President Higgins: Openness to others must be at heart of remembering

Time has come for an ethics of narrative hospitality to replace our past entrenchments

German prisoners help to carry British wounded back to their trenches after an attack by the 14th (Irish) Corps on Bavarian units holding Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme.

German prisoners help to carry British wounded back to their trenches after an attack by the 14th (Irish) Corps on Bavarian units holding Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme.

 

We are commemorating the centenary of two deeply interrelated episodes in Irish history: two events that unfolded in the same wider context of a European and global war; but also two events that are connected in profound and complex ways to a whole sequence of other developments in the previous and subsequent decades. We are challenged to forge a public discourse that can accommodate both the Easter Rising of 1916, a founding moment in the Irish Republic’s journey to independence; and the Battle of the Somme, a terrible loss of lives, which has acquired such symbolic centrality for the unionist tradition on our island.

How, then, should we set about publicly remembering those seminal events?

Transparency of purpose

A central dimension of what I call “ethical remembering” has been a refusal of any kind of conscious or unconscious amnesia. Indeed to reject important, if painful, events of the past, to deny those affected by them recognition of their losses and memories, would be counterproductive and may even be amoral.

Ethical remembering

We are blessed, I believe, to be able to go back to the events of 100 years ago with the help of many fine historians, who have done so much to enrich our comprehension of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. This recent scholarship has both widened the lens of our understanding to include the broader political and intellectual context in which those two events unfolded, and refined our grasp of the complexity and texture of the period by drawing attention to the detail of individual experiences, including those of the marginalised.

It is as vital to hold together the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, the formation of the Ulster Volunteers and that of the Irish Volunteers, the Larne gun-running and the Howth gun-running, as it is to place all those events within the wider European and international context of a formidable rift between the world’s mightiest empires.

Those were days of heavily militaristic atmosphere, when reference to the virility of the nations at war and to ideas of blood sacrifice and martyrdom were prevalent, not just across the British empire, but across Europe, and contributed in no small measure to the disastrous descent into war that would claim so many lives.

Motivations

In preparing for the first World War commemorations I have attended in Ireland, in Belgium, in Turkey and, this week, in the Somme, I have deemed it important to draw on the voices and experiences of individual soldiers such as reflected in their letters, diaries, memoirs and, of course, in the literature and poetry they have bequeathed to us.

These writings give us a sense of the unspeakable terror faced by those young men who found themselves catapulted into an industrial war of an unprecedented scale and nature. They tell us how, in the intimacy of the trenches, under terrible bombardment, incredible expressions of human courage, manifestations of care and compassion far beyond the ordinary, were delivered on a daily basis.

Today we are called to reach to that humanity, which was at once brutalised and magnified on the battlefields of the Somme.

Shared experiences

The time has come for an ethics of narrative hospitality to replace our past entrenchments – on this island, and across Europe. Let us, together, cultivate memory as a tool for the living and as a sure base for the future: memory at peace.