Battle for Irish rebel street resonates on centenary

Naomi O'Leary
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A visitor browses the list of names of military and civilians (both Irish and British) killed during the Easter Rising of 1916, at the "Proclaiming a Republic: the 1916 Rising" exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin

A visitor browses the list of names of military and civilians (both Irish and British) killed during the Easter Rising of 1916, at the "Proclaiming a Republic: the 1916 Rising" exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin (AFP Photo/Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

Dublin (AFP) - Campaigners in Ireland are sensing victory following a years-long battle over the fate of a gritty Dublin street where rebels against British rule made a dramatic last stand a century ago.

As Ireland prepares to mark the anniversary of the Easter Rising on Sunday with the largest commemorative events in the history of the state, the dispute has taken on particular poignance.

It has pitted descendants of those who fought in the 1916 uprising on one side against a property developer and the government on the other.

Moore Street is cluttered with market stalls and modern shop signs over original red brick facades where 100 years ago men and women seen as founding heroes of the Irish state held out against British machine guns.

"It is a place that resonates with history," read a judgment issued by Ireland's High Court earlier this month that has raised the hopes of campaigners.

- 'National and European importance' -

If the Irish government had its way, developer Chartered Land would have demolished much of the street and nearby lanes, where eight rebels and 11 civilians were killed.

Just four buildings which were purchased by the government would have remained standing, converted into shops, a restaurant and a historical centre surrounded by a large shopping complex.

But the court ruling found much of the Moore Street area and its surrounding lanes to be "a battle-site of national and European importance".

"We've reclaimed it, we've won the street for the people," said Patrick Cooney, a 42-year-old documentary filmmaker and veteran of the campaign that this year saw protesters occupy buildings and blockade construction crews from starting work.

The campaigners accuse the current government led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny's Fine Gael party of being fundamentally uncomfortable with Ireland's revolutionary history.

The party traces its history back to a side in the Irish civil war in the 1920s that supported a deal with Britain granting limited independence, with Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom.

The same Civil War divisions lurk behind the current political jam, as last month's general election result means Fine Gael can only easily form a government with Fianna Fail -- old foes descended from the opposing side, which rejected partition and wanted to continue to fight for full independence.

The country will come together to commemorate the events of 1916 on Sunday with a parade to be attended by political leaders and 5,000 relatives of the rebels where the landmark proclamation of an independent republic will be read out.

Moore Street's significance lies in the fact that it is where rebels fled as they abandoned the burning General Post Office, where they had made their proclamation days earlier.

They burrowed through the walls from house to house, bursting in on surprised residents in a desperate bid to evade the surrounding British barricades.

Number 16 was where they decided to surrender, before their leaders were executed for their involvement in the rebellion in a series of killings that caused outrage and a surge in support for independence.

- 'Greatest centenary gift' -

In a striking 400 page judgment that quoted at length from historical testimonies of the rebels themselves, Barrett said it was "difficult to understand" why the government considered only four houses worth saving.

He noted that the holes tunnelled through the walls were still visible, and original cobblestones lurked under tarmac in the lanes that would have been built over.

The government has the option of appealing the ruling.

Asked for comment by AFP, both the government and Chartered Land said they would need to review the judgment before deciding the next step.

The minister in charge of commemorations and the Moore Street plan Heather Humphreys recognised the challenge of finding balance in an island of clashing traditions.

"While it is not of course possible to please everyone, we can at least try to respect each other's views and listen to the various narratives which run through our historical story," she said.

For Cooney, descended from members of the London branch of the Irish Volunteers militia that formed the backbone of rebel forces, the next battle is to make sure Moore Street is regenerated in a way that is sensitive to its unique place in history.

"It's the birthplace of the republic, the cradle of the nation. It's where they laid down their lives and they gave us our country, simple as that," he said.

"You've got plaque unveilings, you've got wreath-layings, you've got flags being flown, but the greatest centenary gift for the nation is the saving of Moore Street."