Revolutionary Remembrance: The Irish Times’ “Commemorating 1916”

Under my radar up to now, but the Irish Times, in an established section on the centenary decade, has a bunch of interesting articles on the topic of “Commemorating 1916” from a variety of commentators. Some of them are good, and some of them are not so good.

Tim Pat Coogan has this rambling piece (Coogan, rambling? You don’t say!?), where he jumps from criticising mortgage providers, decrying the amount of independents in the Dail, moaning about water charges, complaining about the Catholic Church, asking that the Oireachtas committees referendum be rerun , while occasionally talking about 1916. I’ve never liked Coogan, and stuff like this, which reads like the author wrote it in ten hasty minutes and, like a child with ADD, couldn’t pick a topic to actually write on firmly, is exactly the reason why. It’s hopelessly bad stuff.

A bit better is Vincent Woods’ piece. He at least has practical suggestions for ways in which 2016 can be turned from something dreary into something creative, through greater grants and subsidies to the arts, and an emphasis on remembrance in the form of music. He makes good points here, not least on the need to further support initiative that created things like the Limerick City of Culture program. I do believe that 2016 cannot just be a slightly larger military parade down O’Connell Street and some tree planting.

Lucille Redmond has similar thoughts, positing a commemoration that would be more akin to the 4th of July in America of Bastille Day in France. Or, essentially, St Patrick’s Day here. I admire her zeal, but I also know that something like she described would invariably court too much dissent from those who would feel such a pageantry would be disrespectful to the dead. It also speaks to this minor (very minor) movement in Ireland from people who resent the lack of a proper national day here, free of associations with the Catholic Church. Redmond goes on to talk about the revolutionary period in frustratingly simplistic terms, with some of the all too familiar soft gloves approach to the rebels and what they achieved. Much of this all comes back to the idea that modern politicians need to look to 1916 for inspiration, a topic I have spoken on in the past.

Ann Dolan, the author of the fantastic Commemorating The Irish Civil War: History And Memory 1923 – 2000, talks on that rather limp Ireland Inspires nonsense that was released a while ago, and the dangers of focusing on the idea of a “shared history”: that is, having a commemoration program dedicated to balance between nationalist and unionist, Protestant and Catholic, as a sop to contemporary political realities and motivations. I have noticed this creeping sentiment from a number of historians – especially Diarmuid Ferriter, a historian who never saw a government initiative he couldn’t criticise – that the idea of trying to affect a balance in the commemoration is somehow wrong. This makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, primarily that it’s easy to detect a slight sectarian undertone to the whole thing, that’s just waiting to be unleashed. It’s also unfair: The British and Ulster were there too, and pretending they weren’t, to focus entirely on the Irish Nationalist story, is bad history.

The final article is from author Ronan Fanning, who uses his space to criticise the “whatiffery” he detects starting to take hold of the remembrance debate, especially around the idea of how the Irish independence/self-government movement would have proceeded if the Easter Rising had never occurred, as well as, like Dolan, the “politically correct mania for inclusiveness”. For a man complaining about such counterfactual narratives (I’ve talked about it too), it’s strange to me that Fanning then goes and does the same thing himself, positing that a single home rule government for the island would have created a larger version of Northern Ireland. Anyway, his central argument is that the Rising is worth commemorating because it was the spark that launched the movement that ended in the sovereignty of Ireland passing to the Irish people, albeit not fully in name until 1948. Of course, I could counter with claiming that this game of “What came first?” is easy to extend: there would have been no Easter Rising without the work of the IPP in gaining support and eventual acquiescence for Home Rule. There would have been no IPP in the period concerned without Parnell, and so on and so forth. And even taking 1916 on its own merits as the starting point for the violent path, I would still argue that 1919, the Dail, real popular representation and the start of a winnable struggle for independence should have a higher level of respect when it comes to determining just when the path to sovereignty really began. The First Dail wouldn’t have existed without General Maxwell’s actions, but that doesn’t mean 1916 should get this overriding place in our memory.

One other article to mention, not under the same banner as the others, is this one, on “Citizens Initiatives” to commemorate the Rising. You know, I do find it rather odd that the Irish Times has decided, for some reason, that in namedropping and quoting Eugene MacCartan as one of the principle organisers of this plan, they neglect to mention that he is the general secretary of the Irish Communist Party. Now, why do you think they would not put that in there? Maybe because they know people would quickly dismiss both him and this initiative, and maybe not even read to the end of the piece, where the usual bluster about taking control of 1916 commemorations – as if they have the right to – and turning it into a protest movement for conventional issues gets trotted out. These people have always received attention out of all proportion to their actual numbers and support, and it seems like this will continue into 2016. Mores the pity. If the government’s initiatives for remembrance are bland and uninspiring, this stuff is just reactionary and irritating, in the way that this very specific brand of unrealistic socialism often is.

There are a few other pieces on the Century part of the Irish Times website – especially this restrained piece by Dennis Kennedy, worth reading.

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