A Feature by Anna-Rose Shack
It’s now April 2016 and Irish around the world are in full swing commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising. So how and why is this story being told?
In 2016, a significant number of centenary commemorations are centred on the actual historical events, returning to 1916 through artistic media in order to recount the story of ‘what happened’. The other focus is centred on actively framing the discourse of commemorations in terms of reconciliation, healing and moving forward. Richard Kearney suggests:
‘there is no unitary master narrative of Irish cultural history, but a plurality of transitions between different perspectives.’
and indeed it is this plurality of narratives that characterises the narrative of centenary commemorations.
There has been a gathering of voices through conferences, blogging, social media, workshops, books, exhibitions, concerts, theatre and other commemorative events. In particular many people have welcomed the light being shone on the role of women in 1916 and the impact on soldiers in WW1. A new memorial wall in Glasnevin Cemetery, even includes the names of the British soldiers who lost their lives in the Rising. However, despite the focus on inclusivity and reconciliation there has still been a distinct absence of the Northern Irish voice in the narrative of 2016, something that needs to be addressed.
In 2014 the Irish Government framed the commemorations with the slogan: “Remember. Reimagine. Reflect.” Commemorations were posited as the opportunity to remember the past and to reimagine and reflect on the nature of contemporary Irish identity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the response to this video was overwhelmingly negative for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there was significant outcry against the use of ‘hashtag history’ that reduces complex ideas to transitory slogans. Although popular centenary hashtags such as #WakingTheFeminists and #Dublin1916 allow a global community to engage with ideas and events, the reduction of the complexity of commemorating 1916 to hashtag-style slogans was rejected.
Furthermore, historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarked that the 2016 Advisory Committee
warned against trying to frame the peace process in the commemoration, given that, while it was wholly laudable, it is part of contemporary politics and not part of 1916 as it happened.
Diarmaid Ferriter is an example of a historian asserting the right to filter the representation of 1916, as his view promotes a return of focus to actual historical events and argues against filtering the narrative through a contemporary prism or shaping the narrative to promote contemporary agendas. However, historical events cannot be cleanly isolated from their subsequent context and it has to be asked if these events cannot be used to promote the peace process and instigate discussions for what Ireland hopes to achieve in the next hundred years, what exactly is the point of having a commemoration? A commemoration that serves no contemporary purpose has the potential to devolve into nationalist, partisan and sectarian revelry without the framework of social, cultural, political and indeed global development that has occurred since.
Despite the idea that commemorations will always say more about who we are now, than who we were then, the difficulties of trying to situate 1916 commemorations in context of the peace process, does raises the question of ‘who has ownership of the 1916 tradition and its commemorative story?’ The general public, historians, the government, Sinn Féin and the latest incarnation of the IRA actually must all share the act of storytelling in their commemorations.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Rising was the idea that many of the rebels knew that it was likely to fail. Not only had British intelligence intercepted their arms shipment from Germany, they also did not have popular support within Ireland. Ireland had been moving towards Home Rule, a movement that was put on hold at the outbreak of World War One and many believed that this parliamentary change could still be achieved after the war. Thus, the Rebels’ decision to act in 1916 was rejected by many as hasty and premature.
The Rebels themselves viewed April 1916 as the opportune moment for their rebellion, a time when British attention was fully occupied on the Western Front. However, historian Dr Guy Beiner at the recent conference held at the University of Melbourne (The 1916 Easter Rising: Australasian Perspectives – see also: Easter Rising – Another Context) raised the idea that in 1916 the British were fully militarised and were operating under the 1914 Defence Of the Realm Act (DORA). Thus, despite the Rebels’ rationale for success, the British, more than ever, were likely to swiftly and effectively suppress any sign of internal dissent. The question of whether or not the Rebels should have done what they did in 1916 is still provoking much debate, particularly as contemporary statistics suggest that more than 50% of deaths in Easter Week 1916 were civilian.
During my research that involved interviewing a series of people, I consistently used the word ‘commemoration’ to describe the 1916 Easter Rising centenary events. Despite this, it was interesting to note the number of people who drew specific attention to their belief that events should be strictly ‘commemorative’ and not ‘celebratory’. Their reasons included the horrific loss of life in 1916, the desire to decrease potential for a rise in tensions within Ireland and the hope to expose a plurality of narratives. As former Irish Prime Minister, John Burton suggests,
It is important that in remembering and commemorating what happened that we don’t glorify or justify it.
It remains important to note the tendency for these commemorations to move into celebratory realms and the unease this provokes in many.