1916—a legacy of violence?

Published in Editorial, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Volume 24


In the ongoing controversy about Glasnevin Cemetery’s commemorative wall listing the names of all 488 who died in the 1916 Rising, parallels have been drawn with the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC and the comfort derived by relatives from the explicit acknowledgement of their fallen kin. But amongst the 58,307 names you will find no Viet Cong, NVA or Vietnamese civilians. Perhaps it was a matter of practicality—where would they find the space for the 1,000,000+ names involved, even if they could all be identified? My purpose here is not to criticise the Glasnevin memorial—I see merit in the arguments both for and against—but to question the repeated assertions of those critical of the current commemorations and of the Rising itself that it bequeathed to Ireland ‘a legacy of violence’ (which at its looniest fringes has even been linked to the violence of Islamic State!).

Presumably this refers not only to those killed in the Rising itself but also to the c. 2,000 killed in the War of Independence, the 1,500–2,000 killed in the Civil War, and the 3,500+ killed in the more recent Northern Ireland conflict. Let us leave aside questions of responsibility and motivation (who killed who and why, etc.) and focus solely on the total killed in violent conflict in Ireland over the course of the twentieth century—7,000+. Now set that against the c. 17 million killed in the First World War and the c. 60 million killed in the Second World War. If readers find such comparisons inappropriate, let’s leave those figures to one side and focus only on a random selection of the death-tolls of Europe’s ‘smaller wars’ over the same period: Balkan Wars (1912–13), c. 150,000; Finnish Civil War (1918), c. 40,000; Spanish Civil War (1936–9), c. 500,000; Greek Civil War (1946–9), c. 50,000; break-up of Yugoslavia (1991–2001), c. 260,000; Ukraine’s ‘civil war’ (2014–present), c. 6,000 and counting.
If we add into the equation the fact that among the nation states of Europe that gained their independence in the twentieth century Ireland is the only one to have maintained itself as a parliamentary democracy throughout, the comparative evidence would seem to suggest that Ireland, far from labouring under a ‘legacy of violence’, has, in fact, been an oasis of peace and stability.

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