Tuesday 27 September 2016

Conor Mulvagh: Our foundation narrative, the building block of a modern nation that embraces difference

Conor Mulvagh

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

The Easter Sunday Parade makes its way along Westmoreland Street on to O’Connell Bridge. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The Easter Sunday Parade makes its way along Westmoreland Street on to O’Connell Bridge. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Members of the Defence Forces at a wreath-laying ceremony at Kilmainham Gaol. Photo: Mark Condren
The military parade at the GPO in O’Connell Street. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Easter 2016: a day in the life of a modern nation

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In all the excitement about 1916, it seems we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. The centenary of the Easter Rising is still a month off. The official centenary was marked on Easter Sunday, 27 March, 2016. The event in question happened on a Monday, 24 April, 1916.

Easter, a moveable feast

The difference between when Easter falls this year and when it fell a century ago underlines the peculiarity of tethering a national holiday to a moveable feast day. Only twice in the past three decades has Easter been earlier than it is this year. Meanwhile, Easter 1916 was only two days short of falling on the latest possible date, 25 April. Whatever about the debate over marking a Paschal or historical Rising, the State, as usual, commemorated the Rising on a Sunday this year. This begs a question. Why do we commemorate an event that happened on a Monday on a Sunday?

Easter Sunday marks the day nothing happened. In 1916, a lot of people put a lot of effort into ensuring nothing happened on Sunday. Furthermore, a group of seven stayed up late into the night salvaging months of planning and resolving to stage a Monday rebellion. Do we not commemorate the 1916 Rising on April 24 every year because it would mean yet another public holiday, or is the Messianic and Resurrectionary symbolism of Easter Sunday absolutely central to the intended message of the Rising? Fusing the biblical and the historical, on Holy Saturday 1916 Thomas MacDonagh wrote in the 'Irish Volunteer' newspaper: "It is not only Easter: it is the anniversary of Clontarf." MacDonagh urged his followers to emulate the commitment of Brian Boru's forces on Good Friday 1014.

As always with history, context offers an answer. What was marked on Easter Sunday is not so much an event in history as the re-articulation of a moment in national collective memory. What we have in the State's re-imagination of 1916 is a foundation narrative. Foundation narratives are part-historical and part-mythological. Just like America's 1776 or France's 1789, Ireland's 1916 has its martyrs, romance, gunpowder, idealism and adversity. These are all key ingredients in turning fact into the building blocks of modern nations. The association of a rebellion with the Easter passion is an important element of this; 1916 was not a military success, but historically, Irish governments have been keen to paint the Rising as a national resurrection. Early historians like Desmond Ryan were central to developing the hagiography of Pearse and Connolly. The blood sacrifice of Easter 1916 is no different to what the bloodshed at Gallipoli or the Somme meant to state-builders in post-Armistice France, Australia and Northern Ireland respectively.

Towards 2016: past and present in Ireland

Today there is sufficient space and political maturity for the State and its citizenry to question the incompleteness of Ireland's revolution in the context of the Rising, and particularly of the Proclamation. Inclusivity, equal citizenship and tolerance are all at the heart of the Proclamation. However, there is a certain amount of contradiction and murkiness of definition in its text.

In particular, the commitment to create a 32-county republic while clinging to the idea of this state being both explicitly Gaelic and implicitly Catholic raises questions about the feasibility of the vision. In this sense, the Rising was just one event in an era of emergent nation-states. Across Europe aspirations of culture and self-determination born in the 19th century were politicised, verbalised and translated into action in the 20th. In this sense, Ireland's 1916 was more of an opening shot, akin to what occurred in Sarajevo in 1914 or what happened in Russia in 1917. Of course, the real dates of independence occur between 1919 and 1922, but these are less unifying, less edifying and are less favoured by politicians and public in preference for the seemingly uncomplicated story of 1916.

Last year saw the first large scale re-appropriation of Easter Monday when RTÉ staged its 'Road to the Rising' public history event, drawing larger crowds than the Sunday State commemorations. Whereas Sunday remained a State occasion, Easter Monday became a citizens' day. On Easter Monday 2016, Dublin will play host to the largest public history event the island has ever seen. It may be a long time off before 24 April or 21 January - the anniversary of the day the first Dáil convened in 1919 - becomes a national holiday. In the interim, few national centenaries will be as self-interrogating, as open or as contemplative as the programme shaping up for this Monday. Where the traditional role of the foundation narrative has been to fuse and to homogenise populaces, our Easter Monday will embrace difference, cherishing interpretations equally in the spirit of scholarship.

Dr Conor Mulvagh is lecturer in Irish history with special responsibility for the Decade of Commemorations at UCD

Irish Independent

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