‘IT SEEMS HISTORY IS TO BLAME’

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), News, Volume 21

Cork City Librarian Liam Ronayne outlines the city libraries’ programme for looking at the ‘decade of centenaries’, 1913–23.

The President officially opens ‘The Crucial 100’

Irish society has woken up to the fact that some historically important centenaries are almost upon us: the Easter Rising and the period leading up to it (1913–16), the First World War (1914–18) and the War of Independence/Civil War (1919–23). This awareness is evident in the pages of History Ireland and other journals, on the web and to an increasing extent in society at large.

Official Ireland will, no doubt, put its own stamp on how the centenaries should be marked, but a more interesting question is what, if anything, have we to learn from these events? Are there, for example, lessons we can learn to help us get out of the post-Celtic Tiger meltdown? Most people would accept that it was in this decade, from 1913 to 1923, that the Ireland we have inherited was forged. But is this only a matter for history buffs? Is it best left to historians who know their facts? Will the public, struggling with the crises of 2013, leave it to government and groups with their own agendas?

Cork City Libraries have put together a decade-long programme, under the banner ‘IT SEEMS HISTORY IS TO BLAME’, as a means of understanding what happened and why, and as a chance to learn lessons for our own time. We are not interested just in looking back; we want to use the coming decade to hold a mirror up to contemporary society. The title of the programme—‘It seems history is to blame’—is, as many will recognise, a quotation from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s attitudes to nationalism and the Catholic Church, and to observing the proprieties generally, are much more in tune with contemporary Ireland than with his own times.

Above: Prof. James Lydon launching History Ireland in the Tailors’ Hall, Dublin, in April 1993. It was with great sadness that we learnt of his death on 25 June 2013. Arriving in Trinity College hoping to study modern history, hearts sinking at the wall-to-wall medievalism of the junior freshman year, disaffection evaporated in the magisterial presence of this man who could make 800-year-old events seem exhilarating and utterly relevant. And while some electrifying speakers are in truth poor scholars and some stylish writers deadly bores, ‘JFL’ was that rarity: an enthralling lecturer, a dedicated archival researcher, a joy to read, a great man to have a pint with. Go dtreoraí na haingil isteach sna Flaithis é. (Brigid Fitzgerald)

Above: Prof. James Lydon launching History Ireland in the Tailors’ Hall, Dublin, in April 1993. It was with great sadness that we learnt of his death on 25 June 2013. Arriving in Trinity College hoping to study modern history, hearts sinking at the wall-to-wall medievalism of the junior freshman year, disaffection evaporated in the magisterial presence of this man who could make 800-year-old events seem exhilarating and utterly relevant. And while some electrifying speakers are in truth poor scholars and some stylish writers deadly bores, ‘JFL’ was that rarity: an enthralling lecturer, a dedicated archival researcher, a joy to read, a great man to have a pint with. Go dtreoraí na haingil isteach sna Flaithis é. (Brigid Fitzgerald)

On 4 May 2013 the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, officially opened ‘The Crucial 100: one hundred books that inspired a revolution’ exhibition in the City Library, Cork, the first event in the ‘IT SEEMS HISTORY IS TO BLAME’ programme. Having a book-focused exhibition as the first event was a deliberate choice, and, I suppose, an obvious one for a library, but one made for solid reasons. Fully understanding what happened should be greatly helped by knowing what people were reading and thinking at the time; in addition, literature serves as a way to consider the world as it was then. And as Thomas McCarthy, librarian and poet, relates in an essay he wrote to accompany the exhibition, ‘books as they settle over decades in their library shelves become powerful and silent witnesses of history’. The full list of books is at www.historytoblame.ie, the website set up by Cork City Libraries for the programme. While the list of 100 crucial titles is the libraries’ best estimate, we fully accept that other people will have other ideas, and we welcome the public’s choices of which books should be included, and indeed which ones should be left out.
The ‘IT SEEMS HISTORY IS TO BLAME’ programme is designed to allow and encourage public participation—by providing free and accessible talks and discussions, but also through interactive/participative events such as:

— events centred on books and writings;
— a series of workshops/facilitated sessions focused on specific aspects of what is meant by a republic;
— ‘what if . . .’ scenarios, looking at what might have been;
— the on-line publication of reading lists, background information, talks, records of workshops, blogs and discussion fora, videos, podcasts, on-line exhibitions, etc.;
— a programme of re-publication of key books and articles from the period.

A full programme has been organised for the autumn and plans are already being made for 2014 and subsequent years.
The autumn programme, from September to December, will feature:

— Dr Tom Dunne, who begins the programme in September, talking about the process of commemoration, and how other countries have approached it;
— an exhibition on Canon Patrick Sheehan, the influential cultural nationalist writer who was born in Mallow;
— Theo Dorgan, poet and activist, taking as his theme ‘Ireland without its people means nothing to me’;
— Dr Carmel Quinlan on the role of women in the period before and after the Rising—and not just the prominent revolutionaries such as Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne and Maire MacSwiney, but also suffragettes and the practical patriots who founded the Irish Countrywomen’s Association;
— Prof. Brian Walker on the unionist viewpoint, north and south, and the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers;
— an ‘Irish Volunteers Roadshow’ on 7 December, between the centenary of the formation of the Volunteers in Dublin and the formation of the Cork Corps.

These talks and the exhibition will take place in the City Library, Grand Parade. Details of dates and times can be found on the website, www.historytoblame.ie. HI

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