Diarmaid Ferriter: After commemoration comes the hard part
It is time to face up to the fact that we still have to make good on the promises of 1916
When asked about the Civil War, former taoiseach Seán Lemass welled up and eventually replied: “Terrible things were done by both sides. I’d prefer not to talk about it”
It is no harm to be brought straight back down to Earth after the highs of a 1916 centenary commemoration that was characterised by pride and dignity.
I discovered this at the INTO’s congress in Wexford on Tuesday, when the rhetoric of 1916 promises of equality was contrasted with the alarming contemporary extent of child poverty and homelessness and a teaching profession undermined and demoralised by a two-tier system of payment as recent entrants are denied the basic justice of equal pay for equal work.
The reality of these injustices was a logical extension of listening to President Michael D Higgins in the Mansion House on Monday, after he was invited to temporarily park the presidency and engage freely as a public intellectual in order to elaborate on the themes he has explored in his numerous centenary speeches.
These have been suffused with references to the most recent research on 1916 but also laced with his long-standing preoccupation with social justice and the gulf between promise and delivery.
Given such a chasm, it is hardly surprising that playwright Seán O’Casey, when looking back in the 1950s at the revolutionary era, questioned what had happened to the aspirations, his perspective honed by recognition of the heartbreaking culmination of what had started in 1916, in the form of a vicious civil war: “We should be careful of personal idealism; good as it may be and well meaning, its flame in a few hearts may not give new life and new hope to the many, but dwindle into ghastly and futile funeral pyres.”
Such a regretful tone was understandable, but making good the promises of 1916 was always going to be an enormous challenge.
What was dispensed with, and rightly so, was a corrosive cynicism and suffocating judgmentalism that renowned Cambridge historian Richard Evans has characterised as “lecturing the people of the past on how they should have done better” and wishing a personality change on the generation of a century ago.
Of course, during the commemorations, questions were asked about the legitimacy of events 100 years ago, and these are part of the debate now as they were then. It is not for us to unthinkingly justify or condemn, however, but to seek to understand contemporary motivations.
The challenge is to sustain this measured approach as commemoration of the War of Independence and Civil War looms. As one historian joked during the week: “Commemorating 1916 is the easy bit.” How do you commemorate what came after 1916 in a reflective way and disentangle myth, memory and reality?
As taoiseach from 1959-66, Seán Lemass, a veteran of the revolutionary era and whose brother Noel was savagely mutilated and murdered at the very end of it, was wary about commemorative flag-waving. When asked about the Civil War by journalist Michael Mills in 1969, he uncharacteristically welled up; he had to compose himself as he thought about whether to respond at all.
“Terrible things were done by both sides,” he finally said. “I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
But it is a conversation that has to be opened up to continue the probing that found such eloquent interrogation during the 1916 centenary. It needs to include an exploration of the commentary of minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins when addressing an audience in Oxford in 1924: “Remember what a weird composite of idealism, neurosis, megalomania and criminality is apt to be thrown to the surface in even the best regulated revolution.” This was a year after O’Higgins had told the Dáil “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution.”
All of us need to ask why that happened. Reflecting on such questions will also allow us to continue the dialogue that has been opened up with children about what the revolution meant and what they would like to see the Ireland of now prioritise. One of the INTO delegates told me that, in her experience, the most consistent response by school children to the question of what was the most urgent issue facing Ireland now, as reflected in their exercise of framing a Proclamation for a new generation, was homelessness.
This is another reminder of the need to analyse why it has come to this and the need for our current political representatives to get their act together.