Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2023), Platform, Volume 31

By John Gibney

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The Decade of Centenaries—was it a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? It is worth pondering the question as we head towards its end. The concept was deemed to suit the commemoration of the Irish revolution, though historians are often acutely aware of the tensions between commemoration, with its present-centred implications, and more scholarly understandings of the past. Despite what some academics and commentators might think, it is no great insight to suggest that commemoration has more to say about the present than about the past and inevitably carries, or is driven by, an emotional or political impulse that sees value in a symbolic evocation of the past.

The centenary impulse at an official, State level—from the top down, so to speak—was reconciliatory, which is hardly something that one should mock or complain about. The establishment of an independent Irish state and partition took place on an island that was populated by many people who had little enthusiasm for either outcome, and the Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations, established in 2012, observed in relation to the impending sequence of centenaries that ‘There must be full acknowledgement of the multiple identities and traditions which are part of the overall story and of the different ideals and sacrifices associated with them’, with the reasonable caveat that ‘the State should not be expected to be neutral about its own existence’. The latter could be taken to imply that present-day political legitimacy might be calibrated in relation to the past. At the same time, ‘commemoration should not ignore differences and divisions. The goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation in commemorations for events such as the 1916 Rising or the opening of the parliament in Northern Ireland, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations which remember the past while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not re-ignite old tensions.’

The prospect of the latter occurring became a theme occasionally indulged in by Cassandra-like commentators in the lead-in to the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 (undoubtedly the high-water mark of the Decade of Centenaries) and, to a lesser extent, the Civil War—that these events were not merely difficult to mark but that it could even be dangerous to do so. Such suggestions were overstated but reflected the fact that the meanings of the events to be marked remained contentious and sensitive. At an official level, the attempt to harness the past as a tool for reconciliation was sincere, though the means by which this was attempted were contested by various interested parties (political and otherwise), not necessarily on unreasonable grounds.

Above: The Necrology Wall at Glasnevin Cemetery after it was unveiled in 2016-and before it was repeatedly vandalised and eventually abandoned.

The official commemorations were arguably driven by an inclusivity towards the past that was intended to promote a similar sentiment in the present. The depressing reality as the decade wore on, however, was that reconciliation required a willing partner or partners, and did not always get them. The British state, despite promising signs at the start of the decade, naturally focused on the centenary of the First World War but ultimately withdrew from facing uncomfortable post-war realities in Ireland (or India), and the toxic atmosphere engendered by Brexit after 2016 did not help matters.

A shared history, however, is not necessarily a history that was experienced equally. Any such approach to commemoration was always going to present a challenge and prompt discomfort—also, it should be said, on the part of some of those who sought to promote it with good intentions—and could backfire. To give one example, take the now-abandoned Necrology Wall unveiled in Glasnevin Cemetery in 2016 (which this author was in favour of at the time). This attempt to create a permanent record of all the victims of the revolution—civilians and combatants on both sides, some of whom killed the same civilians they were recorded alongside—was subject to withering criticism, was vandalised on numerous occasions and was ultimately abandoned long before it reached its conclusion. Yet Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin created another catalogue of lost lives in The dead of the Irish revolution (New Haven, 2020) and attracted no real opprobrium for doing so, presumably because it was recognised as an exercise in scholarship, as opposed to the perception that the Glasnevin memorial was an exercise in politics.

This begs the question of where commemoration and historical practice—the exploration and consequent understanding of the past—might meet. And this is where one might opt to accentuate the positives. The Decade of Centenaries was marked not merely by official commemorative events that garnered attention for good or ill but also by a major public engagement with the history of the period, facilitated by a vast range of books, articles, lectures, debates, exhibitions, re-enactments, podcasts, documentaries and the increased accessibility of primary sources with which to make up one’s own mind; and Irish official bodies made resources available for many of these, facilitating very diverse voices in the process. None of this caused the sky to fall in, which suggests that perhaps the general public (or, indeed, ‘publics’) were—contrary to some assumptions—quite capable of handling nuance and historical complexity. Not everybody was going to change their principles or beliefs on the back of this, but many might see another side to the story at hand. The past under consideration need not automatically be endorsed in the present. It is possible, for example, to be critical of both unionism and the independence movement while not taking this to its logical conclusion and wanting to hand back either set of keys.

The intensity of the Easter Rising commemoration was followed by an understandable lull—commemoration fatigue, so to speak—and the COVID-19 pandemic stymied many of the initiatives that had been pencilled in to mark the War of Independence, but this is where one might look to how the centenaries were marked and experienced from the bottom up. One can, of course, be critical of many aspects of the Decade of Centenaries, but surely it was better to have had the explosion of scholarly energy and resources released by the decade than not to have had them?

Dwelling on the meaning of commemorations can overlook the fact that they acted as a means to open up windows to the past. We all construct our own versions of the past within the prisms of particular political, social and cultural frameworks, in terms of how we ourselves live our lives and make sense of the world around us. Take all of those who went on walking tours, attended lectures, went to exhibitions or to the striking performances of ANU Productions, who read books (even historical fiction) and articles, watched and listened to documentaries and drama, and who engaged with the vast range of primary sources made readily available by the Herculean efforts of institutions such as the Military Archives and the National Archives (amongst many others): are they engaged on a commemorative exercise, or are they simply seeking to learn more about the past, as centenaries bring parts of that past into clearer focus? If one has prompted them to the other, then we probably should not bemoan the gap between the two. And if an understanding and awareness of history has any role to play in civic society, perhaps we should not complain too much about the ubiquity of a single decade either. The centre of gravity in modern Irish historical research seems to have shifted to the years 1912–23. The pendulum will swing back, however, and it is better to have some attention devoted to certain aspects of the past than no attention devoted to any.

Commemoration may not quite be history from the point of view of historians, but that does not mean that the commemorations that framed the Decade of Centenaries did not—do not—create remarkable opportunities for those who might be interested in exploring the history that they marked. Surely that can’t be a bad thing?

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project.


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