Architects of Independence cast a long shadow
Opinion: What is striking about the events of recent years is that we are constantly reminded how deep rooted and historical these problems are
‘It might be tempting to invoke the ghosts of the War of Independence generation, highlight their public service and lack of greed and compare that with a post Civil War generation far too focused on self-promotion’. Meeting of Dáil Éireann, shortly after the end of the War of Independence. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
A recent invitation to contribute the closing chapter to a book on modern Irish history created a dilemma, as the chapter title is “Ireland in the twenty first century”.
How does the historian write about such recent history, particularly when that history blends into current affairs and in the absence of archival material and adequate perspective? More than 40 years ago Irish historian Leland Lyons posed this question: “Can contemporary history be history?” In answering his own question, he suggested it suffered from “fundamental disabilities, which place it firmly and irredeemably outside the cognisance of the historical profession”. What contemporaries witnessed, he suggested, were only “fragments”, and it was difficult to recognise what was of permanent importance. But he also acknowledged that if historians abandoned contemporary history it would be left to propagandists.
Despite the drawbacks, therefore, there are legitimate reasons for historians to attempt to make sense of recent events, both to challenge the infuriating mantra “we are where we are” which invites a closing down of a much-needed historical perspective concerning specific controversies, but also to try to give a wider sense of why there has been such continuity in the fundamental problems this State has faced over decades.
Reflecting on recent experience also makes the historian think about the extent to which the crises of the early
21st century will fundamentally alter how the experiences of the State since its formation in 1922 will be historically framed.
When I began studying history 25 years ago, there was much attention devoted in the lectures and textbooks to the difficulties experienced by the State in its formative decades. The Civil War and its legacy, economic crises, the threat from subversives and emigration featured prominently. But there was also a broad consensus that the State had notable achievements to its name. They included the survival of democracy and institutions of State during difficult years, at a time when other European democracies floundered, a maturation in politics that allowed a consensus to develop about foreign policy, including neutrality during the second World War, a depoliticised Civil Service, and a mostly unarmed police force that earned the respect of the people it served.
In 1997, at the time of the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the State, political scientist Tom Garvin suggested: “Despite their mistakes and sins . . . the Irish revolutionaries-turned-politicians got it more right than wrong.” Today, many might accept that this balance sheet of achievements and failures is still broadly accurate. But such has been the sustained exposure of poor governance and abuse of power through an abundance of inquiries, reports and investigations that it is tempting to conclude there is something contrived about such a balance sheet.