The year 2016 will be the centenary of the Easter rebellion or ‘Rising’, probably the single most important event in modern Irish history. It also one of the most controversial. The Rising divided opinion at the time, and has been doing so ever since.
While the event itself has long been the subject of debate and argument among historians, more and more attention is turning toward the centenary. How will it be marked, officially and unofficially? What forms will commemoration take, and what purpose will they have? Having an Irish background myself, these questions are especially interesting to me.
The website of the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), for example, strikes an understandably inclusive, if rather bland, tone:
‘The Government is committed to respecting all traditions on this island equally. It also recognises that developing a greater understanding of our shared history, in all of its diversity, is essential to developing greater understanding and building a shared future… 2016 will belong to everyone on this island and to our friends and families overseas – regardless of political or family background, or personal interpretation of our modern history’.
That official statement can hardly do justice to the complexity – and contentiousness – of the event or of its interpretation. At the London Irish Centre, in Camden, this September, four Irish scholars met to publicly debate the centenary of the Rising: Diarmuid Ferriter, of University College, Dublin; Roy Foster, of the University of Oxford; Louise Ryan, of Middlesex University; and Maurice Walsh, of Kingston University. All four have researched the events of 1916 and their aftermath. Each brought to bear on the discussion a distinct yet also shared perspective: the need to constantly reinterpret the Rising in the light of fresh evidence, new perspectives and contemporary concerns.
Ferriter focused on ideology and the extent to which it may, or may not have, been an important factor. He emphasised the role of the Irish labour and trade union movement, and how socialist agendas and aspirations were obscured at the time, and have been ever since, by patriotic rhetoric: the revolution, according to Ferriter, was to be ‘green’ and not ‘red’, with emphasis on heroic narrative.
Acknowledging ideology, Foster chose to emphasise instead the influence of culture, or what he described as ‘temperament’: the emergence of revolutionary sentiment in unexpected places and among unexpected people, including women and Protestants. He tacitly agreed with Ferriter nonetheless: the revolution for which many had hoped, and fought, did not actually take place. The ‘revolutionary generation’ experienced disappointment in many ways. The Irish Free State (formed in December, 1922) was not at all outward-looking and liberal-minded; it was, instead, parochial, conservative and, in some ways, repressive, especially in terms of gender, class and religion.
Like Foster, Ryan emphasised the role of women, and how their role had been criticised at the time, neglected since and generally misunderstood and misinterpreted. Largely overlooked by historians, she said, was the extent to which the violence of the Rising and, even more so, of the ensuing revolution, had been gendered and sexualised. Moreover, emphasis on ‘revolutionary’ (including implicitly ‘patriotic’) violence obscured possibly endemic domestic violence, including infanticide. It was perhaps understandable, if not inevitable, that people would choose not to remember, much less celebrate, certain events in Ireland’s history.
For Walsh, violence was indeed a complicated matter. For many revolutionaries a ‘blood sacrifice’ was all-important as a means (for some, the only means) by which Irish freedom could be attained. Yet it was not to revolutionaries alone that ‘blood sacrifice’ mattered. Walsh referred to the appeal made by constitutional nationalists in 1914 to young Irish men: by taking up arms against Germany, Ireland would show her readiness for nationhood; she would play a decisive part in a world war and in world affairs. That did not happen, and Walsh emphasised the importance to the historian of viewing events in Ireland in broader European and international perspectives.
Historians and sociologists increasingly debate not just historical events but the ‘memory’ and commemoration of those events, the significance they acquire in retrospect and the impact of commemoration on society. All the participants in this debate agreed on the problematic relationship between history, memory and commemoration in Ireland. Ferriter is a member of an official advisory group on the 2016 centenary. He spoke of the way in which commemorative events tend to have a political rather than a historical focus. Plans for the centenary are most likely to be influenced by relatively recent events, such as the Northern Ireland peace process and reciprocal, official visits by British and Irish heads of state.
Yet, as he emphasised, and as the work of all the speakers shows, the events of 1916 are still in the process of reinterpration, with archival material being examined anew from fresh perspectives. That is a necessary, even vital, task given the importance of forgetfulness as well as of remembering in the history of Ireland since 1916.
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University
Further useful reading on this topic:
Diarmuid Ferriter, A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923 (2015)
R.F. Foster, Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 (2014)
Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (eds.), Irish Women and the Vote: Becoming Citizens (2007)
Maurice Walsh, Bitter Freedom: Ireland in a Revolutionary World, 1918-1923 (2015)