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.
Over the decades, commemoration has also prompted bouts of self-examination and a focus on the failure to deliver on revolutionary promises. In 1941, at the time of the 25th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, writer Seán O’Faoláin was withering about the failure to live up to the social promises of equality from that period. He suggested: “If there is any distinct cleavage among us today it is between those who feel that tradition can explain everything and those who think that it can explain nothing . . . we are living in a period of conflict between the definite principles of past achievement and the undefined principles of present ambition.”
Such assertions resonated down the decades; 60 years later in 2001, when the Fianna Fáil led government decided to disinter the bodies of 10 War of Independence IRA volunteers from Mountjoy jail and give them State funerals, Cardinal Cahal Daly was critical of the neglect of the social aspirations of early 20th-century republicanism.
He also framed his funeral oration in the context of the contemporary peace process; the same process facilitated a reintroduction of the military parade in 2006, the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, and an unprecedented formal State commemoration of the Battle of the Somme the same year.
For some, these developments were a necessary corrective to a pride in the war of independence that was discouraged or submerged during the Troubles – Declan Kiberd had referred to “the elephant of revolutionary forgetfulness” in relation to a reluctance to adequately commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in 1991 – or a response to a need to confront and overcome self-doubt about the origins and worthiness of the State, and the complex definitions of loyalty during the years preceding its creation. But they were also a reaction to Sinn Féin’s increased profile in the Republic and reflected a determination it would not be permitted to claim sole inheritance of the 1916 legacy.
Another aspect of past commemorations has involved historians highlighting new perspectives and new sources, and rebutting the idea that historical analysis is in any way complete, as well as expressing concern about history being abused, simplified or distorted in order to emphasise what contemporary politicians regard as more useful or palatable than the messy historical realities.
It would be naive to believe or expect that the current period of commemoration will not be affected by contemporary politics and coloured by who is in power; history illustrates that these have always been factors. It is, however, surely legitimate for historians and others to strive for some distance between history and current politics so that the issue of motivations, loyalties and identities 100 years ago are not lost.
Last year, historian Tom Dunne observed: “When the event commemorated has clear implications for ongoing conflict and attempts at reconciliation, historians can come under intense pressure to prioritise contemporary political concerns over their primary duty to engage critically with the sources”. He was writing in relation to his experience of the 1798 rebellion bi-centenary commemorations in 1998, when the complexity of the period was too often ignored in favour of an embrace of a “United Irish Revolution” in order to trumpet the significance of “shared history” to add momentum to the peace process.
Many people are legitimately annoyed about the idea of a royal presence in Dublin in 2016 in the context of a “shared history”, an initiative unveiled without any consultation with the public or the commemoration advisory group appointed by the Government, of which I am a member.
At a public consultation meeting organised by that group last month in Dublin, its chairman Maurice Manning stated: “Our job is not the job of the peace process” and that in relation to commemoration, “we have a duty to prevent hijacking by the Government or anyone else”.
It is also worth highlighting parts of the mission statement agreed by this advisory group that are relevant to 2016 and the Royals: we see it as necessary “to ensure that significant events are commemorated accurately, proportionately and appropriately in tone”, that “there should be no attempt to contrive an ahistorical or retrospective consensus about the contemporary impact and legacy of divisive events”, and that “the State cannot be expected to be neutral about the events that led to its formation”.
In the context of these assertions, there should be debate about the appropriateness and wisdom of what has been proposed.
In endorsing such a royal presence in 2016, this newspaper recently editorialised that the possibility of it distorting historical understanding was “a legitimate concern” but that “the royal presence is the wrong target”. Why? Should there not be a responsibility to do justice to the complexity and legacy of the 1916 Rising by not making the royal presence a main focus in 2016, with the inevitable security lock down and tensions it will create? The royal focus has already generated the suggestion that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth, which is indicative of a worrying postcolonial inferiority complex.
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 measured reflection.
Such reflection does not have to involve ignoring those who served in crown forces; we are long past the stage of a single, heroic, nationalist narrative of Irish history, and the State is fully committed to remembering the Irish who served and died in the first World War. Too much preoccupation with what Britain and Ireland share, however, might prevent an appreciation of what divides them, and we should not allow reflection on those historic and contemporary differences to be sidestepped or bullied out of existence.
State commemorations are just one aspect of remembrance; communities, local groups and educators will lead most commemorations.
This is to be welcomed and encouraged, as is the Government’s commitment to funding the Century Ireland website, which makes an abundance of primary source material available, and the digitised release of the massive Military Service Pensions Archive, containing the pension applications of War of Independence and Civil War veterans.
There has been a revolution in the accessibility and volume of historical information available due to the internet and digitisation, meaning there has never been a better time to study history, to humanise and contextualise those involved in the revolutionary period and transform an understanding of their motivations. It would be wise for those involved in commemoration to keep the focus on such an understanding, and indeed, on the glaring irony of the decision to remove history as a mandatory subject at Junior Cert level during this commemorative period.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD