Commemorating our journey to nationhood will not be easy
Josepha Madigan: Authentic commemoration challenges us to open our hearts to each other
Sinn Féin leaders at the first Dáil Éireann in 1919. Photograph: Hulton Archive
We are now entering the most challenging and sensitive phase of the Decade of Centenaries, equipped with an appreciation that commemoration can be complex, deeply personal and sometimes divisive. Authentic commemoration requires us to approach the consideration of the difficult legacies of our past with understanding, empathy and a generosity of spirit, to respect all traditions and to value equally the dignity of all lives that were lost. It is not easy. Authentic commemoration challenges us to open our hearts to each other in a spirit of mutual respect and kindness. We are invited to consider the possibility of multiple perspectives about historical events, which may contradict or complicate the agreed and accepted narrative.
If we meet this challenge with confidence and with courage, the rewards are immense and enriching. What may have been forgotten or bitterly contested in the past now has the potential to empower reconciliation and ensure that historic grievances do not recur.
I believe that reconciliation will be a cornerstone over the coming years as we approach the remembrance of very difficult and traumatic events that unfolded during the War of Independence and the Civil War. The Government’s objective is to ensure that these events and all the lives lost are remembered respectfully, sensitively and sincerely.
Our approach to commemorations over the coming years will continue to build strong foundations to further reconciliation on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain; it will take account of sensitivities across communities in Northern Ireland; and it will continue to encourage reflection about the multiple identities, traditions and perspectives that are part of the Irish historical experience.
It is very important that the State’s commemorative programme adopts a broad focus that acknowledges both the military activity and the significant democratic achievements in putting in place a new parliament and new administrative structures which informed the early years of the State.
The events of January 21st, 1919, were defining moments on our journey towards nationhood. On that day Dáil Éireann – the independent Irish parliament – was convened. It issued its Message to the Free Nations of the World, seeking support for Ireland’s claim to self-determination and passed the Democratic Programme, which promised wide-ranging social reforms. On that same day, a group of Volunteers ambushed Royal Irish Constabulary Officers in Soloheadbeg, Co Tipperary, in what is generally accepted as the first action in the War of Independence. Two officers were killed, in what was an independent action, taken without the approval of Dáil Éireann or the Volunteers’ own GHQ. This set the pattern for the independence struggle that followed.
As we commemorate the centenary of the events of January 21st, 1919, we are reminded that the parliamentary approach and democratic values ultimately prevailed and today we have one of the oldest surviving parliamentary democracies in Europe.
Local authorities, our national cultural institutions, trade unions, the media, institutions of learning, and custodians of records, together with creative communities, will have a leading role in supporting the national conversation about the events of this period and encouraging respectful and authentic engagement, debate and analysis. This form of public discourse is essential in any honest exploration of our history.
The emergence of new research and scholarship, particularly concerning local histories and the impact of nationally significant events on families and communities, has been an invaluable tool in encouraging public discourse, as we reflect upon and test accepted narratives. Local stories and perspectives are key to understanding the impact and legacy of the overall narrative.
Finally, may I express my deep gratitude to the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, chaired by Dr Maurice Manning, for its work in laying down a supportive framework of principles intended to empower everyone involved in delivering authentic, citizen-focused commemorations at national and local level. We are reminded that “the goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations that remember the past while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not reignite old tensions”. If these principles remain our guiding lights over the coming years, we will be well equipped to meet the challenges ahead.
Josepha Madigan TD is Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht