Sunday 18 August 2019

A centenary for everyone

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys tells Fionnán Sheahan how 2016 showed us as a mature society willing to look at other side of the story

Heather Humphreys
Heather Humphreys

Time and again in the run up to this year and throughout the 1916 Easter Rising commemorations, "inclusive, appropriate and respectful" was uttered as the mantra.

Heather Humphreys, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, was adamant this would be a year for everyone.

The minister is shaped by her background. As a member of a minority community on this island, as a woman, and as someone living in a border county, she was always aware of how divisions can enter a society. She saw it as incumbent on us all to seek out the things that unite us and bring us together.

The objective was to have a centenary year in which everyone could participate and which would accommodate all of the cultural and historical narratives on this island.

An essential part of the year was community involvement, which resulted in the commemorations evolving from a list of formal State events to an endless catalogue of thousands of events across the country and around the world. The minister saw the role of Government as being to facilitate and enable people everywhere to get involved.

The official programme of events was only a small part of what happened across the country. The local authorities were given the freedom to create their own programmes and they in turn worked with local community groups, historical societies, arts groups, Men's Sheds, artists, writers and composers.

"The commemorations were about much more than the Rising. We trusted local authorities and local community groups. The variety of different events that came forward was just amazing," she says.

"There was a great interest in looking back, understanding and hearing all the narratives. We had the maturity to look to the other side of the story. And the social history was very important across the country. Those individual stories that brought it to life," she says.

The tone was set with the first official event of the year, the Peace Proms, with the bodhran and the Lambeg drum-beating side by side, as both the Rising and the Battle of the Somme were remembered.

"It is important that all the narratives are heard. We are moving into difficult territory now with the War of Independence and Civil War," she says.

Ahead of the commemorations, the minister said she hoped we could reclaim our flag in 2016 as it had been hijacked by a paramilitary force which did not represent the views of the vast majority of the people on this island.

"The flag in many parts, especially in border areas, was seen as a symbol of division. In fact, it is about the coming together of green and orange. But it had moved into a different space."

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She believes through the quiet, respectful and dignified involvement of our Defence Forces, visiting every school in the country, this has been achieved.

"Children have learnt of the peaceful message behind the Tricolour. This reconnection, this renewed understanding and appreciation of the importance our national symbol was a subtle but vital element of this year's commemoration," she says.

Looking ahead to the next five years, the minister sees the Creative Ireland initiative as a real legacy from this period. She views investing in the arts and involving a new generation in cultural activities as a fitting way to mark the centenary of the birth of the nation.

"I believe culture is the glue that binds society together," she says.

"I think it would be a huge mistake if we didn't seize on the huge level of cultural engagement we have experienced this year, if we didn't build on the extraordinary public response to the centenary.

"Every now and again something unusual happens, something special, which makes us sit up and take notice. This year, I think official Ireland sat up and took notice, as the arts took centre stage and creativity allowed us to fully explore our cultural heritage. Now the challenge is to keep that momentum going."

Irish Independent

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