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The centenary conversations: Ireland 100 years ago and today

Contributors to a conference on Irish identity and sovereignty discuss these concepts

Roy Foster: 'As long as Irish politics operate fairly effectively, the country has a good future'

It wasn't all about faith and fatherland. The leaders in 1916 had many different agendas, including feminism, civil rights, socialism and secularism, but their hopes have yet to be fulfilled, according to Roy Foster, Carroll professor of Irish history at the University of Oxford.

Last year, his book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, explored these themes in more detail. While James Connolly and a vision of socialism form part of the story of 1916, Foster says that the labour movement really thrived from 1905-14. "We saw it in the Belfast dock strike and 1913 lockout. This radical energy, however, dissipated when working men were sent off to fight in World War 1."

Later, other factors tempered the radical values of 1916. “The stability and conservatism of Irish society after Independence and the Civil War was a reaction against a decade of unrest from 1912,” he says. “Massive emigration of the young and discontented kept society in equilibrium and the Catholic church had massive social and political power.”

Post-Independence Ireland may not have been quite what the rebels of 1916 imagined, but change has been slowly coming. Foster says this began with membership of the European Economic Community, sped up through the Celtic Tiger of the 1990s and has continued through financial disaster and recovery.


“The economic boom and an open approach to immigration changed the complexion of Irish society. One of the cheering things in Ireland over the last few decades has been [the development of] a multicultural society which has gone hand-in-hand with secularisation and the opening of borders.”

He fears that the British vote to leave the EU threatens this. “I always kept my Irish passport and my children, although born and bred in the UK, have Irish passports. I come back about once a month and I also spend a lot of time in France. Ryanair and cheap flights have made this movement very possible, so we can have a very grounded sense of Irishness while living a full life in Britain.

“This reconciliation of different identities is a vital part of modern existence, but the ascendant political mindset in Britain seems not to want to recognise this.”

Indeed, there’s a clear contrast between how 1916 was commemorated and how, months later, Britain voted to leave the EU. Foster says the 2016 events allowed us to be “quizzical and interrogative without being triumphalist. It was very different to how 1966 was celebrated, back when Britain was a byword for being modern, liberal and outward-looking.

“Fifty years on, the perception of our two countries seems to have reversed, but I hope that it will be a temporary aberration.”

Brexit will put Ireland’s social, political and economic fabric under strain, and there remain problems in our health and education systems as well as in democratic accountability, Foster adds, “but as long as Ireland stays near the heart of Europe and attempts to reform from within and as long as Ireland’s democratic politics operate fairly effectively, the country has a good future.”

Roy Foster is the plenary speaker on a panel discussing the promise of 1916, chaired by Prof Mary Daly, president of the Royal Irish Academy, on Thursday, November 10th

Kevin O'Rourke: 'We think we are unusual, but we're simply another small European country'

We're not so special. In a global context, the events of 1916 were not so extraordinary. Ireland's economic history is not so different from that of other countries. Throughout the last century, our political history was part of a wider story unfolding in Europe. And, if we can understand all of this, it may help us to realise our place in the world.

This is the view of Kevin O’Rourke, Chichele professor of economic history at the University of Oxford and who previously taught at Trinity College Dublin between 2000 and 2011.

We do sometimes think we are unusual, but we’re simply another small European country with our own peculiarities, just as others have theirs, O’Rourke says. “The 1916 centenary was a success and focused on ‘commemoration rather than celebration’, but ordinary Irish people celebrated anyway, which was appropriate. It’s entirely normal that a small European country would celebrate its origins and ours are no more or less murkier than anyone else’s.”

And yet, we don’t always understand our own history. “You may read that we turned to protectionism because de Valera won the election for Fianna Fail in 1932,” O’Rourke says, “but, in the 1930s, every country was turning to protectionism; we would have been bizarre and unusual if we hadn’t.”

Joining the European Economic Community in 1973, however, really changed our fortunes and made us less reliant on Britain. Now, O’Rourke is wary that the British vote to leave the EU will sidetrack us into an isolationist cul-de-sac.

“The EU not only encouraged trading within a more dynamic European economy; it broadened our horizons. So it is helpful for us to get our facts straight: while I’m not a fan of the euro currency or how the financial crisis was dealt with, the EU has been enormously beneficial for us and we should keeping collaborating with other countries who want to improve the way the EU works.”

O’Rourke has never had a single, fixed identity. Europe is important to him. His father is Irish and his mother is Danish. “I also have a strong connection with France and that means a lot to me. Really, most of us have multiple identities, although I do feel more Irish when I’m abroad, which is common.”

The 2008 financial crisis made him angry about Ireland’s treatment at the hands of the ECB but, at the same time, he realised that all countries, including Ireland, are out for themselves. “It is precisely because of this that we have to have cooperation structured in law.”

He says that Brexit brings challenges and opportunities. On the upside, we will be the only English-speaking country in the EU and a common-law country too, so there are opportunities to attract inward investment. However, Irish jobs may be at risk, while Northern Ireland faces major uncertainty about the free movement of people and goods on the island.

“Now, 100 years after 1916, will the British finish off the job that the Irish revolutionaries began and complete the separation between our two countries?” O’Rourke asks.

Kevin O’Rourke is a plenary speaker on a panel discussing culture and identity in a globalised world, chaired by Prof John McHale of NUIG, on Friday, November 11th

Clair Wills: 'The Irish Government aligning itself with Apple and corporate power does not augur well'

In 1916, James Joyce was writing a book in which he explored English and Irish nationalism through the figure of an outsider. That outsider was Leopold Bloom, an assimilated Jew and a member of a group that is sometimes treated with suspicion and hatred.

"One of the things we tend to forget about Ulysses is that it is a historical novel, albeit one about the very recent past," says Clair Wills, a professor of English and chair of Irish letters at Princeton University. "Joyce wrote it between 1914 and 1921, but the story is set at the turn of the century."

This meeting of past and present is one of the one the important lessons that novelists, including Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and Kevin Barry, have taken from Joyce. "In The Gathering, for example, Enright's narrator excavates an unfinished past of sexual abuse which, as she slowly gathers, is still playing out in her own life and the lives of her siblings."

Wills says that the best of Irish fiction is unparalleled in its ability to tell larger national stories through small, personal and familial tales. This may be also a weakness with, for instance, the figure of the monstrous or emotionally stunted mother looming large in contemporary fiction.

So what is the biggest challenge for Irish literature in the next few years? “Perhaps it is to stop producing stories about bad mothers, although, that said, there are many recent and deeply absorbing examples of it in fiction. I’m only partly joking: stories remain relevant by noticing which patterns are in need of shifting.”

For Wills, this means responding to an ecological crisis that is happening both globally and nationally. “Ireland has a pretty poor environmental record by EU standards, but contemporary art and literacy practice has barely dented the tourist image of Ireland as a rural idyll.”

However, there are huge opportunities for artists and participants in culture. “Site-specific performances such as the work of [theatre company] Anu Productions, which require audience members to import their own memories into Ireland’s past; the work of documentary makers and multi-media practitioners who tell the stories of today’s migrants; the bloggers and poets and digital performers who are dissolving the margins between the local and the global without making one just disappear into the other.

“On that note, and given that the conference is about sovereignty, the Irish Government aligning itself with Apple and corporate power, as against its European fellow states, does not augur well.”

The 1916 commemorations have opened up a debate about Ireland’s past. “We’re not only discussing revolutionary history, but also the hidden stories of industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and the mother-and-baby homes.

“Direct provision centres are arguably the current equivalents, and will be a source of similar shame,” Wills adds. “It’s as though memory finds it hard to deal with the recent past – the past we can actually remember – and we can barely look at the present at all.”

Clair Wills is the plenary speaker on a panel discussing culture and identity in a globalised world, chaired by Irish Times journalist Fintan O'Toole, on Friday November 11th.

Philip Pettit: 'Can we look each other in the eye without fear or deference?'

What would the 1916 rebels make of our modern republic? Do we think as republicans? Philip Pettit, an Irish professor of philosophy and political theory at Princeton University, says there are ways to measure the "strength of republican thinking" in the modern world.: "Can we look each other in the eye without fear or deference? Does our system of government allow citizens to challenge legal or policy proposals and are politicians sufficiently responsive to these challenges?"

There are two main elements to the republican way of thinking, he says. “It’s a long tradition that dates back to the Roman republic. It involves the state enabling each person to enjoy equal freedom, having status in law and able to pass the ‘eyeball test’. It means an active citizenry that can check the government as well as independent courts, citizen’s movements such as NGOs and review bodies who can hold the State to account.”

Too often, we think of sovereignty in terms of how we deal with other nations, but true sovereignty involves the people being able to relate to each other and challenge the government, Pettit says.

“We have asserted ourselves as people, rejected monarchy and, on paper, we have elections and a contestatory process. On the economic front, however, there are ways in which our relationship with Europe has been a problem. The European Central Bank’s treatment of Ireland during the financial crisis, and the policies they imposed on our banks and people, were appalling; we were put in the dock and made to take a rap on the knuckles. We should still be up in arms about it.

“On the other hand, our 12.5 per cent corporation tax is a beggar-thy-neighbour policy and we can’t stick with it and still relate to other EU countries as an equal among equals. We should look for a renegotiation of the terms [OF OUR DEBT]in return for easing on our corporation tax policy.”

How have the events of the financial crisis, right through to the 2016 commemorations, affected Pettit’s sense of identity? “I think of myself as broadly European. We have been a part of Europe for all of history and we are marked among European countries for our literary and cultural traditions.”

The 2016 events marked the republic in terrific ways, he says. “One was the emphasis on the role of women in the rebellion. Another was an examination of how children and others not involved in the Rising were killed. President Michael D Higgins said that we should also remember the men who had joined the British army under the promise of Irish Home Rule but were treated poorly when they returned from the war.”

This year, 1916 may also have reminded us of a broader, republican way of thinking, he says. “It is a broad alternative to the neoliberal model of thinking, a free-for-all image of society in which the brakes are taken off, we let it rip and people pursue only their own interests.”

For him, that may be the real lasting legacy of the commemorations.

Philip Pettit is a plenary speaker on the topic of political futures and new paradigms, chaired by Prof Brigid Laffan of the European University Institute at 2pm on Saturday, November 12th.

Paddy Cullivan: 'We have an opportunity in Ireland if we stop facilitating the richest 1 per cent'

It’s a common rebuke to those who laud the 1916 rebels: didn’t they simply usher in an stifling state, where oppression by the British authorities was swapped for oppression by the Catholic Church? Didn’t we lock away women and commit horrific crimes against children? How can we celebrate that?

Paddy Cullivan, a writer, comedian and musician with the Late Late Show's house band, the Camembert Quartet, says that this is a misrepresentation. In his engaging, audio-visual show The Ten Dark Secrets of 1916, which he is touring around Ireland, he addresses this and other aspects of Irish history.

“The men and women of 1916 were visionaries,” he says. “Many of them were [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender] and many had radical and secular ideas about equality. But the revolution of 1916 was followed by a counter-revolution which was dominated by conservative ideas, and this had nothing to do with the 1916 Proclamation. Many blame the counter-revolution on Éamon de Valera, but he only picked up where the politicians of the 1920s left off. ”

By the 1930s, religion was in the ascendant and equality was barely considered at all.

Cullivan challenges the focus on “commemoration“ and points out that ordinary people engaged with 1916 by celebrating, dressing up as Collins or Pearse and re-enacting key moments. “Despite what official Ireland thinks of 1916, the country is fascinated by it. Some of the community events, where people dressed as Connolly and Pearse and re-enacted key moments, were brilliant. It showed that people have a deep interest in history.”

There’s a lot more we don’t know about 1916 and its aftermath, he adds. He is particularly interested in the assassination of Michael Collins, an event that remains somewhat of a mystery to historians.

“There were huge divisions between Michael Collins and his cabinet. Okay, so there were 30 men there and shots were exchanged, but only one – the most significant one of all – was killed. It was no accident. This may sound like conspiracy, but when you go through the facts it is a viable alternative viewpoint.

“In the show, I also talk about how the constitution was changed just before the 1922 Treaty election to deprive younger people of the vote and ensure success for the pro-Treaty forces, and I dig into why the lawyer who prosecuted Pearse ended up on the Supreme Court.”

In 1916, there were plenty of comfortable middle-class people in Ireland as well as people on the breadline, and the revolution offered a chance for the dispossessed, Cullivan says. That was the challenge of the time and it is equally relevant now. It is why we have to develop a backbone, yet the issue of Apple tax has been taken off the agenda as though it never happened, brushed off with a few fudges.

“Sometimes, as happened in 1916, the comfortable have to rise up on behalf of the uncomfortable. That said, we do have an opportunity in Ireland if we stop facilitating the richest 1 percent and spending money, especially on social housing – so let’s do it.”

Paddy Cullivan's Ten Dark Secrets of 1916 will be held in the Town Hall Theatre Studio, 8.30pm on Thursday, November 10th, as part of the fringe events. Admission €12/€10.

Sian Ní Mhuirí: 'If radical change was possible then, why is it not now?'

In a squat in Grangegorman, 12 radical ideologues hatch a plot for an anarchic, feminist uprising. They are furious about the housing crisis, the difficulty of being a young person in Dublin, emigration and unemployment, and their grievances lead to a bloody battle between state forces and civilians.

These modern-day versions of Pearse, Clarke, Markievicz and McDonagh have been imagined by playwright, producer and director Sian Ní Mhuirí in 16 and Rising, a new political theatre project for young people which is supported by the Arts Council's ART: 2016 programme.

“I wanted to explore what would happen if the political and cultural campaigners of that decade were around today,” says Ní Mhuirí. “So I went back to 1912 and found how the events of that time relate to contemporary Ireland. I set the events in 2016 and reinterpreted the leaders of the 1916 rebellion as modern characters, three men and nine women.

“Markievicz is not an Irish woman who married a Polish count; she’s a Polish woman. Patrick Pearse is not a teacher with dreams of heroic sacrifice; she is an austere, hardcore feminist ideologue and she is queer. Tom Clarke is not a man who was jailed for trying to blow up London Bridge; she is a Nigerian refugee who spent 10 years in the direct provision system.”

The play can help us to see that 1916 is not so much a story from history as a lesson in how political movements can work today. “If radical change was possible then, why is it not now?” she asks.

Ní Mhuirí is careful not to glorify 1916; it was messy and complex and some of her characters, particularly the female version of Pearse, are deeply flawed and uncompromising. and she is critical of the violence involved in their actions.

“I’m not suggesting it is right to go out and burn a building, but I am painting a picture of disenfranchisement,” she says. “I’m not nationalistic but Ireland is my home and I love the communities here. ‘Irishness’ has little meaning in itself; it has value when people who are sharing this island come together and build communities that tackle the problems we have and create a more inclusive, fair and equitable place for everyone in the Republic and our sister state of Northern Ireland.”

If the 1916 revolutionaries really had such radical ideas, why did the state effectively become a theocracy? “There’s always a kickback after a revolution. The radicals involved in 1916 were not those who wrote the Constitution or grasped power. The conservatism that emerged shows that the socialism of James Connolly and the feminism of Markievicz and Sheehy-Skeffington did not prevail. Revolution doesn’t bring utopia, but utopia can come.”

The 2015 marriage equality referendum unleashed an energy that could help bring about abortion rights, Traveller respects, an end to direct provision and a relaxing of the church’s grip on education, Ní Mhuirí says.

“For the marriage referendum and in opposition to water charges, people who never thought of themselves as activists came together and stood in solidarity. That conversation and activism is continuing and, while the battles ahead will be hard, they can also be fulfilling.”

Sian Ní Mhuirí's 16 and Rising will be held in the Town Hall Theatre Studio on Friday, November 11th, and Saturday, November 12th, at 8.30pm, as part of the fringe events. Admission €12/€10