Where were you on 29 March 2012?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), News, Volume 20

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson delivering the ‘Edward Carson Memorial Lecture’ to an invited audience at Iveagh House on 29 March. Unusually, the question-and-answer session happened before the lecture. (Department of Foreign Affairs)

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson delivering the ‘Edward Carson Memorial Lecture’ to an invited audience at Iveagh House on 29 March. Unusually, the question-and-answer session happened before the lecture. (Department of Foreign Affairs)

‘Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way’, said the philosopher of history R.G. Collingwood, thereby encapsulating the belief that all history-writing is contingent upon generational concerns and values. Collingwood’s comment might be slightly revamped to address current commemorative anxieties: every new generation must commemorate history in its own way. But is it so simple? Ireland is now a few months into the first year of its ‘decade of centenaries’ (1912–22), those years that brought about the formative moments in the nation’s troubled history. Those symbolic flashpoints, embedded in the psyche of the North–South divide—Home Rule, the Ulster Covenant, the Dublin Lockout, the Larne and Howth gun-running, the 1916 Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme and the War of Independence—are back on the agenda. The flow of books has already started. But there are new rules defining the commemorative agenda. Reflecting this generation’s concerns, these were laid down in the terms of the ‘peace negotiations’ at a conference organised by the Institute of British Irish Studies (IBIS) in University College Dublin back in 2010, when the then taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and the North’s culture minister, Nelson McCausland, set down the parameters of commemoration around the notion of ‘shared history’. Shared history rejects ideas of a master or grand narrative and argues instead for an inclusive history. The term was first associated with efforts to include aboriginal perspectives into Australian history after their bitter history wars of the 1990s. ‘We want to see full acknowledgement of the totality of the island’s history and the legitimacy of all the traditions on the island that draw their identity and collective memory from our shared history,’ said Cowen, as he laid out the government’s views on commemoration. Since then, both of those members of their respective executives have been replaced. Fianna Fáil is in the political wilderness. Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín has taken over as the North’s minister for culture, arts and leisure (a post which by virtue of her office also makes her Keeper of the Records). But historiographical continuity has been maintained.In early March an announcement was made by the Department of An Taoiseach of a National Commemorations Programme: Decade of Centenaries, 2012–2022. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan nominated an advisory group of distinguished historians, to be chaired by Dr Maurice Manning and supported by Dr Martin Mansergh: Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, Professor Mary Daly, Professor John A. Murphy, Dr Eamon Phoenix, Dr Leeann Lane, Francis Devine, Professor Eunan O’Halpin, Sinéad McCoole and Professor Diarmaid Ferriter. Clearly commemoration is too important to be left to anyone but historians.The brief of the advisory group is to prepare an ‘overview statement to inform the development and delivery of the commemorative programme for the period 2012 to 2016, following which further statements could address annual commemorative programmes and thematic issues’. Furthermore, the advisory group will ‘seek to set a tone that is inclusive and non-triumphalist, ensuring authenticity, proportionality and openness’. Once the commemorative programme has been decided, Manning and Mansergh will liaise with the Oireachtas Consultation Group on Centenary Commemorations chaired by Minister Deenihan and including twelve members of the Oireachtas.The first big commemorative night out came on 29 March, when three parallel events overlapped and separately and together reflected the complexity of what lies ahead: the political, the educational and the popular. An exclusive event at Iveagh House, hosted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, saw the Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson, take the platform in the inaugural ‘Sir Edward Carson Lecture’. Unusually, the question-and-answer session happened before the lecture: John Bowman facilitated a polite discussion with Lord Bew and Dr Michael Laffan.On the same evening, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and the University of Ulster jointly organised ‘Commemorating 1916, the Battle of the Somme and the First World War: Questions for Education’. The event was opened by Maurice Manning and the keynote speech was delivered by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter. Meanwhile, downtown at the GPO on O’Connell Street, hundreds had gathered to hear the authors of the first three books in the ‘16 Lives’ series—a sequence of individual biographies on the sixteen executed rebels; these books are scheduled for publication over the next four years by the O’Brien Press. As industrial action across Europe becomes an ever-familiar scenario, it will be interesting next year to observe how the Dublin Lockout will be officially commemorated, if at all. Perhaps no moment better reflects the potential for this ‘shared history’ and, at the same time, has the capacity to provoke challenging questions in a country where cries for social justice are ever more common. And interestingly, as these 29 March events awakened Dublin to this decade of commemoration, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was far away in China, searching for diplomatic solutions to the deepening debt burden.  HI

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