Many are annoyed at idea of a royal presence in Dublin 2016 in context of a ‘shared history’
Opinion: Commemorating our revolutionary decade has been problematic since the State’s foundation
‘Commemoration of 1916 might be better served by a concentration on ordinary lives as they were lived and lost in 1916 due to a variety of different allegiances, and the meaning of the Proclamation of 1916, rather than on representatives of a monarchy that is the antithesis of republicanism, and whose presence might foster exclusion and bad temper that would undermine dignified and measured reflection.’ Above, children collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
Commemorating the events of the revolutionary decade 1913-23 has been problematic since the foundation of this State.
The office of director of Army intelligence reported in November 1924, for example, that a national soldiers’ commemoration in Cork of the death of Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920, was disrupted. A group of anti-Treaty republicans arrived and “an officer who was carrying a wreath to lay on the grave was confronted by Miss Annie MacSwiney”, a sister of Terence, “who smashed the wreath with her umbrella and threw the pieces over the cemetery wall”.
Two years after the creation of the Free State, and with Civil War wounds still red raw, this relatively minor incident highlighted much that remained relevant in subsequent decades in relation to commemorating the republican dead of that era – who should organise commemorations? How should they be handled? What was the danger of hijacking? Did commemoration have a role to play in promoting reconciliation?
Free State commemorations were low key in the 1920s, partly because of the precariousness of the State and the Civil War legacy, but also because head of government William T Cosgrave believed too much focus on the patriot dead and monuments to them, might make it look, in his own words in a private communication, “as if we wanted to have one last slap at the British”.
With the advent of Fianna Fáil to power in the early 1930s there were accusations that it was hijacking the legacy of 1916; there were heated rows over who was to be invited in 1935 to the unveiling of a 1916 memorial at the GPO, for example. Cosgrave indicated he would not attend the unveiling because “the time is not yet ripe for an adequate commemoration of 1916 which would be accompanied by that generous national enthusiasm indispensable to success . . . It is not possible to hide these national humiliations today”.
The United Ireland newspaper, a publication that supported Fine Gael, echoed his comments. Insisting Fianna Fáil TDs had nothing on their minds except a desire to make political capital out of the event, it editorialised: “It is always unseemly, if not indecent, for political parties to engage in a figurative scramble for the bones of the patriot dead.”
Changes in the political environment in subsequent decades prompted new concerns. In the run-up to 1966, the golden jubilee of the 1916 Rising, often now regarded as triumphalist and sectarian, there were serious misgivings behind the scenes about a focus on the past rather than the future. Taoiseach Seán Lemass was conscious of significantly improved Anglo-Irish relations in that decade and was moved to suggest that contemporaries “forget the Island of the Sean Bhean Bhocht and think of Ireland of the technological expert”. He also intervened to acknowledge his and others’ guilt in questioning the motives of the Irish who had volunteered for service in the British army in the first World War, though there persisted a denial that some of these had fought for the British empire. The Garden of Remembrance was opened; the most memorable commemoration, however, was not an official State initiative, but the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar by the IRA in Dublin.
Inevitably, commemoration of the revolutionary period was complicated by the modern Troubles after 1969, and resulted in the abandonment of an official military parade to remember 1916. In May 1974,
president Erskine Childers underlined some of the contemporary unease when he wrote to taoiseach Liam Cosgrave: “We do not do half enough to commemorate the lives of those who worked for Ireland in the social, political and cultural fields in the nineteenth and twentieth century to arouse the self-confidence of Irish people. When I opened the swimming pool in Tipperary I found a museum commemorating the life of Seán Treacy [one of the leaders of the IRA in Tipperary during the War of Independence]. The museum contained nothing but guns.” Less than a week later, UVF bombs in Dublin and Monaghan killed 33 people.