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Wednesday 23 October 2019

Difficult histories: a year of defining centenaries

The first Dáil, the Spanish flu, the origins of the Black and Tans; next year brings centenaries of some of the more complex parts of our nation's history

A turbulent year: historian Maeve Casserly at the National Library of Ireland's exhibition, 'From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-1919' at the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin. Photo Marc O'Sullivan
A turbulent year: historian Maeve Casserly at the National Library of Ireland's exhibition, 'From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-1919' at the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin. Photo Marc O'Sullivan
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It was a year for anniversaries, centenaries and commemorations.

In fact, it often seems as if the last few years have, themselves, been defined by events which occurred a century ago.

In many ways the relative - and by relative, that means 'passed off peacefully' - success of the 1916 commemorations came as a reminder that we are finally reaching some degree of maturity which allows most of us to look at history through a modern lens, rather than simply relitigating the arguments of the past.

Obviously, the biggest centenary of them all was the ending of the Great War, and while there were the usual poppy rows surrounding people like James McClean, it has become increasingly clear that while there will always be a stubborn rump of people who cling to the myths of their history like a baby with a blanket, most of us have moved on.

But the next 12 months mark the centenary of a year that was pretty fascinating in its own right.

A few weeks' time will see the national celebration of the first-ever sitting of the Dáil, in the Round Room of the Mansion House.

On that occasion, the Dáil was dominated by Sinn Féin following their romp home in the 1918 general election.

Interestingly, only 27 of the 69 elected Sinn Féin members were able to attend because they were, as was put at the time, "being held by a foreign power".

The first parliament of any putative, aspiring nation is always something to cherish - regardless of how the nation would turn out - and on Monday, January 21, all current members of the Dáil, as well as selected former members and the judiciary will gather in the Round Room for a televised event marking the occasion.

There will be commemorations all across the country, and the one planned for Liberty Hall for January 21 should be a large affair.

January was also the month when the first shots in the War of Independence were fired when two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were shot and killed in Tipperary.

While universal suffrage wouldn't be introduced until 1922, women of a certain social standing had received the vote the year before under the Representation of the People Act.

In April, Countess Markievicz would become the first female cabinet Minister, not just in this country but across Western Europe. It was a fine start but a misleading one - we wouldn't have another female member of cabinet for another 60 years.

Biggest killer

The 'Limerick Soviet' is a name that still resonates with Irish socialists and it was set up in that city in April 1919 to protect workers from "the British military forces who have been forced to do the dirty work by their capitalist masters".

While they wouldn't start wreaking havoc across the Irish countryside until the next year, 1919 saw the evolution of the hated Black and Tans, the reserve force established by David Lloyd George to "face a rough and dangerous task" in Ireland providing support for the regular troops.

We all know how well that worked out.

While we have an understandable fascination with the military and political history of the time - everyone loves bombs and bullets, after all - the biggest killer of the era by far would re-emerge in Ireland in 1919, the Spanish flu.

Now widely regarded as he biggest killer since the black death, the Spanish flu pandemic would go on to claim a bigger count than the Great War.

Having first made an appearance in Ireland in 1918, it would return to Ireland with a vengeance in the first half of 1919.

The figures, even a century later are still staggering.

It's estimated that about 800,000 Irish people contracted what we now call the H1N1 virus between 1918-19 and more than 20,000 died.

Hospitals ground to a halt, there were travel restrictions applied and it really is remarkable that such a massive a national and global killer could be largely wiped from the popular memory.

One of the most interesting and important exhibitions of artefacts from that year can be found in 'From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-19'.

Held in the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, this fascinating resource, which runs until next May explores, through contemporaneous shots of the time, a turbulent 12 months which encompassed everything from the birth of the modern Irish nation as we know it, the rise of feminism (middle-class feminism, of course, but plus ça change) and a rejection of imperialism which would lead to decades of insurrection from colonies around the rest of the world.

For further information about events and commemorations, check out 'Decade of Centenaries' (


Events to mark the 1919 centenaries

15 January

Trinity College Dublin

The Irish Historical Society will present a symposium entitled ‘1919: The first Dáil and the Democratic Programme’. The Democratic Programme, which was adopted at the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on January 21, 1919, declared that the “Nation’s sovereignty extends… to all its material possessions, the Nation’s soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes”.

17 January

National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

A new exhibition of artefacts and documents on the First Dáil 1919, entitled ‘Marching on the Road to Freedom: Dáil Éireann 1919’. January 17 will see an afternoon of talks, bringing together a broad range of academics, historians and curators to explore this momentous period in the development of modern Ireland.

21 January

Mansion House, Dublin

TDs and senators past and present will mark the centenary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in the same room where it took place.

26 January

Liberty Hall, Dublin

To celebrate 100 years since the founding of the First Dáil, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum will be holding an event in celebration of this seminal moment in the struggle for sovereignty and independence in Ireland as well as an opportunity to learn from and apply the experiences of the last 100 years in that ongoing struggle.

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