The centenary year of 2016 has been an extraordinary success for the State, for the people of Ireland and for the Irish diaspora. It has also been remarkable in terms of tone, of public engagement, of diversity of opinion, of political impact and of a sheer lack of friction.
However, coming centenaries will pose greater challenges than did 1916. We must hope that these are explored with the same measured and inclusive and tolerant approach which this year has seen.
The last year has seen unprecedented and sustained public engagement; it has occasioned no significant disruptions, no contests over commemorative spaces, no riots, no arrests. It has seen the valorisation of the role of women in 1916, hitherto neglected or taken for granted, and it has seen parallel reflection on Irish participation in the Great War, with an emphasis on the shared sacrifice of thousands of nationalist and of unionist lives, although it is wrong to assume that all Irishmen who fought in the war were conscious of or cared much for the political dimensions of their service. Many enlisted out of economic necessity, and many others out of a sense of adventure, not knowing or not caring about what they were letting themselves in for.
The nuances and paradoxes of the Irish at war have been brilliantly explored in Ireland and the Great War by the eminent Irish historian Keith Jeffery, who sadly died in 2016 long before his time.
For the general public, it has provided an opportunity to engage with several strands of 20th-century Irish history, if not with them all. The Great War and the Irish who fought in it were not left out of the public narrative. Triumphalism was conspicuous by its absence.
The impartial carnage at the Somme where thousands of Irishmen of all creeds and political beliefs – and many with none – were killed was duly noted, but otherwise I think it remarkable that there was so little mention of Ulster during the year, and so little reflection of the consequences for good or ill of the rebel leaders’ decision that, as Pearse and Connolly instructed the Belfast republican leader Denis McCullough, “we were to fire no shots in Ulster . . . we will deal with Ulster subsequently”.
The centenary has resonated among the Irish diaspora without generating a renewed wave of revanchism concerning Northern Ireland – for this, the Sinn Féin leadership, now committed to power-sharing and to acceptance of the principle that unionists cannot be forced into a united Ireland, must take a good deal of credit.
Militant republicans marked the centenary with their own events and ceremonies. Republican Sinn Féin’s centenary commemoration at the GPO on April 23rd was disciplined, consistent and menacing. Mainstream Sinn Féin’s centenary event, incongruously mounted on a rock concert stage on O’Connell Street, was necessarily more pacific and ambiguous in tone, intent on laying claim to continuity between the physical force men and women of 1916 and the newly constitutional peace process republicans of 2016.
For the State, the year of commemorations has been a triumph of last-minute mobilisation and organisation. Until March 31st, 2015, when the Taoiseach launched the “Ireland 1916” programme, there was no overarching design and even then, some entertained grave doubts about how it would all work. In fact the programme was less a new plan than a codification of steps already in train at national and local government level, and within the cultural institutions, the universities and other public bodies, to engage with the centenary of 1916.
The various official events were all characterised by a sense of pride but also of reflection. The hazard is that, through their very commemorative dynamism, the participating libraries, archives, galleries and related institutions and services may simply have convinced their bosses and a grateful public that they obviously have all the staff and facilities they need, whereas most are pitifully underfunded and overstretched. While this fundamental point has been graciously acknowledged by the Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, she may not be able to do all that much about it.
The commemorative programme identified seven flagship capital projects, intended as permanent memorials for future generations. Incredibly, these have all been accomplished on time, more or less within tight budgets and in good order, by the Office of Public Works and their partners. The number one priority, the Military Archives building, was duly opened in April by President Higgins. It now holds the vast and crucial military service pensions collection and the Bureau of Military History records, materials which, through digitisation, enable the public at home and abroad to explore the history of the Irish revolution in unprecedented depth.
RTÉ demonstrated imaginative civic leadership through its Reflecting the Rising programme of events in Dublin on Easter Monday 2016. The national broadcaster understood the public's appetite for dynamic commemorative events, though even they somewhat underestimated the astonishing numbers wishing to take part.
The tone set was illustrated by the dignified and moving ceremony in St James's Hospital – in 1916, the South Dublin Union – where former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Prof Cathal Brugha rededicated a plaque commemorating respectively WT Cosgrave and Cathal Brugha. WT Cosgrave's young brother Frank died in that fight, while Brugha was killed fighting WT Cosgrave's government early in the Civil War. That their families were proud to commemorate them jointly is an encouraging index of how far Ireland has come since 1922.
Dissentient views pointing to the undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the Rising, and the consequences for Dublin’s civilians of the rebels’ choice of battleground, have been debated rather than howled down or dismissed.
I was surprised when former taoiseach John Bruton expressed some unease at what to most people seemed one of the most successful commemorative initiative, the delivery of the national flag and the Proclamation to every school by members of the Defence Forces. I heard another former politician describing this as “militaristic”. Bruton argued particularly that members of the Defence Forces should not have been asked to explain to schoolchildren the meaning of the Proclamation.
I have much sympathy with his view that the Proclamation should not be treated uncritically as holy writ, but for all its internal paradoxes and ambiguities, it inarguably became the foundation stone for the 20th-century Independence movement. Furthermore, the one group under the Constitution which is entitled to bear arms in defence of the State, and to protect and honour the national flag, is the Defence Forces. Had they not been charged to carry out that task, it is highly likely that others would have done so.
While the geopolitics of the Rising were often referenced – the rebellion took place because of the Great War and was encouraged and limply supported by imperial Germany just as Britain supported Arab insurgency in the Ottoman empire – I felt that the international context did not resonate all that much (although it was an underlying theme in TV3's Revolution in Colour).
Throughout the year, but particularly around the anniversary of the first battle of the Somme, the great powers of 100 years ago were themselves caught up in contemplation and commemoration of what had happened to their own people, not only in terms of the losses experienced and the horrors endured, but in the knowledge that so far from being a “war to end war”, the Great War merely planted the seeds for even more terrible conflicts between 1937 and 1945.
The Irish rebellion, where it was noted, was seen as part of the wider Great War. We Irish should also give more attention to that wider dimension, rather than focusing on the Rising as a somehow unique event disconnected from wider currents.
The commemorations certainly valorised the hitherto under-explored contribution of women to the Rising, but in terms of current Irish political preoccupations and contestation, 1916 did have the consequence of overshadowing another centenary with powerful resonances in contemporary Ireland, with the “Repeal the Eighth” movement. This was the founding of the reproductive rights movement Planned Parenthood in the United States, ironically now under threat from president-elect Donald Trump’s Republican congressional majority.
Planned Parenthood was the achievement of Margaret Sanger (née Higgins), the child of Irish Catholic immigrants who became a fearless international advocate of contraception. Interestingly, while she visited conflict-torn Cork and Kerry in late summer 1920, Sanger took no pronounced position on the Independence question, although eliciting an acknowledgement from some Catholic priests of a link between family size and poverty.
Planned Parenthood’s centenary is also an instructive reminder that many of the Irish diaspora focused on issues of wider significance than the question of Irish Independence and that most naturally chose to engage with their new homes rather than to hanker for the Ireland which their parents had left.
Children of Irish emigrants, such as the outgoing head of the CIA John Brennan, or the British secretary of state for defence Sir Michael Fallon, or the Irish-born United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, have become very significant figures in the governance of the societies to which their parents migrated. This should remind us that, while we may seek to retain the affection and interest of the Irish diaspora, we should not expect them meekly to dance to our political will.
Eunan O'Halpin is professor of contemporary Irish history at Trinity College Dublin and co-editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Volume X 1951-57 (Royal Irish Academy 2016)