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Was State commemoration of O’Donovan Rossa funeral appropriate?

‘Commemorating events that predominantly involved men with guns is highly problematic in a society still going through a fragile process of conflict transformation’

Minister for Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, Lord Mayorof Dublin Críona Ní Dhalaigh, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Michael D Higgins, at the Centenary Commemoration of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, at Glasnevin Cemetary. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

As both a historian and a citizen I was perplexed and concerned by the nature and extent of the State’s official commemoration of the centenary of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral.

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising.

If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

If we are to take State-sponsored commemoration more as a reflection of a government’s immediate political concerns and aims than a mature reflection on the past, one would wonder what the recent O’Donovan Rossa commemoration events tell us about the current Government’s policy regarding Anglo-Irish relations in general and Northern Ireland in particular? Seen in the light of Sinn Féin’s alternative commemoration, the shadow of the forthcoming general election loomed large over the whole event.

I would question if either Rossa or his celebrated obsequies were of sufficient historical significance to warrant a full commemorative ceremony from the State. It would appear that the construct of the “Decade of Centenaries” has created a need to find events to commemorate every year until 2023, even if such events are not of equal significance. Other than the Gallipoli landings and the Rossa funeral, 1915 was a lean year, compared to either 1914 or 1916. Equating the significance of Rossa’s funeral with the outbreak of the first World War or the Easter Rising distorts history.

Condition of Ireland

The commemorative events undertaken by the State to date have in general offered a better reflection on the condition of Ireland in the 1910s, focusing on broader social and economic issues such as the conditions of tenement dwellers, the struggle of the urban working classes and the status of women. The State’s elaborate plans for 2016 would suggest that this wider context will be central to the Easter Rising’s centennial, with plans to develop a tenement museum and considerable focus on the creative arts in addition to the inevitable predominance of the rebellion.

In Northern Ireland to date, the commemorations have centred on the Ulster Covenant, the Larne gun-running and the outbreak of the first World War, and next year we will have the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, with the Battle of Jutland jockeying for position in between.

Commemorating events that predominantly involved men with guns is highly problematic in a society still going through a fragile process of conflict transformation.

This is especially problematic in predominantly loyalist areas. In the wider context of social deprivation, educational underachievement and lack of employment opportunities that underpinned much of the flag protests in Belfast in 2012, glorifying past militarism poses significant risks, as outlined eloquently by the writer Philip Orr: “If a large swathe of the pro-Union community is left demotivated, culturally vulnerable and socially and economically disempowered, then the danger is that the dead of one hundred years ago will return as ghostly mentors for those unhappy young men for whom combat on the streets is an analgesic for the pain of what’s been lost.”

Was it wise for the Irish Government to have held such an elaborate commemoration of a terrorist last weekend? When next year’s Easter commemorations are completed the Irish Government and other involved in commemoration should take stock of how successful or otherwise the commemorations held to date have been, and plan with great care the events to be marked between 2017 and 2023, which are likely to be considerably more contentious both north and south of a Border which will also mark the centenary of its creation during these years.

In the Republic, citizens and State will have to grapple with a question posed recently by Prof Joe Lee: “How do you commemorate a Civil War?” For example, how will the Irish State deal with the actions of its Defence Forces at Ballyseedy in 1923? If these questions are problematic in the south, spare a thought for those of us who live in Northern Ireland, where the centenary of intense sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1920-22 will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Troubles.

Mature

By 2022 will a post-conflict society such as Northern Ireland be stable, robust or mature enough to reflect on the killings of Owen McMahon and his family by the RUC and of six Protestant farmers by the IRA at Altnaveigh, and Belfast’s Bloody Friday, respectively 100 years and 50 years previously?

As a professional historian I welcome the opportunity offered by the Decade of Centenaries to explore our history. However, the State should not feel the need to commemorate simply for the sake of it. It should also avoid equating events that are not comparable and consider the wider political and diplomatic resonance of its actions. Dr Marie Coleman is a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast. Her books include The Irish Revolution, 1916-1923. She sits on the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council/Heritage Lottery Fund Roundtable on marking anniversaries.