State Commemoration for Leaders of 1916

Comóradh Stáit Searmanais, Cnoc an Earbhair 8ú Bealtaine 2024 – State Commemoration Ceremonies, Arbour Hill, 8th of May 2024

In the cinema at present there is a beautifully made film of John McGahern’s last novel, That they may face the Rising Sun. The opening scene has stunning rural scenery in the backdrop of early morning light and the emerging sunlight.

Towards the end of the film there’s a dialogue in the cemetery while preparing the grave for the burial of one of the characters of the story, a returned immigrant Johnny. In the conversation the grave diggers stress the importance of placing the coffin so that the corpse may face the rising sun. This facing the rising sun is a primeval nod to the resurrection.

The direct quotation from McGahern’s original work runs:

‘He sleeps with his head in the west… so that when he wakes he may face the rising sun.’ … “We look to the resurrection of the dead.”

Graves in the ancient tradition, along with the sanctuaries of Churches were oriented to have the occupant or worshipper facing towards the rising sun where the light of heaven emerges.

Comóradh Stáit

We gather today to commemorate the Leaders of 1916 who made the supreme sacrifice of their lives when they were executed in the Easter Rising of 1916.  May the light of that sun of the resurrection shine brightly on them here in the east of our land.

No Greater Love…

As a Church we bask in these Eastertide weeks of 2024 celebrating our Faith in the Resurrection.  On Sunday last, the 6th Sunday of Easter we heard the words of Jesus in the Gospel that there can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Laochra 1916

The same Easter liturgical Ceremonies were also the spiritual backdrop to the events of the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent executions of its leaders. Easter in Ireland is forever imbued with the memory of 1916.

I recall the parish priest of the place where I went to school, An Cheathrú Rua, Co. na Gaillimhe.   Every year during Easter week he became animated in commemorative prayer for the sacrifice of the 1916 leaders.

Executions in the stone breakers yard!

While serving on the staff for many years in St. Jarlath’s College, Tuam an annual historical tour of Dublin was one of the “rites of passage” of post junior-cert students.  Central to that, at the beginning of the day was an historical tour of Kilmainham jail.  The story and visceral reality of the execution in the Stone Breakers Yard of the Laochra 1916captivated even the most skeptical and seemingly disinterested adolescent heart.

We pray for a share in the Resurrection for the leaders of 1916 – Resurrection: the ultimate rising to eternal life.

Faith Profiles

I draw attention to the faith profiles of the rising leaders, courtesy of the documented faith stories in the treasure of a publication “The End of all things earthly – Faith Profiles of the 1916 Leaders”.

Glory of God and Honor of Ireland

The testimony of one of the attending priests, that of Father Aloysius Travers, Capuchin informs us that the leaders went to their deaths confident in the promise of their faith and the knowledge that they were: Dying for the glory of God and the honor of Ireland.  In the words of today’s Gospel, they were the grain of wheat which produced a great harvest. Their place in history has in ways removed them from the ranks of ordinary people.

And so, we gather here 108 years later to acknowledge their sacrifice, and, in the faith, we share with them, to celebrate this Holy Mass for the repose of their souls.

The 1916 Proclamation, Forógra na Poblachta, both begins and ends with acknowledgement of the transcendent. It begins “In the name of God… In ainm Dé agus in ainm na nglún a chuaigh romhainn … tá Éire, trínne, ag gairm a clainne faoina bratach agus ag bualadh buille ar son a saoirse.  The iconic text finishes by saying  “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the most High God.’’ Cuirimid cúis Phoblacht na hÉireann faoi choimirce Dhia Mór na nUilechumhacht … agus guímid nach dtarraingeoidh aon duine i seirbhís na cúise sin easonóir uirthi le meatacht, le mídhaonnacht ná le slad.

Acknowledging and in humility before the God of our Fathers and Mothers we pray for the leaders of the rising.

Remembrance of the Faithful Departed

It is an important aspect of our faith to pray for the dead, to remember those who were part of our lives and to appreciate the gift they were to us while they were living. Those people are usually our family and near friends. But it is the extraordinary turn of history that we are here today, praying for the leaders of 1916 as though they were our family.

Families of the Leaders – present today

But central to this commemoration there is a very important family here today also. The family and families of the executed leaders. Your family story is intertwined with the story of our nation, and you can be rightly proud that you carry in your DNA, the spirit of freedom which enabled your relatives to lay down their lives for freedom.

The 1916 executions deprived your families of beloved ancestors. Some of the most poignant stories of the post Easter time in 1916 are the stories of the visits of children to their condemned relatives and their final goodbyes. These losses were the sacrifices that your families made as a life-giving gift to our nation.

Present day fight for freedom

Today also, our hearts are heavy with a new story of oppression and the desire to be free from it.   We see the plight of those seeking refuge in our land and the root causes of this in many war torn parts of the world.  Our knowledge of the world is now instantaneous but our sadness and helplessness in the face of oppression is as old as humanity.

We pray that all who have recognized the call within themselves to stand for justice, tolerance and self-determination will go forward in the same spirit of self-sacrifice that marked all Irish women and men who over the years turned towards danger because they believed it was the right thing to do.

I return to this sacred National monument here in Arbour Hill, which carries our grateful memories for the generous sacrifice of the 1916 leaders. We commend the souls of the 1916 leaders to the care of Almighty God and that the generous seed sown by them may continue to bring a harvest to Irish people forever.

We are still writing our story, still trying to make real the promise and the dream of 1916. We owe it to the legacy of 1916 to do it in the spirit of the Proclamation itself which states “its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation……cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’’

May those who began the good work in us be rewarded for their sacrifice and may they rest in the peace of the Risen Christ, who even in his appearances to his Disciples carried the wounds of Good Friday, but only as a sign and a pointer to all of us that the Resurrection is the completion of human life, and it awaits all of us.

Droichead an Dóchas

On bank holiday Monday just gone by, crossing the new pedestrian bridge in Galway parallel to the salmon weir I was heartened to see that it is Christened Droichead an Dóchas.  The Bridge of Hope.  May the bridge towards freedom, faith and a new Ireland built by those whom we prayerfully commemorate fill us with fresh hope in these Eastertide days.

Suaimneas sioraí tabhair do na laochra cróga, gaisciúla sin a Thiarna, Saoranaigh agus Gaeil den chéad scoth.  Go Lonrai solas na bhflaitheas orthu.

May the light of the rising sun shine brightly on their faces and on us all for eternity, O Lord.


Do chum glóire Dé agus Onóra na hÉireann.

(The motto of the old Irish Press newspaper and the inscription on the entrance to the old Irish College in Leuven.)