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The 'other' 1916 north of the border


Men of Royal Irish Rifles resting during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Men of Royal Irish Rifles resting during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland

Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland


Men of Royal Irish Rifles resting during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Eamon Delaney on a new book exploring the sensitivity and division of commemorating the events of a century ago.

­The recent controversy about the 1916 banner hanging on the old Bank of Ireland building on Dublin's College Green shows the real sensitivity and division around the commemoration of the Easter Rising, a subject richly explored in this fascinating book of essays. The book also contrasts this ongoing challenge with a similar debate and sensitivity around the Ulster commemoration of World War I and that other sacrificial event of the Somme, also in 1916.

The banner in College Green depicts four figures from Irish history - Home Rule leaders Daniel O'Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond, as well as Henry Grattan, who also favoured Home Rule, but in a much limited way, with continuing Protestant dominance. But then Grattan was from a much earlier era, in the 18th century, just as John Redmond came a long time after O'Connell.

But they are all major figures in Irish nationalism, and its different approaches, and so germane to the overall sense of what 1916 represents.

However, critics see this as an attempt to supplant the revolutionary and violent tradition of Republicanism with the constitutional tradition with which the establishment and the State is more comfortable. One can see the criticism - the reality is that the 1916 leaders wholly rejected the Home Rule tradition and there are, by contrast, no Fenians depicted on this banner. Indeed, it is interesting just how much the Fenians (the Irish Republican Brotherhood) are downgraded from the official, and even non-official, version of Irish history. The 1916 Rising was an IRB event after all. But is it inconvenient to highlight the 'dynamiters' of the 19th century?

However, given that we are also supposed to have moved on to a more inclusive approach to political history, the critics of this banner are taking a somewhat narrow and pedantic view of the 1916 Rising, as being wholly about the executed leaders - personalities who are anyway well commemorated elsewhere. The fact that Grattan is shown indicates a laudable attempt to create a broader nationalist narrative.

But also the division between the two traditions of Irish nationalism, peaceful and violent, was not always as clear as it appears now. Parnell was well able to exploit the threat of Fenian violence, and nationalists (and Home Rulers) could support parliamentary means and physical force at different times, or even in tandem, as they sought desperately to achieve even limited Irish independence.

However, in the modern era, an understandable revulsion towards bloodshed has ignored this overlap, and scorned non-violent means. And this is what present day Republicans fear, and they would be right. The establishment is trying to control the 1916 commemoration as part of its own Statist narrative. But then Sinn Féin is doing the same, by focusing on the 1916 tradition as something pure, exclusive and related to itself.

This is something of which I have some personal experience. The unveiling of my father's statue of Wolfe Tone in Dublin in 1967 was criticised by those who believed the Irish Government was not worthy of commemorating such a Republican icon. In the previous year, a similar unease hung over the unveiling of my father's Thomas Davis memorial in College Green, done in Easter Week for the 50th anniversary of 1916. The increasingly affluent State was basking in its 1960s prosperity but also anxious not to raise nationalist sentiment in a way that could be counter-productive and dangerous, especially with the Northern Ireland issue unresolved.

I wrote about this in my book Breaking the Mould - A Story of Art and Ireland (2009) and quoted from a fascinating essay by the historian Roisin Higgins about the further paradox of the Davis Memorial in lauding, in a modernistic way, a nationalist figure who actually rejected Anglicisation and modernisation and wanted Ireland to return to an older agrarian way of life. The accompanying fountain to Davis contains bronze panels that chart the progress of Ireland's national story, but it is done in a way Davis might have rejected and which he may well have felt was unfulfilled. It was as if the State was seeking to solidify and virtually 'imprison' in a safe commemorative mode an otherwise radical revolutionary impulse.

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Higgins and other historians echo all of this further in this book, and focus on the effects and direction of successive commemorations of both of these momentous 1916 events. It has been said that the 1966 celebrations of each created the atmosphere in which old political rivalries erupted again in 1969. This is an exaggeration, given the deeper and more pressing causes, but there is no doubt that the commemorations contributed to the tension.

Margaret O'Callaghan thus explores the official 'reframing' of 1916, after 1969, and it is interesting to see old former colleagues of mine from the Department of Foreign Affairs described as swapping anxious notes about how the 60th anniversary celebrations should be handled in 1976, with the Northern conflict then well under way. The impulse was to do nothing that might offer legitimacy and succour to the then resurgent IRA.

Really, it is the ongoing political division between Unionism and Republicanism and the legacy of the violence, which makes these commemorations sensitive. Now that we have hopefully moved on to a more mature and peaceful era in British-Irish relations and on the island, we can celebrate the heroism and idealism of these events.

However, there is a still a huge gap between North and South in terms of understanding. How many Southerners really understand the huge sacrifice that Ulster Protestants feel they made in just a few days in the Somme in July 1916 or the feeling among many of them that their sacrifice was not rewarded and they were used as cannon fodder.

We have only just begun to understand the sacrifice made by southern Irish soldiers (many of them Home Rulers) in World War I.

And so appreciating 'the other 1916', north of the border, is still a long way off.

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