updated 4/16/2006 8:43:30 AM ET 2006-04-16T12:43:30

More than 2,500 Irish military personnel, some saluting atop tanks and others marching with fixed bayonets, paraded Sunday past the bullet-scarred spot where rebels launched a fateful Easter 1916 rebellion against British rule.

It was the first such commemoration in four decades because of official sensitivities over IRA bloodshed.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, President Mary McAleese and several hundred descendants of the Easter Rising rebels watched from the main viewing stands as the military parade passed down Dublin’s major thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, and past its iconic General Post Office, the rebels’ headquarters for the weeklong Easter Rising.

'Remembrance, reconciliation and renewal'
Tens of thousands of people lined the route, while hundreds of thousands more watched live on RTE state television.

“Today is a day of remembrance, reconciliation and renewal,” Ahern said in a speech shortly before the parade. “Today is about discharging one generation’s debt of honor to another. Today, we will fittingly commemorate the patriotism and vision of those who set in train an unstoppable process which led to this country’s political independence.”

As the green, white and orange Tricolor of the Irish Republic was lowered to half-mast over the General Post Office, an army officer stepped forward to recreate the moment when Ireland’s eventual independence was proclaimed by rebel leader Padraig Pearse.

“In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom,” the soldier read, as Pearse had done 90 years before.

At that time, though, passing Dubliners either met the gesture with bemusement or seized the moment to begin looting shops, historians say.

This time around, solemnity prevailed. McAleese laid a wreath to the approximately 450 people killed during the rebellion as the crowd observed a minute’s silence. Then the flag returned to full mast and the military march resumed to a nearby square.

Earlier, Ahern laid a memorial wreath to the 15 rebel leaders whom the British army executed in the weeks following what, by any measure, had been a military disaster for the rebels. They had seized several buildings and a central park, then waited for superior numbers of British troops — many of them Irishmen — to surround, shoot and shell them into submission.

But the 15 men’s deaths by firing squad inside Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail inflamed public opinion against the British and in favor of a successful 1919-21 war of independence for the predominantly Catholic south of Ireland.

Irish poet W.B. Yeats summed up the impact of the British executions in his “Easter 1916” poem, naming Pearse and three other prominent commanders who died and warning: “A terrible beauty is born.”

Among those attending the jail ceremony with Ahern was the Rev. Joseph Mallin, 92, the only surviving child of the executed rebels. His father, Michael Mallin, was chief of staff of a rebel faction called the Irish Citizen Army; he was executed inside the jail on May 8, 1916.

Mallin, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Hong Kong since 1948, was flown back by the government as a special guest.

Ahern read out parts of Commandant Mallin’s letter to his wife on the eve of his execution — a letter, Ahern said, that was “important for its marked absence of bitterness and for the emphasis he places on reconciliation.”

Mallin wrote: “I find no fault with the soldiers or police. I forgive them from the bottom of my heart. Pray for all the souls that fell in this fight, Irish and English.”

Celebrating once again
The government mounted a similarly grand General Post Office commemoration of the Rising on its 50th anniversary in 1966. But such military pomp became unpalatable once a new Irish Republican Army began bombing and shooting in the neighboring British territory of Northern Ireland.

Throughout the IRA campaign, which claimed 1,775 lives, the government did not want the public to draw links between the country’s own rebel heroes and the modern killers next door. But Ahern said Ireland should begin celebrating the Rising again after the IRA last year renounced violence for political purposes and disarmed.

The partition of Ireland — a key inspiration of the modern, Northern Ireland-based IRA — came several months before rebel leaders signed a December 1921 treaty with Britain to create an Irish Free State in the predominantly Catholic south of Ireland.

That newfound freedom was soured by an bloodier 1922-23 civil war between rebels who accepted the 1921 treaty with Britain and those who opposed it, chiefly on the grounds it kept the new state tied in too many symbolic ways to Britain.

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