Confession: I’m a bit tired of all the 1916 centenary stuff. Not in some stupid revisionist/West Brit way – in my opinion the Rising was, on the whole, a good thing, the Irish people have made a decent fist of independence, and this is now a pretty fine place to live.
But there’s just been such a deluge of it, from the start of this year and before. And so much of that has been dreary, or po-faced, or ridiculously arcane (really, how many more obscure angles on the Rising can historians come up with?). Parades, speeches, ceremonies, columns, documentaries, discussions: they’re all fine but only up to a point, after which the law of diminishing returns kicks in, hard.
By the time the “official” Easter tributes finally rolled around, I’d almost had enough. You could call it a sort of historical/commemorative exhaustion, I suppose.
So thank heavens – or the Spirit of 1916, or whatever you like – for Centenary, last night’s RTE concert which rounded off the weekend in spectacular style. Live from the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, Centenary blended music, dance, physical theatre, drama and archive footage into a tremendously entertaining, and genuinely affecting, 90 minutes.
Michael D Higgins, in a speech towards the end – and JFK, on an earlier audio clip – eulogised the enormous cultural/artistic contribution this country has made to the world. So what better way to honour the Rising, and by extension the nation and its people, than through art?
This, as they say, is the finest of what we are. And more than that, music and dance and literature are living, breathing entities; in fact they’re immortal, and stand in stark, brilliant contrast to the stony hand of history and the horrors of war and death.
As a commemoration, thus, Centenary struck all the right notes. It paid due tribute to the men and women of 1916, their courage and sacrifice; but it also hammered home the truly important aspect, which is why people do these things. Politics and war might be necessary evils sometimes – but they’re meaningless, and pointless, without art and beauty, love and community.
And strictly as a show, Centenary rocked my socks off. I loved it: from haunting sean nós to playful jigs and reels, from reinvented folk classics to Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, from veterans like John Sheehan to the astoundingly precocious Sibéal Ní Chasaide, from a video fast-forward through modern Irish history to the very touching letters from the soon-to-be-shot leaders…it was all great. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten people here; I apologise, you were great too.)
The rendition of Grace by siblings Danny O’Reilly and Roisin O, and their cousin Aoife Scott, from Kilmainham Jail, was spine-tingling. The part where various people around the world intoned the Proclamation was lump-in-the-throat time. And the set-design! Oh, that set-design. A subtle and brilliant interplay of “straight” representation and oblique lighting.
People are calling Centenary this decade’s Riverdance, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. Can Centenary evolve into a touring show? While there is a narrative of sorts, that may not travel outside Ireland; and the logistics of staging this production look dauntingly large-scale. There’s another fundamental difference. Riverdance addresses certain timeless themes, whereas Centenary (naturally) concentrated on Irish history from 1916 to now, which made it tighter and more focused, powerful and moving.
There were more than a few moments last night, I must admit, where I realised that I had the proverbial “something in my eye”. I can’t remember the last time that would have happened. Maybe I’m not so blasé about this Rising stuff after all.