenant farmers, resulted in the starvation deaths of a million Irish and the emigration of another million to North America. According to Time magazine’s Robert Schmuhl, the emigrants arrived in this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and a hatred of the British. Most wanted to see their homeland independent and free from British rule. This nationalistic desire was passed on to their descendants, who participated in today’s dedication ceremony.
The weather was perfect—a sunny, windy day, with temperatures in the mid 60s. A small crowd gathered on the Providence River to witness the unveiling of the 1916 Easter Rising Memorial. The memorial, draped in green cloth, was situated on the river walk near the Irish Famine Memorial, dedicated in 2007. Flags—Ireland, American, and Rhode Island—snapped in the breeze.
Donald Deignan was the master of ceremonies for the event. After a few opening remarks, he introduced local musician Sean Connell (shown below), who performed the national anthems from both countries—the Star Spangled Banner in English and the Irish national anthem in Irish. Many of the attendees knew the Irish national anthem and sang along. Rhode Island lieutenant governor Daniel McKee greeted the crowd and Sean Connell performed The Foggy Dew. This was followed by a stirring reading of the Proclamation by Tom Kelly. Sean Connell performed the song Pádraig Pearse, and then the Reverend Bernard O’Reilly and Kathy Greenwell unveiled the monument, to the delighted applause of the crowd. Father offered a blessing, then Gerald Carroll read the names and the execution dates of the 1916 revolutionaries. The ceremony closed with Sean Connell’s performance of A Nation Once Again.
The ceremony was concluded, but several of us lingered to take photos of the newly unveiled Easter Rising memorial and the Irish Famine Memorial. It was a perfect day to be downtown on the river, with sweeping views of the Providence skyline to the north and the Iway bridge and Narragansett Bay to the south.
While doing research for this post, I learned that the 1916 Centennial Remembrance Committee of Rhode Island has prepared a display at the Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street, called “Rhode Island Remembers Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.” A copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Ireland’s declaration of independence read by Patrick Pearse, will be on display. There were 50 copies of this flyer printed, and only about a dozen survive. Those of us on the Ireland trip viewed two copies, one at Trinity College and one at the Ambassador Theatre. The exhibit at the Providence Public Library runs through 31 May 2016.
The ties between Ireland and Rhode Island, established in the mid-19th century, are strong, and remain so today.