Last Saturday, thousands of Pittsburghers lined the streets Downtown to watch what is now the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the United States. It’s a celebration of all things Irish—the culture, the music, the food (and drinks!) and the patron saint himself—but some people at the parade may not have realized that this year the celebration had a more solemn purpose: to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.
If they were so overcome by the festive mood and the sunshine that they missed this tidbit, it’s OK, because they haven’t missed their chance to observe this important Irish centennial. The Pittsburgh Irish community has joined to plan a weekend of events from April 15 through 17, and it will be one of the largest 1916 commemorations in the United States.
What happened in 1916?
For those who never covered Ireland in history class, the Easter Rising was an armed rebellion that began on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, as an effort to end British rule in Ireland. Led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the rebels took over key locations in Dublin, including locations that tourists may recognize today such as the General Post Office and St. Stephen’s Green, and declared an independent Irish Republic.
The Rebellion failed. It lasted for six days, destroying most of Dublin’s city center and leaving 2,500 people killed or wounded, many of whom were civilians. On Easter Saturday, the rebel leaders were then arrested, held prisoner and executed by a firing squad.
Up until this point, Ireland had been under British control for nearly 800 years, and though animosity between the two cultures ran deep and the Irish were mostly in favor of establishing an Irish Republic, many of them were not ready to fight for home rule. After the Easter Rising, however, when the Irish witnessed the horrific way the British treated the rebels, public opinion changed drastically. Just two years later, the Irish War for Independence began, and it resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and later, the Republic of Ireland. It established home rule for every county in Ireland except for the six counties in Northern Ireland, which are still part of the United Kingdom today.
The Easter Rising in 1916 is often cited as the spark that eventually led to revolution. While unsuccessful as a rebellion, the major victory of the Easter Rising was a shift in the attitudes of the people that resulted in Irish independence only six years later.
What is happening in Pittsburgh to remember 1916?
The Easter 1916: Pittsburgh Remembers Committee was created more than a year and a a half ago when Sarah McAuliffe-Bellin, St. Patrick’s Day parade Grand Marshal, and Jim Green, immediate past president of the Allegheny County Ancient Order of Hibernians, as well as the AOH Pennsylvania State Board, began talking about the upcoming centennial and decided to commemorate the Easter Rising. They are now co-chairs of the Easter 1916: Pittsburgh Remembers Committee, with more than 20 local Irish organizations contributing to the commemoration weekend.
“It’s definitely the largest group of Irish-American organizations that have ever gotten together in Pittsburgh to do a project like this,” says Jim Green, “and no one else in the U.S. is doing something as large as us. Other cities are doing small-scale events and festivals, but no one is doing anything as robust as what we’ve got planned for Pittsburgh. I think it’s wonderful.”
The commemoration event has received support from The Irish Society for Education & Charity, The Year of Remembrance Committee, Trebuchet Consulting, The Irish American Unity Conference and the Consulate General of Ireland— New York, but the committee has relied heavily on the individual Irish organizations to raise their own funds and contribute their own time and talents in support of the event.
“There have been some challenges,” says Green, “Each of these groups has their own purpose and each group has things that they would like to see the commemoration touch on. Whether it’s music, traditional Irish dance, politics… But we’ve tried to make sure that everyone has input into the program and that everybody is satisfied with the direction of the event.”
The result is a commemoration weekend that has something for everyone—families, sports enthusiasts, theater-goers, dancers and people who just want to know more about the history of the Easter Rising.
Friday, April 15, 2016—Setting the Stage: An Evening of History, Performance, Reflection
7:30 p.m. in The Grand Hall at The Priory. Tickets are $20 for this event or $50 for the weekend.
- Cocktail reception
- Historical exhibit including videos, historic artifacts and displays about the Easter Rising
- Theatrical presentation by PICT Classic Theatre, featuring the works of the artistic leaders of the Rising
“The consulate general from New York will be in town on Friday, and we’ve got a beautiful introductory event planned for the commemoration weekend,” says Green. “There will be a historical introduction with the 32 county flags of Ireland along with the U.S. and the Irish tricolor as a backdrop…then there will be an impactful and thought-provoking performance from PICT Classic Theatre’s actors and Executive & Artistic Director, Alan Stanford. After PICT is done, there will be an hour or so for people to purchase beverages, look over the historical exhibits and chat. It will have a bit of an ‘icebreaker’ feel to kick off the weekend.”
Saturday, April 16, 2016—Ireland’s Sporting Tradition: A GAA Football Exhibition
12 p.m. at Cupples Stadium on the Southside. Free.
- Exhibition of Irish football and hurling, presented by Venture Outdoors and the Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletic Association (PGAA)
- Demonstration and competition from the Pittsburgh Banshees Ladies Football Team and the Pittsburgh Pucas Men’s Hurling team
- Exhibition game between the Pittsburgh Celtics Men’s Football team and the Cleveland GAA
“The GAA was involved in 1916, which is why they are involved in the commemoration,” says Green, who is referring to the idea that many of the GAA members in 1916 fought in the rebellion and then went on to support revolution. “It will be a nod to the GAA and their contribution to the 1916 Easter Rising.”
Saturday, April 16, 2016—Pittsburgh Ceili: An Evening of Irish Culture, Friendship, Music, Dance
7 p.m. at the Teamsters Temple in Lawrenceville. Tickets are $20 for this event or $50 for the weekend.
- Irish music by local seisún musicians
- Optional participation in traditional Irish dancing
- Performance by Shovlin Academy of Irish Dance
- Food and drinks included. BYOB.
“I think America has a distorted idea of what purpose pubs and gathering places served in Ireland,” says Green. “Many pubs were places for families to gather. They were really public houses, not just bars. They were places for families to come together for activities. What we will do is similar. It’s a community event, with traditional Irish dance and music, and it is family-oriented.”
Sunday, April 17, 2016—Creating Understanding: Putting it All Together
12 p.m. at The Grand Hall at The Priory. Tickets are $20 for this event or $50 for the weekend.
- Irish author/ historian Tim Pat Coogan will lead a discussion about The Rising, moderated by Pittsburgh television host Michael Bartley
- Awards presentation to the Student Literary & Visual Arts Contest Finalists
- Lunch and a cash bar
“For the grand finale, we are flying Tim Pat in from Ireland. He’s a renowned journalist and author, who has published several books on the Easter Rising,” says Green. “We will get as close as possible to a first-hand account of The Rising. And we will get a picture of Ireland. Where it has been, from 1916 through The Troubles, the hunger strikes and into more recent Irish History, and into where Ireland is today.”
Many people in and around the city of Pittsburgh claim Irish heritage. In fact, it’s the region’s second-largest nationality (after German and before Italian), with one in six Pittsburghers identifying as Irish. Pittsburgh has its own honorary Irish consulate, it’s Irish Festival draws in over 25,000 visitors over the course of one weekend and it boasts a variety of Irish organizations and restaurants for a city of its size.
But if the size of Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is any indicator, it seems an affinity for Irish culture has grown beyond those with Irish heritage and has been adopted by people of many ethnic backgrounds in the diverse melting pot that characterizes the city.
For this reason, it is appropriate that Pittsburgh should join the ranks of the global 1916 commemoration, which will include events in cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Brasilia, London, Abu Dhabi, Helsinki and others.
“The Easter Rising in Irish history is similar to the Battle of Bunker Hill in American history. We too had to fight off oppressors and win our independence from the British,” says Green. “The Irish organizations in and around Pittsburgh still very much feel a bond with their ancestors… We want to pause and recognize the event that was the most important one to set us toward Irish independence and unification.”
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.pittsburghremembers1916.com or call 412-315-4619.