Century1923 Birth of a Nation

Michael D Higgins: Dark shadows were to flow from the period we have been commemorating

Ethically appraising our past as we have done in the Decade of Centenaries has a bearing on Ireland’s future

The past 10 years have provided, through the interaction of history and memory, the opportunity to examine our collective versions of the events of 100 years ago, in particular those events which may have a special resonance within that broader historical context for each of us, our families and our local areas.

Across the Decade of Centenaries, Sabina and I have been privileged to meet local history groups, students and communities across the country who have set about re-examining those formative events of a century ago and who, working together, have thought anew about what it is that we should take from those formative years.


There is agreement, I sense, on the importance of fact-based analysis and an openness to new and revised versions of the events of the period and to previous exclusions and omissions being undone.

When I was first elected President of Ireland in 2011, I was conscious of how important it was that we remembered those years in an inclusive way, one that recognised the different and competing memories that people have; of how events which some may view as a glorious victory, others may see as a tragedy; and of how for every case where some may see an improvement in the lives of their ancestors, others may see a failure in the continuation of poverty or physical and sexual abuse, or indeed of emigration.


In marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising, I sought as President to recall the vision and spirit of those men and women who committed themselves to creating a free and independent republic, one they hoped could bring to fruition the vision of the Proclamation. At the same time, I was very conscious of the need to set this in the widest context, taking account of such issues as access to land and the right of workers to organise on such social issues as employment, housing, health and social security.


The decade of ethical and inclusive remembering has brought excluded voices into our narrations. There is more, of course, to be achieved. Vital to our task has been recovering the central role played by women and members of the trade-union and labour movement both in the Rising and across that decade. Those impacted by the 1913 lockout, those who fought for women’s suffrage, those brave trade unionists who tried to bring peace, avoid civil war and prevent sectarian hatred.

It has been essential, too, that we remember the devastating impact of the first World War, including those many Irish people who served or lost their lives in that terrible conflict, the misnamed Great Flu of 1918-19, and a range of cultural happenings.

Following the recall of the Easter Rising and related events, and in order to explore these themes more deeply and assist in understanding our past, I have hosted a series of Machnamh 100 seminars at Áras an Uachtaráin, reflecting in particular on the War of Independence, the Treaty negotiations, the Civil War and Partition.


These seminars, bringing together leading academics and scholars from Ireland and beyond, examine a wide range of subjects, such as the challenges involved in public commemorations themselves; the role of empire in the events which took place; land, social class, gender and sources of violence; the experience ‘from below’; what influenced the constitutional, institutional and ideological foundations of the new States which emerged, North and South; and how the ideas and memories of the period developed and were fed into ideological positions that could become frozen.

I am grateful to all those who assisted us in any way. Each of the seminars is available to view on the RTÉ Player, with a book bringing together the first three seminars also available in public libraries and universities across Ireland, as well as on scoilnet.ie. An ebook is available from the president.ie website, where a book containing each of my earlier speeches from the 1916 commemorations, as well as a book on the Great Flu pandemic, can also be downloaded. A second volume, containing the final three Machnamh 100 seminars, will be published in the coming weeks.

I invite all those with an interest in this tumultuous period to engage with the seminars and to use them for their own reflections.

All of this work has been assisted by the release and digitisation of records and other material from the period, including the Military Service Pensions Collection, which have allowed new information and diverse perspectives from the time to be examined. For the same reasons, it is equally important that the records of the Land Commission should now be made available for research, which would provide another rich archive of all aspects of life in Ireland over the period.


As we reach the end of the Decade of Centenaries it is important we remember that just as history did not start in 2012, neither does it end in 2023. Just as those events which preceded the decade we have been recalling provide a vital context, likewise the events of the decade which we have examined – the opportunities lost as well as those taken – provided the impetus for what was to follow in the 1920s and 1930s. It is therefore vital that scholars continue their journey of re-examination and critical analysis.

Dark shadows were to flow from the period we have been commemorating. They were revelatory of the distribution of power and influence and what would follow from it.

In considering 1923, one can’t but notice the early arrival of the Censorship of Films Act 1923, under which more than 2,500 films were banned and more than 11,000 films cut by film censors between the 1920s and the 1980s. Infamously, the first Film Censor, James Montgomery, declared that he acted as a “moral sieve” and used the Ten Commandments as his guide.

Moral attitudes

More was to follow. The moral attitudes of the Committee on Evil Literature Report in 1926 and the first Censorship of Publications Act in 1929 enshrined an ideology that was deeply suspicious of the uncovered body, the sight of flesh, expressions of human complexity and beauty.

Indeed, it was the legislative atmosphere of the 1920s that laid the foundations for so much of the extremism of the 1930s, which would become a decade of misery, exclusion and subjugation for so many.

In 1930, for example, a controversy arose from the notion of a Protestant librarian putting a book into a Catholic child’s hands so that the incoming Mayo County Librarian Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, a Protestant whose alma mater was Trinity College, found her position judged untenable.

While every effort was put into public collective celebratory religious events such as the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, this event cannot be viewed without also considering such near contemporaneous events as the storming of Connolly House in 1933, the Public Dance Halls Act 1935, the support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the gendered nature of the 1937 Constitution and the echoes of European fascism, however faint but real.

The decades that followed would see the Mother and Baby Homes, the abuse of Magdalene women, attempts to control women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity, domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women

—  Michael D Higgins


The Ireland of a century ago was losing so many of its people to emigration. What the land could support was limited; others felt, too, that they could not remain in the repressive environment of 1920s and 1930s Ireland. Migrants emigrated, mostly to England, and were termed “lost souls” in some of the editorials of the Irish daily newspapers. Their remittances home were vital for those who remained.

The decades that followed would see the Mother and Baby Homes, the abuse of Magdalene women, attempts to control women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity, domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women.

This is a rich ground for further research, thereby further developing our understanding of how we have arrived at our remembered histories.

Common ground

Along with the vital research and considerations already undertaken throughout the Decade of Centenaries, this work can help us to search for and identify a common ground for the future, one built on a shared humanity.

We have made progress in many ways. Access to education, fuller participation, an impressive contemporary and traditional cultural version of ourselves. It is vital that rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we build an ever-more emancipatory future founded on care for each other. Let us not allow those in 100 years from now to look back at a society defined by poverty, a lack of shelter, or any intolerance towards people due to characteristics such as their gender, their sexuality, their membership of the Traveller community or the colour of their skin.

This process of ethical recall, the reflections which we have made and which we will make, can aid us all in our shared journey together towards a renewed Republic; one that is marked by inclusivity, diversity, possibility, and a capacity for the sharing of memory in conditions of peace, a Republic of which we can all be proud, be always open to revise and to make better.

Michael D Higgins is President of Ireland