Why battle of Clontarf was a cake walk compared to commemorating the Rising
Published 21/04/2014 | 02:30
GIVEN all the events of recent weeks, an apology to the Queen for the brutal way we treated her forces may be appropriate and timely.
No. Settle down. I'm not talking about Elizabeth II, of the adjacent island. I'm thinking of Margrethe II of Denmark and all that ferocious carry-on in Clontarf a thousand years ago last Friday.
Commemorating '1014 And All That' was relatively easy. Lots of jolly costumed Vikings and mad Gaels prancing about re-enacting battles. And, those heathen unbelievers questioning whether saintly Brian Boru was at his prayers when Brodir surprised and murdered him after the battle, were among the few points of controversy.
As our government leaders took the salute at the GPO in Dublin yesterday to mark the 98th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, they knew that a lot is at stake in preparing for Easter 2016. Commemorations are always hugely about contemporary politics and this one is the most politically loaded of them all.
The historian, Professor Gearoid O Tuathaigh of NUIG, sums things up rather well. "That's one thing about all commemorations: though they are commemorations of times past – they are always about the present," he told RTE's 'Century Ireland' series.
Prof O Tuathaigh is not talking about commemorations being blatantly used as a contemporary campaign vehicle – though that has happened. He notes that in 1945-47 the young and impoverished Irish State did not feel confident enough to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Famine at a time when the value of Irish independence itself was being questioned.
By the time the 150th rolled along in the late 1990s it was a different environment of incipient economic boom and there were many Famine commemorative events.
Similarly, 1966 saw a series of gala 50th anniversary commemorations of Easter 1916.
By 1991, the continuing brutal violence of the North conflict, made any 75th celebrations of 1916 minimal and extremely muted.
The events of 1913-1923 shaped this country right up to the present day. The non-stop tumult of that decade gave us a set of institutions which are still with us and a cadre of societal leaders who dominated Irish public life right into the late 1960s.
The recall of that decade brings us the story of the trade unionists, the men and women who railed against the abject poverty of their time. There is the magic story of the selfless people of the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army who set off on a heroic adventure this day 98 years ago.
There is the story of the 150,000 Irish men who fought for the freedom of small nations in a British army uniform and the estimated 30,000 who did not return but lay buried in Flanders, Picardie and elsewhere. They were too long airbrushed out of history. But honouring their memory poses challenges as we try to see a fuller picture of our past.
There are the uncomfortable stories of Irish people caught in the crossfire. Those who supported home rule and/or believed that Ireland would fare best within the British Empire. Those who wore the uniform of the RIC.
There were victims of the IRA, some in the wrong place at the wrong time, others rightly or wrongly accused of 'informing', some victims of base motives among a minority of corrupt rebels.
It is a big basket of stories, some crosscutting and many in blatant conflict. But all require recognition in a fuller re-calling of our history.
The most immediate and stand-out problem centres around the need not to make Easter 2016 a gratuitous or even an accidental insult to the Unionist tradition in the North.
The riotous events of a Saturday in February 2006 in Dublin loom into mind when an attempted Orange parade was attacked. The Northern peace process remains extremely fragile and Easter 2016 could be a huge opportunity for bigoted yobs on both sides.
The other prominent issue, of which we have heard much in the past week, centres on the participation of a member of the British royal family in Easter 2016.
In the immediate aftermath of the total success of President Higgins's visit to Britain, building on Queen Elizabeth's successful visit here in May 2011, the idea of British royal participation seemed an all-round good thing.
Historian Diarmaid Ferriter was among the first people courageous enough to challenge this and cite the need for deeper reflection.
We must seriously consider what role there is for a British royal, and at what point in the commemorations they may participate, if at all. The Government must continue to listen to our historians. On that basis, perhaps our opening comment about Queen Margrethe of Denmark was not so flippant after all. The tumultuous events in Ireland in Easter 1916 were a subset of tumult in Europe and across the greater world.
There were immediate direct links including the Irish fighting in Belgium and France, the Germans arming rebels both north and south, and much more.
Recognising that broader European context in a practical way could help avoid dangerous pitfalls and reap a rich historical harvest from Easter 2016.