Historian warns about 1916 events


THE GOVERNMENT faces a difficult task over the next decade as it seeks to commemorate various centenaries, including the 1916 Easter Rising which poses particular problems in terms of its lack of a democratic mandate, historian John A Murphy has warned.

Prof Murphy said that whatever government was in power in 2016 and the years following, it would face the challenge of trying to mark the centenaries of mutually antagonistic movements in an inclusive way in either the same or parallel commemorations.

“How is inclusiveness to be realised? Then the Government has to consider what does the public want over the next 10 years – does the public want a full-blooded commemoration of 1916, à la 1966 and, if so, can that be satisfied?

“And then there is the inescapable embarrassing dilemma of 1916 itself – how to reconcile the Easter Rising and the issue of unmandated force, the cult of bloodshed and so on with the democratic process – and that’s a pretty difficult challenge,” he said.

Prof Murphy, emeritus professor of Irish history at University College Cork, also said that whatever government was in power in 2016 “will have to block Sinn Féin and perhaps even the dissident IRA from moving towards making its own strong claim to 1916”.

The following years will be no less difficult coming up to the other various centenaries with resonances of old Treaty debates and political party divisions reviving themselves with the Government at all times having to be conscious of moderate unionist opinion, he said. Prof Murphy was speaking at a conference on the Irish Home Rule Crisis 1912-14, hosted by the School of History at UCC, and he took issue with comments made earlier by the British ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, when he officially opened the conference.

Mr Chilcott called for the commemoration of the past in as inclusive a way as possible, as the best means of hindering those seeking to damage relations between Britian and Ireland, and he warned against allowing them to “wind back the clock”.

Mr Chilcott argued that one of the best ways of preventing this was for governments and historians to come together “in a spirit of transparency and truth seeking to commemorate the past. We should make this as inclusive an endeavour as we can.”

However, Prof Murphy sounded a note of caution about such an approach, saying Mr Chilcott had made it clear when using words such as “inclusiveness” and “reconciliation” that he was referring not just to governmental co-operation over the next decade but also to historians.

“I want to make it clear that the business of historians is history – it is research and teaching – it is not reconciliation and he [Mr Chilcott] seemed to think that the processes attached to historical research could themselves lead to happy conclusions in terms of reconciliation,” said Prof Murphy.

“In fact, it is quite possible that the more we know about the past, the less helpful it could be to the present – there’s no a priori evidence that the study of history is necessarily a good thing in terms of reconciling past differences between Irishmen.

“There’s a flawed logic there and I hope that, as historians, we all recognise that distinction – to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all in a historical context,” said Prof Murphy in an address entitled “Governments, historians and commemorations”.