Diarmaid Ferriter: Commemoration nation: a chance to reflect on 1916

‘Ours may be the best little country in which to do business – but what about our society?’

I'm in Boston this week, speaking about the Irish War of Independence and its legacy. As with other parts of Irish-America, there is much interest here in the centenary of the Irish revolution; descendants of those who came to America are keen to know how it will be marked and what the nature of the Irish Republic was and is now.

Questions after lectures sometimes also veer towards the current state of Irish politics and the extent to which Sinn Féin will be dominating Irish politics during the centenary of the Easter Rising.

These bouts of self-examination and political stocktaking have always been a part of commemoration; discussing the Irish case abroad offers the advantage of developing a broader perspective.

Here in the US, during the 1976 bicentenary of the American revolution, there was much focus on the theme of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as it had evolved since the 18th century. There were also numerous disagreements about how the political establishment should manage the whole commemoration exercise. Congress established a bicentennial commission in 1966 but it could not agree on what prominence should be given to cities such as Boston and Philadelphia; in 1973 the commission was replaced by a different co-ordinating body.


The bicentenary was also commemorated at a time of disillusionment regarding American politics and foreign policy – a year after the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

In the view of American historian Thomas Archdeacon, while it was at times too commercialised and "tastelessly trivialised", the bicentenary provided an opportunity for some cathartic celebration "at a time that coincided with the end of a depressing era of military misadventure and political machinations" as well as generating renewed interest in the origins of modern America and an reassessment of the causes of the American revolution.

Local before federal

Other historians have seen it differently.

David Ryan


University College Cork

suggested the

Gerald Ford

administration in 1976 emphasised “renewal and rebirth based on a restoration of traditional values and a nostalgic and exclusive reading of the American past”.

However, no dominant theme prevailed: “despite efforts to reconnect the Nation with traditional images of the US, ultimately the success of the bicentennial rested on enactments and events that were predominantly local and regional; the Federal direction was resisted and therefore relatively restrained”.

“The temporal proximity of defeat and a tarnished reputation could not be elided through hollow narratives of tradition and a narrow reading of the past.”

Versions of all these themes are relevant in Ireland now as the Government prepares to unveil its official 1916 programme at the end of this month, and there is also much political space up for grabs, partly in response to "a tarnished reputation" and the excesses of a "depressing era", underlined by the launch last week of the new political party Renua Ireland.

Exaltation among nations

Despite this, and for all the focus on new parties, Independents, a stagnant

Fianna Fáil

and a Coalition wondering if it can be re-elected, there does not appear to be enough discussion about what the Irish version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” might be or, in the words of our own 1916 Proclamation, “the cause of its freedom, of its welfare and of its exaltation among the nations”.

During the annual St Patrick’s week exodus, which coincided with my trip to Boston, the message is overwhelmingly commercial – we’re open for business, the economy is on the turn, Ireland is the best little country in the world in which to do business – and the success of the visits are measured, it seems, in purely monetary terms.

There does not seem to be any other framework – philosophical, political, social or cultural – and talk of a new Irish politics is hardly doing enough to counteract that.

Those involved in Renua, especially Eddie Hobbs, emphasised last week that one of their preoccupations is with performance and management. Hobbs made it clear, in an arrogantly pious way, that he is not interested in being a public representative; rather, he wants to be a "watchdog" because of his "business interests".

One of Renua's strategists, Noel Toolan, has coined the phrase "inventive socialism", defined as "being compassionate and citizen-centred at home while highly competitive and capitalist abroad".

What sort of split agenda is that? Is this really the way the Republic needs to be compartmentalised and defined a century after it was declared?

President Michael D Higgins has frequently insisted it is simply unacceptable that society, the economy and politics should be seen as separate spheres.

Such a stance is not mere poetic indulgence: it goes to the heart of the Republic’s failures to date, and promising a perpetuation of the separate spheres does not suggest there is much to cheer about in the promised new Irish politics.