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Thursday 27 October 2016

Maybe we should let the past be a foreign country

Brendan O'Connor would rather look at where we are now and where we are going than celebrate events of 100 years ago that not everyone feels should be celebrated

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Final journey: Irish Government handout photo of the removal ceremony for Thomas Kent at Cork Prison before his state funeral at St Nicholas Church, Castlelyons, Co. Cork
Final journey: Irish Government handout photo of the removal ceremony for Thomas Kent at Cork Prison before his state funeral at St Nicholas Church, Castlelyons, Co. Cork

I could be way off the mark here, but am I the only one who finds it a bit odd that we dug up a man who died 100 years ago and gave him a State Funeral on Friday that was carried live on the State television channel and was attended by all the top people in Government? We'd be laughing if we heard of it going on in Korea.

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And before you all hit the roof, can I say that I don't mean to be in any way disrespectful to Thomas Kent. Thomas Kent is not the problem here. It's the rest of us feeling the need to do this is the problem.

If nothing else, it's slightly ghoulish. But it's also more of this weird militarism that we've started embracing recently. All these odd re-enactions and recreations.

And most of us are just going along with it really, because we figure we must be the ones who are wrong. We figure everyone else seems to think all of this is perfectly normal and necessary. So nobody is asking obvious questions like is it not really odd to be digging people up after 100 years to give them militaristic State Funerals, which are, at least partially, photo opportunities for the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste.

And then what about the Army going around the country to primary schools to give them all a flag to display on Proclamation Day?

Firstly did you know there was going to be a Proclamation Day? The mind boggles. And secondly, why are the Army going around to small children giving them flags, then lecturing them on the correct protocol for using the flag and then reading out parts of the 1916 Proclamation and getting one of the schoolchildren to read out some of it too. Is this not all quite odd too in Ireland 2015?

I suspect more and more people, as they are starting to realise some of the crazy stuff that's coming down the line over the next year, are starting to ask some basic questions, like, what the hell is going on here?

Gerry Murphy, who was on Liveline last week, was much commented on for the fact that he had a bit of argy-bargy with Joe, who repeatedly asked him to say what channel he was on.

But before he and Joe started rowing, Gerry was probably speaking for a lot of people when he said: "I can't understand, for the life of me, what the Army are doing going around the country to national schools with flags and the Proclamation - this is supposed to be a Republic. I would expect the likes of that happening in North Korea, I don't expect it and I don't want it in this country. . . I watched yesterday… and our current Taoiseach, sitting like a pampered pup, as this flag and this Proclamation were being presented to youngsters. There are 3,500 people dead, Joe, thousands are maimed for life because of the propaganda machine that was in 1966."

Gerry might have been a bit OTT in his suggestion that this place has become like a military dictatorship, but his mystification at all this is shared by a lot of people. And I suspect a lot of people are going to get even more mystified as this goes on. God only knows what they have in store for us when 2016 actually arrives.

You'd wonder is it that the political class think we all share their love of a bit of old-fashioned militaristic pomp and ceremony. They love to go traipsing off to Bodenstown and Beal na Blath and these places. They love a bit of lone trumpeting and gun shots.

And of course they love to claim the past as their own. They're all falling over each other to be more republican than the next guy at the moment. They especially want to be more republican than Sinn Fein. There's a big worry there that the whole 2016 thing will be good for Sinn Fein and will whip up a bit of nationalist fervour. If there is to be fervour, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael want it to be their fervour.

None of us is against remembering the past, but there's something a bit creepy about the way we're going at this 1916 thing. 1916 is also a very complex piece of history that means different things to people.

Some people don't identify with 1916 as their heritage at all. And sometimes you'd wonder if big parades and military shows and re-enactments gloss over that complexity. You'd imagine too that a lot of people are going to feel vaguely uncomfortable and threatened by militaristic displays of Little Irelandism.

On one hand, we're trying these days to see ourselves as a country that is modern and diverse and inclusive, and of course within that we are still entitled to preserve our unique history and culture.

But there's no doubt that there is a real danger that a lot of the events surrounding the 1916 commemorations will be in danger of becoming an excuse for nationalistic days out. Presumably there will be drink involved too and the blood will be up with people.

Symbols are important in a culture and we are entitled to symbols, but when the symbols we are sending around to schools are being brought there in the name of the glorification of blood sacrifice, you have to wonder if it's a good idea.

Thomas Kent's family doubtless got great satisfaction out of their relative being brought home, no longer the forgotten man of 1916, as Enda Kenny said. But do the rest of us really have to join in with this?

And, of course, this is only the start of all the commemorations. The really tricky one is going to be when we get to the Civil War.

People still don't want to remember that in townlands all over Ireland. Grudges are still borne and if people do dare speak of it at all it can be to argue over conflicting versions of local incidents.

A guy threw a drink at me at a rugby match once for something my relatives are supposed to have done in the Civil War. He was obviously on the other side of that particular local squabble. It's complicated stuff, isn't it? And it's stuff that we have tended to simplify in this country - even in the way it was taught in schools. It was hard to come out of school anything but a raving nationalist even in my day.

I love this country. And I am bound up in its history, in the history of my family, in all the battles fought down the years. They are some of the things that make me who I am. But I think I'd rather spend a year looking at where we are at now, and where we are going in the future, than to spend it celebrating things that happened 100 years ago that not everyone agrees are things to be celebrated. And I think as this goes on more and more people are going to start saying that these war games being played in 21st-Century Ireland are not being played in their name.

Sunday Independent

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