We must not politicise 1916 for feel-good purposes of the present

We should try to remember what sort of country the revolutionaries wanted

Children collect firewood from rubble of Dublin buildings destroyed during the Easter Rising. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Children collect firewood from rubble of Dublin buildings destroyed during the Easter Rising. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

 

In recent years the buzzword “memory” has invaded historical studies – a fashion set (as so many others) in France, but applied liberally to investigations into fractured and antagonistic national histories from South Africa to Northern Ireland. There are, it seems, several kinds of memory – healing, traumatic, reconciliatory, divided and so on. Where memory fits into commemoration is an interesting question, but one way of commemorating the makers of the Irish revolution from 1912 to 1922 is by trying to remember the kind of people they were and the sort of country they wanted.

This is in itself a complex question; to read the journalism and polemic of that uniquely lively and energetic time is to realise how many agendas and preoccupations were nurtured in rebel hearts, besides pure nationalism (which, as Wilde said about truth, is rarely pure and never simple). For instance, while for many revolutionaries devout and sometimes mystical Catholicism was inseparable from national feeling, particularly after 1916, an equally heartfelt secularism and anti-clericalism was nurtured by some of the most active and influential figures of the pre-revolutionary period. This often went with a commitment to avant-garde ideas regarding culture and ways of living.

Not coincidentally, these were often the very people most comprehensively sidelined or ignored in the years following independence – particularly when they were women, whose part in the “national struggle” has come more and more clearly into focus in recent historiography.

While many of the revolutionary generation would later remember that heady decade beginning in 1912 with a feeling of excitement and near disbelief, others looked back with a sense of opportunities missed, dreams derailed and hopes betrayed. Their view of the future had not encompassed the sectarian, partitioned, deeply conservative and even repressive aspects of the country which emerged after 1922, where clientelism and unaccountability sometimes made the State seem as distant from the people’s interests as under the ancien régime.

Much to admire

Of course, given what could have happened to Ireland after the Anglo-Irish and civil wars, there is much to admire and be thankful for in the Free State’s achievements; and the inadequacy of the ethos that had replaced its frugalities and pieties by the end of the 20th century has recently been brutally exposed in its own way. But commemoration of the extraordinary events of a century ago, while in some ways a necessarily celebratory phenomenon, must not be excessively triumphalist or self-congratulatory.

Above all, it should avoid politicising the past for the feelgood purposes of the present, as happened in 1998, when the 1798 Rising was repackaged as a Europroject avant la lettre, with the United Irishmen attempting to float a peace process directly parallel to the contemporary efforts by British and Irish governments in Northern Ireland. For all the well-meaning government rhetoric about “our shared history”, revolutions are about antagonism, not reconciliation, and this is, above all, true of events a hundred years ago.

For the people who precipitated the Irish revolution, the enemy was represented by Redmond’s Home Rulers just as much as by the forces of the British government. The losers as well as the winners should be remembered, and there are welcome signs that this is indeed happening. The passionate hatreds of that time are part of Irish historic memory, as well as the more noble and inspirational aspects enshrined in the Proclamation of the Republic.

Part of the commemorative process will inevitably involve looking at the ideals of the revolutionaries, particularly regarding equality of opportunity, a genuinely representative government and investment in social issues and cultural capital. It will be a salutary – if bitterly ironic – reminder that these priorities are now heavily compromised by the continuing effects of the austerity imposed by the philistine excesses and idiocies of the boom. This might deserve more consideration than the sensitivities of those descended from rebels, or the appropriateness of a visit from a member of the House of Windsor. And some of the generous budget set aside for commemorative purposes might more appropriately be directed towards enhancing – or just rescuing – some of the threatened major cultural institutions of the state. The revolution was created in colleges, theatres and libraries as well as in the GPO. Sustaining such places would be a more meaningful act of commemoration than ephemeral jamborees and redundant memorial artefacts.

Past is another country

Above all, it is to be hoped that interrogating historical memory will not be swamped by the kind of vacuous official generalisations coming from North as well as South, where “inclusivity, tolerance and respect” are presented as underpinning a commemorative programme that will show all is for the best in this best of possible worlds, producing “a vibrant, diverse and enriched place to visit” for tourists. This conveniently ignores “peace walls” in the North and ghost estates in the South, but in any case has little to do with the “other country” that is the past.

How to approach and commemorate a contested past is far from a uniquely Irish problem; an impressive non-governmental “Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation” exists at the Hague, devoted to this very purpose. But it is an intellectual and philosophical undertaking fraught with difficulties and anomalies, requiring vigilant self-examination as well as confronting evasions and prejudices so deeply rooted that they have become second nature.

Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish History at Oxford and author of the recently-published Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 (Allen Lane)

Monday: Tim Pat Coogan

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