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Ireland’s decade of centenaries: now for the hard part

Halfway through the commemorations, we face the difficult second phase: 1917-1922

Recreating the DMP baton charge of dockers and Jacob’s workers at the State commemoration of the 1913 Lockout and community event on O’Connell Street, Dublin in August 2013. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Recreating the DMP baton charge of dockers and Jacob’s workers at the State commemoration of the 1913 Lockout and community event on O’Connell Street, Dublin in August 2013. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


We are now at the half-way stage in the “decade of centenaries” and it is a good time to take stock of what has been achieved and what the main challenges are likely to be as we enter the second phase.

Given the rightful dominance of the 1916-related events in the programme so far it is important to remind ourselves of the value of the original concept of a full decade to enable us examine the complexity of the events both before and after 1916.

It can be argued that there was no inevitability about anything after 1916, and the events that followed were equally significant in the shaping of modern Ireland.

It should be remembered that one of the first events in the State’s programme began with a ceremony in Waterford Town Hall in 2013 to commemorate the passage of the Third Home Rule Bill and the life and work of John Redmond.

Importantly, the space offered by a decade allowed time to commemorate such key events as the founding of both the Ulster and the Irish Volunteers, and various aspects of the first World War, including a major commemoration of the Somme and a number of groundbreaking cross-border events.

It also allowed space for serious attention to be devoted to thematic issues such as the role of women, the Lockout and the contribution of Labour, the plight of civilian and child casualties – all important issues that had largely been sidelined or under-examined up to now.

The fears most frequently expressed at the outset of the decade came under two main headings: the suspicion that the events and especially the central events of 1916 would be hijacked for political or partisan purposes; and doubts about the State’s capacity to honour the events in an appropriate and adequate way.

Both these fears should by now have been put to rest. The Easter Commemorations in Dublin and around the country were universally seen as having been done with style, substance and a moving dignity which evinced an unprecedented level of public participation and appreciation.

In drawing up its template for the Commemorations the Expert Advisory Group hoped there would be many lasting effects and to a great extent this hope is being fulfilled.

Unlike after 1966, the permanent legacies are mostly in place: the GPO Museum, the opening of Richmond Barracks, the work done on Kilmainham Courthouse and Gaol, the Tenement Musuem, Teach an Piarsach in Rosmuc, all through interpretive centres and technology allow people and especially young people relive the main events and ethos of the Rising. Let us hope that Moore St will follow.

One can look at other aspects – the burgeoning of scholarship, the outpouring of books, shorter studies, film documentaries and drama and for the most part at a high level and reflecting differing views – has been hugely impressive.

Even more important has been the democratisation of access to our historical sources, through the opening of new archives and the online access to many of them: the National Archives, the Military History archives and so much more.

In many ways the most significant aspect has been the leadership given by local authorities in helping to ensure that every county and many districts reexamined events and personalities in their own areas, brought them to life and ensured a widespread sharing of participation.

We are now facing into the second phase: 1917-22. This time the challenges will be different- and in many ways more difficult. We have probably reached a stage of commemoration fatigue, and a new approach will be needed.

The big events are fairly obvious – the Irish Convention of 1917, the gradual release of prisoners, the 1918 election which gave votes to women, extended the franchise and marked the end of the Irish Party – will all lend themselves to scholarly treatment.

The founding of Dáil Éireann in 1919 is obviously a key event of central importance, and maybe the Oireachtas itself will play a lead role in how it should be commemorated and how the founding values might be rediscovered.

The War of Independence raises its own problems. War is always ugly and posthumous glorification not desirable. There will be the unresolved arguments of sectarianism. Again a major role for the historians to get into the archives and give us the truth – as far as this is ever possible.

The foundation of the State in 1922 is of course a central event. The State once founded has proved enduring and is today one of the longest surviving democracies in the world. This is a great achievement that must be commemorated.

But we have to remember that its foundation was a source of division and bitterness. Its legitimacy was denied by a sizeable, if minority proportion of Sinn Fein which had hitherto been united.

And this division led to our Civil War. We know well how the Civil War scarred and shaped our society, to the extent that its memory became the defining issue in the political life of our new State.

All this we know. But how do we handle this and the other great defining issue –the partition of the country and the establishment of Northern Ireland. Partition in particular at a time of Brexit is not a dead issue. Some – hopefully not too many – Civil War memories still run deep.

These are the sort of issues which need to be thought about now while we have time to find a generally agreed template for commemorating this part of the decade.

Over the coming weeks the Expert Advisory Group will be asking these questions and will welcome any suggestions.

My own strong sense is that truth must never become a casualty of this process but equally important is the need to ensure we understand fully the complexity of the issues and events, evaluate with fairness the motives on all sides and bring the same maturity and balance to our judgments as have characterised our handling of the past five years.

Dr Maurice Manning is chair of the Ireland 2016 Expert Advisory Group