Thursday 21 September 2017

Reinventing the Rising: How an old story was retold

Ireland's pluralistic approach to history in 2016 impressed, but marking upcoming milestones will be harder, says Conor Mulvagh

Easter Rising Centenary Celebrations on O Connell Street Bridge. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.
Easter Rising Centenary Celebrations on O Connell Street Bridge. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.
UCD' s Conor Mulvagh pictured in the Chapel in Kilmainham Gaol , where Joseph Mary Plunkett was married. Picture Credit: Frank Mc Grath

It's been quite a year and December is as good a time as any to revisit the "reflect" theme of the Ireland 2016 mission statement of 'remember, reflect, reimagine'.

So much has happened in the realms of public history and commemoration this year that it would be impossible to do it justice in one article. Instead, I want to focus on two of the flagship events around Easter weekend, March 27-28 2016.

A military centenary

In 2016, the military parade was the event for the State. Passing from St Stephen's Green to Beresford Place, passing Dublin Castle, O'Connell Bridge, the Rotunda, and other sites of significance to the Rising, it revisited a long tradition going back at least to 1941 (the 25th anniversary).

This tradition stretched up to 1971 before being shelved in 1972 due to the worsening of the Troubles and only recommenced in 2006 in time for the 90th anniversary. This year, a total of 3,700 members of the Defence Forces and emergency services marched in the Easter Sunday parade.

In interpreting the symbolism and message of the parade, there were several points of significance. Firstly, all five organisations which participated in the Rising were present: the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann, and the miniscule and almost forgotten Hibernian Rifles. These were represented with specially designed flags bearing the emblems, insignia, or logos of these organisations. It conveyed a message both of inclusion and historical accuracy central to the broader themes of the centenary programme.

Maria Mellon holds daffodils during the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony at the GPO on Easter Sunday, 2016. Photo: Maxwells
Maria Mellon holds daffodils during the Easter Sunday Commemoration Ceremony at the GPO on Easter Sunday, 2016. Photo: Maxwells

Directly behind these flags were the flags of the action sites of the 1916 Rising. This had the important role of decentralising the Rising. Through them, the story of Limerick, Wexford, Athenry, Ashbourne and more was brought with striking clarity into what can often be a Dublin-centric narrative.

Elsewhere in the Defence Forces parade, the theme of peacekeeping and of military continuity from 1916, or more accurately 1922/1924, to the present day were highly prevalent. Soldiers in period uniforms marked Irish involvement in UN peacekeeping missions in the Congo, Lebanon, and more recent overseas missions.

Finally, the very welcome inclusion of retired veterans signalled continuities in volunteering and service. While serving members of the Defence Forces have become more visible in Irish life in recent years, this was a rare occasion for a large public audience to witness the size and diversity of Ireland's UN peacekeeping veterans in a formal setting.

Reflecting the Rising

The events of March 27 were followed by RTÉ's public history event, Reflecting the Rising, which was held across Dublin city centre on Monday, March 28. This event easily constituted the largest ever public history undertaking in the history of the Irish State and, if it can be classed as such, one of the largest popular academic events in Europe in recent years.

The State's insistence that State ceremonial activities would be confined to Sunday meant that Monday had the unusual status of being a day of non-militarised, de-centralised commemoration but presided over by a semi-State institution in the form of the State broadcaster. As one participant put it to me, it was like "St Patrick's Day but without the drink." An initiative is ongoing to make April 24 - the actual anniversary of the Rising - a public holiday. Such a move may facilitate repeats of the good-mood and family friendly civic space created by RTÉ's Easter Monday events both in 2015 and 2016.

Foundation narratives

What was witnessed in the retelling of the story of 1916 in 2016 was the reinvention of a foundation narrative. Most states and groups have them: a simplified, stylised story of how the entity in question came into being. By their nature, foundation narratives assert the primacy of one set of events, one narrative, over all others in explaining the emergence of a state, group, community, or movement.

They can be reinterpreted at different moments in the evolution of a society and this has happened in the case of 1916 in 2016. Either willingly or not, historians provide much of the raw material for making foundation narratives but they are often shaped by political or community leaders. The 1916 narrative has proved to be remarkably robust, dynamic, and adaptable in the century since the events in question.

New narratives of reconciliation, equality -of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity - and positivism have been spun into the yarn of an old story. Other elements have been cut from the garment, especially the religious aspects of the 1916 Rising. Despite maintaining the primacy of the paschal over the secular calendar and of persisting with a Sunday commemoration of a Monday event, the deep religiosity both of 1966 and especially of the 1916 Rising itself have, for good or bad, been taken out in the modern retelling of the Republic of Ireland's foundation narrative.

I would also argue that the complexities of class history have been marginalised, more so in the popular than in the academic retelling of 1916. Despite its religious overtones there was arguably more socialism and more James Connolly in the version of the insurrection story told in 1966 than there was in 2016. I have attributed this elsewhere to the significance of 1916 veteran-cum-chronicler Desmond Ryan's writings in shaping popular understandings of the 1916 story. Ryan builds up the twin pillars of his mentor Padraig Pearse and his idol Connolly as symbolising the antagonistic but, in Ryan's mind, perfect admixture of socialism and nationalism that constituted the double helix of the Rising's DNA. Ryan's vision was central to 1966. Subsequent generations have reinvented the Rising in dozens of ways since. As with all commemorations, 2016 tells us more about the society doing the commemorating than the society and event being commemorated.

In recent years, significant leaps have been made in the re-casting of the 1916 narrative to include the role played by women, especially in uncovering the identity of the 77 known female participants through the Richmond Barracks project. Likewise, Joe Duffy's work on identifying the 38 child victims of the Rising has bridged a hitherto under-appreciated lacuna in our understanding of death and victimhood during the rebellion.

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Looking forward: 2017-23

What stands ahead of us in the centenary calendar? There are dangers in slavishly following anniversary culture. As we sometimes forget, the concept of a 'Decade of Centenaries, 1912-23' is an entirely invented one which did not exist 10 years ago. It puts parameters on our remembering. Just because we have predictably, and at times doggedly, followed a linear course of events from Home Rule to the Rotunda to Howth and thence to Sarajevo, Belgium, Gallipoli, O'Donovan Rossa, the GPO, Arbour Hill, Kilmainham, and Frongoch does not mean that this trend must continue.

In 2012, historian Anne Dolan presciently warned of "commemoration fatigue" and how this would set in with a vengeance following the centenary of the Rising. In one sense, Dolan was absolutely right: those working in the field of commemorations are breathing a sigh of collective and deserved relief that one of the busiest years in recent memory is now over; and it has passed off rather well. However, one of the most remarkable things about the period since Easter is how the public appetite for centenary content and public history appears to have been whetted rather than satisfied by the events just passed.

As we recap on the year just passed, it's time to take stock, take a break, and make conscious and deliberate decisions about where we want to go next. The past does not belong to any one group, it belongs to everyone. While historians continue to work towards challenging, complicating, and contextualising the narrative, the decision about how and what to commemorate is one that belongs to the people. In stark contrast to other countries now working to homogenise and simplify retellings of their recent past, Ireland has proved impressively pluralistic in its approach to history. 2016 has provided a template for how multiple, often conflicting narratives and interpretations can be embraced in a spirit of learning rather than the affirmation of previously held beliefs.

In some ways, 1916 is the easy part; the tricky bits are looming on the horizon. However, there are lessons to be learned from 2016 about inclusion, respect, and historical complexity. With these tools, the island of Ireland may just be ready to revisit the darker chapters of its history: not merely the War of Independence and Civil War but the impending anniversaries of both paramilitary and state violence north and south of the border, which will see a spate of 50th anniversaries overlap with centenaries in the years 2017-23.

Irish Independent

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