Making sense of 1921 in 2021
Recovering imagined futures from that summer takes us back as well as forward
Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy at Arthur Griffith’s funeral, in August 1922: Who could imagine in the summer of 1921 that within a year Griffith and Collins would be dead?
We remember but we also forget. As Patrick Modiano in the novella published in English as Invisible Ink put it: we can’t remember without forgetting. Social remembering or commemoration is always a process of negotiation in society.
No living person now actually remembers what happened in 1921. What we call our memory of it is a complex mixture of what we have read, what we have heard and how the media we are immersed in choose at a particular time to represent that past. Our memories are socially and culturally constructed.
History aspires to be something different – to explain what happened and how and why it happened and to whom. The particular history of the Border drawn in Ireland by the British imperial government in 1921, the consequences of that divide, the Troubles, the debate on Irish historical revisionism, reflections on the shared capital of Irish political and cultural nationalism since the 1970s: these, and other, considerations shape the framing of commemoration by the Government and President today. Shaped by the historical cultural wars about commemoration since the 1970s, much of this is irrelevant to most people under a certain age.
The commemorative version of the past is always viewed through the rear view mirror of a future that did not exist
Commemorations are uncontroversial where the outcome of the past is not contested. But here, because of the fall-out from partition’s legacies, history is and has been the raw meat of politics and our recent conflict. It all relates back to the architectures put in place in that summer of 1921.
The shape that commemorations take tells us more about contemporary society than it does about the past it seeks to evoke. Because of revelations about the treatment of women – and the children born to them outside marriage – in independent Ireland, and because of the Waking the Feminists movement in 2016, this decade of centenaries has had a focus unprecedented in previous commemorations on the role of women.
Rear view mirror
The commemorative version of the past is always viewed through the rear view mirror of a future that did not exist and was unlived at the time of that past – in this case the shadow of the treatment of women in independent Ireland. Social change in Ireland has been driven by women’s issues.
That take from the present was particularly evident in the 2019 RTÉ TV series Resistance that dwelt on the role of women in the revolution. Apart from placing women at the centre of the action, it addressed the pregnancy of one of the key figures while not married. It is inconceivable that the Irish media in 1966 – the 50th anniversary of the Rising – would have wanted such then controversial coverage.
Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted
Revolution is a process. Not a single event. Yeats in September 1916 asks “was it needless death after all”. He reassumes his role as the national poet at Maud Gonne’s prompting, in the crucial use of the term “our” – “our part to murmur name after name as a mother names her child, when sleep at last has come to limbs that have run wild”. In a sequence of poems he reflects uneasily upon the transformative power of their actions. Images of MacDonagh’s bony thumb, the image of watering the rose tree are presented as politically dynamic.
The revolutionary generation were brought up in the shadow of the revolutionary land war period from the early 1880s that changed the ownership and class composition of rural Ireland. The providentialism of the Irish poor of the countryside has been seen as a consequence of famine trauma. The extraordinary rate of emigration, the social cessation of formerly common subdivision of rented land and changed inheritance patterns, combined to create a highly class-stratified rural community.
Their traditional Irish forms of Catholicism, around holy wells, places of pilgrimage, patterns and party wakes, had been ripped apart relentlessly, suppressed by the new monolithic and powerful Catholic Church after Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin – a church which acted as broker with the British state and enforcer of a hyper-pious sexual morality. Who could imagine in the summer of 1921 that within a year Griffith and Collins would be dead? That a whole new cohort would die after the treaty of December 1921, that the aspired-for Republic with its radical demands would never be, or never be seen as, a 32-county entity?
In the extraordinary language of the Nestor section of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book concerned with all of these questions, there is that powerful riff on what are called the “ousted possibilities”.
“Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted.” Recovering imagined futures from that summer of 1921 takes us back as well as forward and the Irish revolution has to be seen in the space from 1880 to 1925; it is from that time frame we can make sense of the summer of 1921 and all of that which it presages.
This is an extract from Margaret O’Callaghan's address to Machnamh. Full address available from 7pm on Thursday on Áras an Uachtaráin Youtube channel: iti.ms/2Tfk7PX