Caution against 'glory' commemorations as centenary of crucial decade beckons
THIS YEAR is the first of a busy decade or so that will be marked by a number of significant commemorations of a key period in our history.
On Saturday, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was the venue for a packed conference on the topic; the first of many such events planned for the next 10 years.
Reflecting on a decade of War and Revolution in Ireland 1912-1923: Historians and Public History was the name of the conference, organised by Universities Ireland. This network of academics from north and south of the Border is supported by The Irish Times. The conference, attended by 320 academics, was opened by Lord Mayor of Dublin Andrew Montague.
The first speaker, Prof Diarmaid Ferriter of University College Dublin, said commemorations over the years had been consistently political.
His topic was the politics of commemorating the Irish revolution. “The questions always are: ‘How do you commemorate? Who should be involved? Is there a danger the commemorations will be hijacked by certain individuals or organisations?
“The same questions were asked in 1941, the 25th anniversary of 1916.”
He also spoke of wanting to see a focus on source material, so that people could learn more about history through the lenses of those who lived through those times: “Looking at a history from below,” as he put it.
“We historians are part of a stream of commemorations we didn’t ever create,” said Jay Winter, professor of history at Yale University, who gave a talk entitled Commemoration, Between Memory and History.
“How do you honour the men who died without glorifying the war itself? I don’t think there’s an answer to that. Commemoration is restricted and failed if it’s stuck on the word ‘glory’.”
Winter spoke at length about the “memory boom” that he now perceives – citing the large numbers of people visiting cemeteries, battlefields and archives.
“There has been a turn away from war and the memory boom has been part of it; what we are seeing are reflections of ordinary people about what war is. The memory boom brings feeling into history, especially family history.”
Speaking of the first World War, Winter said, “In 1914, death was democratised, because anyone could die, and thus remembering them became everyone’s business.”
He cautioned against any individual country believing that its history is unique.
“National exceptionalism is a thing of the past. It has a musty sell-by date aroma to it. The idea that your history is different from anywhere else in the world is something historians have given up on. Comparative history is transnational. It doesn’t allow for resting within one history.”
“Citizen historians” is the expression that Luke Smith, of the First World War Centenary programme at the Imperial War Museum in London, consistently used.
Smith was speaking at a session on the importance of archives. One of the many digital projects his programme is looking at is trying to find material about each person who fought in the first World War, as crowd-sourced from the public, or “citizen historians”.
“The biggest human-rights achievement of the decade was suffrage for women,” said Catriona Crowe of the National Archives of Ireland, speaking in the same session. She spoke of the opportunity the decade offered for, “Exploration, reflection and analysis” and how archives are key to this.
Crowe also asked, “Where’s the money? We were promised money from the government for this decade of commemoration, and none of it has yet materialised.”
Other contributors included Prof Gearoid O’Tuathaigh of NUI Galway, Prof Keith Jeffery of Queen’s University Belfast, Dr Anne Doland of Trinity, and Dr Emmet O’Connor of the University of Ulster.
Denis Staunton, deputy editor of The Irish Times, who introduced Paul Bew, professor of politics at Queen’s, reminded delegates that the newspaper has launched a century project on the decade of commemorations.
The paper is developing a century website and welcomes suggestions and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org