Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Royal Irish Academy
ISBN 9781908996176

Reviewed by
Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh

Towards Commemoration

Production lines are cranking up for the centenary commemorations of the Great War. Dedicated shelves in bookstores and the documentary slots on television schedules are beginning to fill with material relating to the war that didn’t quite end all wars but that profoundly shaped the history of the twentieth century. The significance of the Great War in Irish history—and its central importance in shaping the decisive events in Ireland’s revolutionary decade, 1913–23—has been coming into sharper focus, in both academic and popular history, for the past two decades. Some of the factors that have prompted this repositioning of the Great War as a central fact of the Irish historical experience have been well rehearsed (and are rehearsed here again, notably in the essay of Keith Jeffery).

An explosion of popular interest in genealogy and family history could not but lead to an army of researchers searching for evidence among the thousands of war records (including war graves) of the Great War. This interest in personal and family stories was part of a wider trend (including oral history and life-writing) to document the historical experience of ‘ordinary’ people. But this democratisation of historical research chimed in Ireland with changes in the ideological climate. The drive, in British–Irish relations, towards strategies of accommodation and an end to violence within Northern Ireland was facilitated by finding sites of shared historical experience, where the two sides in the North, together with the two governments, could acknowledge common ground and enjoin mutual respect. The story of the Great War—notably up to 1916—provided one such site, where the scale of Irish involvement could not be ignored and where the carnage had made no distinction between Irishmen of opposing political views on the Union.

There is clearly a steady corrective purpose to much of the recent resurgence in historical writing—popular as well as academic—on the Great War and its significance for Ireland. After decades of eclipse by the dominant nationalist narrative that gave prominence to the separatist project underpinned by the 1916 Rising, the centrality of the war (prologue, carnage and aftermath) to all of the main episodes in the foundations of the modern Irish state (including 1916 itself, partition, the war of independence and the civil war) has been a prominent feature of recent Irish historiography

The volume under review here is the second volume of essays published recently by the Royal Irish Academy examining the impact of the Great War and its repercussions for Ireland; both originated in conferences organised by and with substantial contributions from academic staff based in Trinity College, Dublin. While the earlier volume, Our war: Ireland and the Great War (2008, edited by John Horne, with RTÉ as co-publisher) was lavishly illustrated and focused exclusively on the Great War experience, the latest volume is, like Caesar’s Gaul, divided into three parts—Histories, Memories and Commemorations—with six essays in each section, together with an Introduction and Conclusion.

The ‘strictly history’ essays of the opening section are a rich miscellany with a welcome comparative dimension: a crisp overview of the European context of the Great War (William Mulligan); a comparison between Irish and Anzac commemorations of Gallipoli (Stuart Ward); a case for better British appreciation of the significance of the Irish contribution to the war effort (Catriona Pennell); a perceptive portrait of the unionist W.F. Moneypenny, prescient witness to the death of Liberal Ireland (Paul Bew); an original examination of what ‘republicanism’ meant to a sample of volunteers in 1916 (Fearghal McGarry); and a wide-ranging and challenging comparative view of Ireland and the European experience of ‘the Wars after the War’, 1917–23 (John Horne).

The ‘Memories’ are not those of participants of the revolutionary decade but rather a series of reflections by present-day historians and cultural commentators on their own ‘encounter’ with and developing consciousness of the Great War and its legacy: through family and military connections, community sites of memory (cemeteries) and personal explorations of identity. All of these essays are sensitive and suggestive; those by Heather Jones and Brian Hanley are particularly sharp. The characteristic tone of the section (only Hanley raises awkward questions) is a sense of satisfaction that the new climate in Anglo-Irish relations now permits the recovery of suppressed memories and rituals and the acknowledgement of family and wider community sentiment.

In such episodes of historical reclamation as Ireland’s recent recovery of its experience of the Great War, ideol-ogy intrudes at various points. If, as is commonly claimed, those Irish soldiers who had fallen in the Great War had been forgotten, and if those who returned found themselves (and their service and sacrifice) discounted in the Irish national state that traced its origins to the heroic sacrifice of Easter 1916 (finding themselves ‘on the wrong side of history’), it is hard not to feel that for some of the more zealous advocates of public commemoration of the Irish role (soldiering) in the Great War there is the urge to put independent Ireland itself back on the ‘right side of history’, by endorsing the Home Rule Ireland that might have been, that was imminent, were it not for the bloody coup of 1916 and the separatist ‘aberration’ that followed. The pull of the counterfactual will undoubtedly prove attractive for sections of Irish society during this commemorative decade.

If issues of commemoration run through several of the ‘Memories’ essays, they are the central concern of the final section of the book. The tone of this final section, however, is decidedly more admonitory and prescriptive than elsewhere in the volume. Keith Jeffery provides a concise reprise of his earlier research on the changing pattern of Great War commemoration. Anne Dolan’s essay insistently addresses troub-ling questions: ‘The question is, where is the place for hatred and division . . . if the centenaries clamour for something more conciliatory instead?’(p. 146). For Dolan, as indeed for David Fitzpatrick, the intractability of divisions and contradictions, combined with the historian’s obligation to uncover and draw attention to unsettling evidence, challenges alike the simplicities of heroic myth-making and the bland inclusiveness of a sanitised and symmetrical narrative of shared ‘suffering’.

Indeed, Fitzpatrick demands a particular kind of history engagé. He warns against forcing the awkward complexity of historical experience into Procrustean ideological frameworks (e.g. anti-colonialism). But he is equally trenchant in demanding that historians take a firm moral position in discussing the conflicts of the period: ‘. . . it is bad history to suspend moral judgement when trying to give meaning to human losses . . . Far from avoiding all forms of judgement, historians should try to add moral intensity to the ways we commemorate and comprehend the past’ (p. 127). In the immediate context of the decade of commemorations, while generally sceptical of historians becoming involved as commemorators, Fitzpatrick concludes that, on balance, ‘. . . it may nevertheless be possible in the Irish case, without unduly twisting the record, to highlight events and alliances pointing towards compromise rather than confrontation’ (p. 132). It remains to be seen whether other Irish historians will see their obligation and frame their contributions in these provocative terms.

‘Complexity’ is the watchword of this volume: complexity of motive, experience and memory in relation to all of the key episodes of the revolutionary decade. Hidden or suppressed narratives demand acknowledgement and recovery. The heroic and the idealistic must be set alongside the confused purpose, the vengeful motive and the dirty deed. Innocent victims must be commemorated, as well as drastic actors in the historical conflict. Complexity and inclusivity (variously understood) are also the common prescriptive elem-ents with regard to how academic historians should best conduct themselves in this decade of commemorations. There are several references throughout to the excesses and lapses that marked the ideological accommodations made, it is claimed, by some historians during the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion.

Nonetheless, the case for historians contributing to an enhanced public understanding of profound and complex historical events, such as the Great War and attendant convulsions in the Ireland of 1913–23, is recognised in Fintan O’Toole’s essay and in John Horne’s Conclusion, in both of which the role of the professional historian in the public sphere, without compromise of scholarly scruple, is judiciously considered.

Based on past experience, anxieties are expressed, from time to time, that historical commemorations of divisive events may excite unwelcome or unmanageable emotions among contemporaries. One wonders whether these anxieties may not be exaggerated. The evidence to date suggests that, for good or ill, today’s Irish have firmly historicised these turbulent events of a century ago and do not find their contemporary relevance particularly compelling. Certainly, there are strong indications that the major public commemorations of the centenary events up to 2018 will be carefully managed by ministers and mandarins (whatever the advice of historians) within a British–Irish tableau of mutual respect and recognition (joint presence of dignitaries at all kinds of commemorative events). ‘Inclusivity’ being the presiding idea, it will be difficult for any group to take opportunistic or partisan ownership of any of the key sites, dates or events of historical memory relating to the decade of upheaval, certainly up to 2018.

It is possible, as Horne suggests, that ‘the hardest phase of the commemorative cycle in both parts of Ireland will be that relating to the wars after the war (i.e. 1918–23), because by definition these were the source of divisions, incomplete or failed projects and continuing differences’ (p. 60). Certainly, the poisonous intimacy of guerilla warfare and civil strife frequently leaves lasting wounds, for which even the knowledge that the Irish experience was replicated widely elsewhere provides little balm. The bitterness of the debate among historians on episodes in the war of independence, particularly in Cork, reflects wider public sensitivities, though by 2020, depending on the situation in the North, even these volcanic enmities may be exhausted.

In the meantime, there is much to be said for professional historians taking advantage of the enhanced interest of the wider public in centenary commemorations to push for better access to archival sources (in Ireland and in Britain), for funding for new research by younger scholars, and for the publication of further original academic work on this fateful decade and its consequences. Many of the contributors to this volume will, I have no doubt, avail of these opportunities.

Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh is Professor Emeritus of History, NUI Galway.


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