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World 100 years after the Easter Rising, we're ‘as Irish as we want to be’

There's a chill east wind blowing in from the Irish Sea, there's watery sunlight and, looking west, rain pouring down on the Dublin Mountains. It will land here soon. Typical Irish weather. My father and I are taking a stroll through Meadowvale Park, a long stretch of playing fields tucked behind the suburban streets of south Dublin.

We stop to watch a game of camogie get under way. It's the fierce, fast, stick-and-ball game played by women. A variation on the ancient Gaelic game of hurling played by men. The players are schoolgirls, and they're bloody good. Two teams of 15 go to it – orchestral movements from the back, as the small leather ball, the sliotar, is hit high and forward with a strike of a stick, and chased. One team in red, the other in yellow. It is magnificent to watch; livid with energy, skill and passion.

My father is tiring of the wintry breeze. He moves on. I stay for another minute and watch the camogie. I know this most Gaelic of games would not be played, would not be an intrinsic part of sport in the Republic of Ireland, were it not for people like my dad. At 92, he is almost as old the Republic itself.

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'We were free to be Catholic'

Right now, the Republic is examining itself, celebrating itself, and brooding a bit. It is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the violent rebellion by a ragtag group of nationalists, poets, writers, socialists and dreamers. It was chaotic, fewer than 2,000 people rose up, it lasted only a week, and it failed, but it became the pivotal act in recent Irish history. It begat the guerrilla war in 1919 to achieve Irish independence from Britain. That ended in 1921 with a treaty that allowed Ireland self-rule but kept six counties in Northern Ireland under British rule. The treaty caused a civil war that began in 1922 and ended in 1923. My dad, Sean Doyle, was born in December, 1923. Born with the state.

"We were taught very little about Easter, 1916, when I was a boy at school," my father tells me over a small glass of Jameson in the cozy suburban house where he lives with my mother, Mary. "What I remember is the emphasis on religion. All we were told is that Ireland is Catholic, and that's why it deserved independence. Our religion had been almost quashed by the British, and now we were free to be Catholic and Irish.

"When I look back on it, I think the authorities didn't want to celebrate 1916 because it might stir up the other side in the civil war, the ones who wanted to keep fighting for an all-Ireland republic."

Idealizing toxic notions

The Dublin I visit to see my parents is, this month and for the rest of the year, like a giant theme park, the theme being the anniversary of the Rising. Visitors and locals can take all manner of tours; there are re-enactments and live shows telling the story of what happened.

It is, to me, mind-boggling. Irish-born and educated, I see the fetishizing of the Easter Rising as the idealizing of toxic notions of violence and martyrdom that have bedevilled Irish history. What exactly are all these people celebrating?

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Dad is a bit impatient with my question. "People are celebrating getting rid of the British and the start of our freedom. Ordinary people want something to celebrate, because they have enough things to worry about. Like jobs and the cost of everything. How many live comfortably in this country? Not many. But we can celebrate and be as Irish as we want to be."

Fewer people were comfortable in 1916. The First World War was unfolding with barbaric intensity. The political movement to achieve "home rule" for Ireland had been put on hold, and that movement's leaders had encouraged young Irish men to join the British Army to prove Ireland's loyalty when called upon. Tens of thousands did.

In Dublin, though, day-to-day survival was a struggle. There were few permanent jobs, the infant-mortality rate was high, and deaths from tuberculosis were 50-per-cent higher than in cities in England and Scotland.

Rebellion and 'blood sacrifice'

The Rising was an act of rebellion by men – mostly men, the women involved, largely forgotten – with myriad aims. Some were socialists who wanted a workers' republic; some writers who wanted a Gaelic-speaking country rooted in Gaelic tradition. In his poem Easter 1916, W.B. Yeats canonized the rebels and deified the Rising with this line: "A terrible beauty is born."

The de facto leader was Patrick Pearse, who ran a school that taught pupils in the Irish language and believed "blood sacrifice" was needed to achieve independence. What Pearse read aloud to a handful of bewildered spectators on Easter Monday, 1916, in his Proclamation of the Irish Republic (a copy of the document is pinned over my desk at The Globe and Mail) was full of talk about "arms" and "sacrifice," but included a wildly optimistic promise: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority in the past."

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Less snobbery, more equality

When I ask my father, and my mother, too, what has changed in Ireland in their lifetime, there are echoes of the Proclamation. This stuns me a bit, as the Ireland of my youth felt intolerant and close-minded. "People are more equal with each other now," Dad says. "There is far less snobbery. When I was growing up, working-class people hardly had enough to eat. The people who were important in your town or community were the well-off, and they let you know it. You had to tip your hat to them. Now, if you go to the funeral of someone who used to be considered important and a snob, there's nobody there. Nobody cares about them."

Dad was born and raised in Nenagh, a small town in Tipperary. His father was a porter – doorman, caretaker, groundskeeper and errand runner – at the local bank, and earned extra money landscaping the gardens of prosperous local families.

My mother, 14 years younger than my dad, comes from the countryside outside the town. It's a hilly part of North Tipperary that is legendary in Irish history as a place apart, seething with dissent. When I was a boy and I told a teacher at school where my mother's people came from, he gleefully told me that on an ancient map done under British rule, the area had been labelled "ungovernable."

A permanent state of change

My mother's people weren't farmers. They had been forced from their own land by Oliver Cromwell's marauding army, intent on ethnic cleansing, in the 17th century. Where they settled was hardscrabble territory. My mother's father and several of her brothers were miners and labourers. They were trade-union and Labour Party people. My mother attended her first Labour Party meeting when she was 15. She still campaigns for it, and both she and my father have been honoured for their decades of work for the mildly socialist party.

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To my mother, Ireland is in a permanent state of revolution and change. "Nobody talked about the rebels and the Easter Rising when I was a child," she tells me as she stands in her kitchen, waving around a spatula. "People talked about education and wages and how horrible it was to see so many young people emigrating. We've got better education now. Nobody walks miles to school like I did. And every educated child makes Ireland a better place. We are not finished changing this country."

A ramshackle Rising

On another chilly afternoon, I accompany my parents around the corner to the vast Deansgrange Cemetery, where dozens of those who died in the 1916 Rising are buried, and there's an exhibition explaining what happened in south Dublin during the Rising. My father reads everything in the exhibition closely. He is a bit taken aback by the details given, details that underline how much of the Rising was ramshackle.

Volunteer fighters set out for the city centre, but others failed to turn up, and the volunteers went home. British Army forces who landed in nearby Dun Laoghaire and marched toward the city were cheered by locals who were baffled by the commotion and destruction in Dublin.

We learn that one of those immortalized in Yeats's poem, John MacBride, although a prominent Irish nationalist, had no idea the Rising was about to happen. He'd left his home in south Dublin and was meeting his brother Anthony in the city centre, as Anthony was getting married two days later. While waiting for him, he saw poet Thomas MacDonagh (who was from the countryside around Nenagh) in military uniform. Grasping what was under way, John MacBride volunteered to help, and co-led the rebel group that held Jacob's sprawling biscuit factory for days.

Cultivating Gaelic ideals

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My dad is disappointed and a bit irritated that the exhibition has almost nothing in the Gaelic language. He makes a mild complaint to a county-council worker, who explains that by Easter, when the exhibits are fully completed, there will be something in the language. This is my father's baggage, lightly carried. And something rooted in one of the ideals of the Rising – a Gaelic-speaking country anchored in its age-old Gaelic traditions.

Over a pint of Guinness, I ask him how exactly, in his memory, he became motivated to become a speaker of the language and an advocate of Gaelic ideals.

"When I left school, I got a job as a clerk in the state solicitor's office in Nenagh, and I was happy enough for a while. But I saw little future in it, so I got a job with Irish Life [the state-owned insurance company where he spent his career] and they put me in another town. I was back in Nenagh one day, and I was in the post office, posting a letter. Padraig O'Meara, who had taught me at school, was in the post office and he spoke to me in Irish. I couldn't reply to the man. All the Irish I'd been taught at school had disappeared. I was very ashamed.

"I told my mother and father about meeting Mr. O'Meara and how I'd been very embarrassed. They suggested I join the Gaelic League and learn back the Irish I knew. It changed my whole life. Conradh na Gaeilge [the League in Irish] existed to promote the language and Irish culture. I learned enough to speak it fluently, and that was very important to me. The League had also decided that plays and other entertainment in Irish would promote the language, so there was a theatre group to perform plays in Irish. I joined that."

A father's theatrical past

This part of my dad's long life is one I know about. When I was a boy, he was often on the stage, acting in Irish-language plays. He and his friends were very, very good, winning many awards. My dad, though an amateur, performed on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, after his group won a national award for their production of an Irish-language work. In my adolescence, I was vaguely astonished to discover that Dad, who spent his life in the insurance business, was connected to some of the most important figures in Irish theatre.

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He is rueful about it now. "When I was in the Gaelic League, we thought we would soon have the whole town of Nenagh speaking Irish every day. And after that, the whole country of Ireland. If there is one thing I'd like to see from all this commemoration of 1916, it's more emphasis on the Irish language. Our language."

He is realistic, though. The republic is, at least, officially bilingual, and the Irish language, although barely alive, is inescapable. All government signage is in Irish and English. And Gaelic games are the most popular in the country. That was another important part of my father's early life. He worshipped at the altar of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which organized Gaelic hurling, football and camogie. They were his sports, Irish sports. The GAA didn't approve of soccer or rugby, as those were English games. In fact, you could be expelled from the GAA for playing those games or attending matches.

A grand chat, and a big change

Dad never openly disapproved of my interest in soccer, but he was wary of the game and a bit dismissive. It wasn't Gaelic to him. And Gaelic games mattered the most. Then, one night some years ago, he was in his local pub in Deansgrange, having a quiet drink on his own. He fell into conversation with a nearby couple and they had a grand chat about this and that. When they left, the bartender told Dad he'd been gabbing with the parents of Damien Duff, the great Irish soccer player, who at that time played for Chelsea.

Impressed and a bit entranced, Dad became a fan of Mr. Duff and devoted to Chelsea, that most English of teams. Me, I never imagined such a change in him was possible.

That afternoon when we watched the girls play camogie in the park, Dad drifted off to watch boys play soccer on the next field. He was gripped by it, muttering, "Go on, go on!" to a young man tearing down the wing, the ball at his feet. The rain shifted in from the Dublin Mountains, falling hard on us with the force of the east wind, but Dad was enjoying himself thoroughly, being as Irish as he wants to be. It is, I suppose, what people are celebrating, 100 years after that violent, shambolic revolution.

John Doyle is the Globe's Television Critic and the author of A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age.

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