Stephen Collins: Centenary events foster a simplistic narrative of independence

We in the Republic need to remember the past without allowing it to poison the present

Since the day a century ago when Michael Collins and his colleagues took over the reins of power this State has never strayed from the democratic path. File photograph: Getty

Since the day a century ago when Michael Collins and his colleagues took over the reins of power this State has never strayed from the democratic path. File photograph: Getty

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There was something quietly uplifting about the commemoration in Dublin Castle last Sunday to mark the formal establishment of the Irish State a century ago. In contrast to so many of the ceremonies during the Decade of Centenaries marking violent and bloody acts, this one celebrated the real achievement of independence.

Since the day a century ago when Michael Collins and his colleagues in the provisional government took over the reins of power this State has had its ups and downs but, unlike so many other newly established states which emerged in the aftermath of the first World War, it has never strayed from the democratic path. That is something really worth celebrating.

One of the downsides of the Decades of Centenaries is that it has given new life to the simplistic narrative that Irish independence is solely due to activity of armed men. That has probably contributed to the current rise of Sinn Féin which glories in much more recent acts of violence.

The events which led to Irish independence did of course include violent actions but the national movement was much wider than that. The election of the first Dáil in 1918, the establishment of its own courts and takeover of local government by the Dáil were all essential ingredients of the drive for independence.

The bulk of Irish people adhere to a simplistic, Ireland versus the Brits, narrative

Something that is even less widely appreciated was the importance of British public opinion in the fight for Irish freedom. One of the refrains of Irish politicians and commentators since the Brexit referendum in 2016 is that the British know little or nothing about Irish history – but the reverse is equally true.

The bulk of Irish people adhere to a simplistic, Ireland versus the Brits, narrative of historic relations with our nearest neighbours and are blithely unaware that a large segment of opinion in the UK supported fair treatment for Ireland. British politics was regularly split between those who accepted the legitimacy of Irish nationalist aspirations and those who strenuously opposed them.

Winston Churchill speaking in the House of Commons in December 1921, urging acceptance of the Treaty, which he had helped negotiate, referred to the impact of Ireland on British politics.

“It is a curious reflection to inquire why Ireland should bulk so largely in our lives. How is it that the great English parties are shaken to their foundations, and even shattered, almost every generation, by contact with Irish affairs? Whence did Ireland derive its power to drive Mr Pitt from office, to drag down Mr Gladstone in the summit of his career, and to draw us who sit here almost to the verge of civil war, from which we were only rescued by the outbreak of the Great War. Whence does this mysterious power of Ireland come?’

In more recent times British prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson may well have asked themselves the same question. The fact is that the destiny of the two countries is intertwined by history, geography and family bonds and it was never a simple case of “us” versus “them”. This is something which should be recognised before the Decade of Centenaries comes to a close.

The sad aspect of the hysteria, whipped up by Sinn Féin and its supporters, which caused the cancellation of plans last year to commemorate the policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were killed in the 1916-1921 period, is that it revealed such widespread ignorance about what actually happened 100 years ago. The episode was a frightening reminder how easy it is to whip up atavistic emotions for political gain.

A more hopeful and generous approach to the past, which attracted little media attention in the time of Covid-19, was the way in which people in Longford marked the centenary last year of one of the biggest military successes of the War of Independence – an engagement between an IRA flying column led by the legendary Seán MacEoin and a company of Auxiliaries.

The names of the IRA flying column who took part in the ambush were read out with pride

In a ceremony at Clonfin in north Longford the episode was marked by the presence of a colour party from the Defence Forces, raising of the Tricolour and playing the national anthem. The names of the IRA flying column who took part in the ambush were read out with pride but also noted were the names of the four Auxiliaries who were killed in the action. The ceremony concluded with a ecumenical prayer by the Catholic parish priest and the Church of Ireland rector.

A more personal commemorative journey of reconciliation was undertaken by Mercy sister Maevy Brady, whose father, Tom, had taken part in the ambush. In recent years Sr Maeve visited the graves of the four dead Auxiliaries in different parts of the UK to pray for them and acknowledge their suffering. That generous and inclusive act of remembrance was a proper tribute to the ideals of Seán MacEoin and his men.

There has been a lot of discussion about how the events of the Civil War can be commemorated without a regression into the bitter divisions of the past. Sr Maeve has given good example about how to remember the past without allowing it to poison the present.

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