The ‘decade of centenaries’ in the longue durée

Published in Editorial, Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Volume 29


Having watched RTÉ’s two-part documentary The Hunger: the story of the Irish famine, I was struck by the sobering thought that it cast a demographic shadow well into the 1960s, within the living memory of those of us of a certain age (60 or over). In addition, many of the leaders central to Ireland’s subsequent constitutional, revolutionary and agrarian struggles—like Charles Stewart Parnell (see ‘100 Years Ago’, p. 70), Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and Michael Davitt—were either children or teenagers during the Great Hunger or its immediate aftermath. Moreover, as Brian Kelly points out (see Platform, pp 14–15), this was a catast-rophe long in gestation. Consequently, the Great Hunger is central to our understanding of the revolutionary decade currently being commemorated.

In a thoughtful contribution to President Michael D. Higgins’s ongoing Machnamh 100 presentations, Michael Laffan reminded us of the relatively low level of casualties in Ireland in the revolutionary period. For example, the numbers killed (14) at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday 1920 (the ‘Irish Amritsar’) were tiny compared to the actual Jallianwala Bagh massacre itself a year earlier, when, according to Winston Churchill, c. 400 Punjabis were killed by British forces. But Prof. Laffan also reminded us that similar levels of extreme violence were a feature of the conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see ‘Eleanor, Countess of Desmond’, pp 16–18).

Other academic historians have warned of the dangers of simplistic ‘linear history’. By all means let us have an evidence-based exploration of nuance and complexity but let us not lose sight of the bigger picture—that the Irish people, while not necessarily ‘the most oppressed people ever’, were certainly oppressed, and nevertheless, despite many errors and failures along the way, managed to establish a stable independent state. Surely that’s what we are commemorating—celebrating, even.

The Hunger: story of the Irish famine and the first session of Machnamh 100 will be reviewed in HI 29.2, March/April 2021.

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