A News Feature by Frances Devlin-Glass
I’ve never been to an Irish Studies conference that has disappointed. The Australian/New Zealand run series began in Canberra in 1980 and has run roughly annually on a cycle (at some stages in its history every two years) that since the formation of ISAANZ – (Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand) now comprises a 4-6 year cycle: two conferences in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Ireland. It was Adelaide’s inaugural turn and the conference was housed and hosted by Flinders University. A very hospitable team comprising linguist and Irish language specialist, Dymphna Lonergan, social scientist Fidelma Breen, archaeologist Susan Arthure and historian Stephanie James, and a big team of enablers and helpers fed, photographed and feather-bedded us for four wonderful days.
As always, when the conference encamps in unfamiliar territory, the locals get an opportunity to showcase their territorial treasures, and what a wide-ranging scene Irish Studies SA appears to be. I was struck by how generative the local Genealogy groups seem to be and their links with academics. The conference began with a fascinating bus tour of Sir George Strickland Kingston’s Adelaide, an under-qualified architect, but an engineer with ideas about how to build for the Australian environment and a fine legacy in stone. It ended in a little conclave of cottages in Irish Town, which presumably serviced the impressive villas of North Adelaide. I didn’t get to all the papers focussing on SA, but that largely Presbyterian city has an Irish substratum that was made visible to me for the first time – from the world’s most recent clachan at Bakers Flat, to focused studies of medical men in Kapunda, the radical Irish thinking that underpinned the South Australian Colonization Bill of 1834, and secret political organisations after 1916. And that’s to mention only some of the papers.
The conference circuit is as healthy and vibrant as it is because it is open to those outside academia and enthusiastically followed by family historians, journalists, and those who take a pride in their Irish heritage. It’s also a multi-disciplinary exercise, and for the first time in Australia (I think) we had input from Australian Irish archeology. Keynote speakers whose expertise lay outside Irish Studies (Professor Melanie Oppenheimer spoke on the Irish White Cross led by widow of one of the executed, Áine Ceannt, and Dr Maggie Ivanova talked about the staging of a Strindberg play in Dublin in March 1916) cast new light on 1916. The level of collaborative knowledge exchange during the conference was phenomenal. I came away with a raft of networking tasks which I know will engage me and help build stronger community ties within our diaspora and homegrown communities, and I was only one of many doing this.
The Irish Embassy in Canberra generously contributed to the event which had an emphasis on Change, Commemoration and Community and the new Irish Ambassador to Australia Breandán Ó Caollaí and his wife Carmel attended the conference dinner and the last day of the conference papers . It was probably one of the last events in the diaspora commemorating the huge year of 1916 centenary events. Their funding helped bring out from Ireland Emeritus Professor David Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick’s paper was, as we have come to expect, a demythologising one and quite controversial. It was an often witty historiography which looked somewhat critically at the orgy of rememberings of the Rising (a term he problematised) both in the contemporary context and historically. His method was to examine four fallacies, and to place the Rising in the context of the Great War, an approach which chimes with the rhetoric of inclusiveness that has been struck officially, by the Irish President and Irish government.
To begin with he focussed on how unrecognisable the prospect of an insurrection of any kind would have seemed to nationalists outside the inner circle in the period between the suspension of Home Rule in 1914 and Easter 1916, given the commitment of Redmond’s leadership to Home Rule. He adduced a figure of only 10,000 who repudiated Redmond’s constitutionalism, and the figure of 200,000 mobilised for the Great War in Ireland, despite the lack of conscription (though it would have to be pointed out that many enlistees saw it as a way out of poverty). He also claimed that Great War enrolments constituted the greatest military deployment in Irish history.
The account he gave of 1916 commemorations echoed and confirmed what we had begun to hear in the commemorative conference convened by Prof. Gillian Russell held at Melbourne University earlier this year. He pointed to attempts to fill out the military aspects of the Rising by including women, non-military victims, police and the subsequent treatment of combatants in the Great War. The speaker reminded his hearers that this was not a new angle on The Rising (F X Martin and Edna Longley raised the questions long ago).
Another crucial component in the mix is the recent availability of the Bureau of Military History files online, which have served to make available the stories of the rank and file, and especially of women which of course has further democratised the study of the events of 1916. Much more than in 1966 at the half-century, these commemorations have belonged not to the military and the mythologies but to the people, and a handful in the audience, including the conference convenor, had taken part in commemorating her forebear who fought in the GPO.
David Fitzpatrick brought to his subject the cool eye of the historiographer, an eye that tried to divest itself of nationalist rhetoric, and was of course well aware of the nationalist tiger he was wrangling with. The first of his ‘fallacies’ under discussion was the nomenclature of ‘The Rising’ which has undergone many metamorphoses in the intervening century. Contemporaries called it a Rebellion. It’s been variously referred to as a resurrection, insurrection, revolt, and of course using the terms Uprising and Rising places one in the ideological field quite precisely.
The biggest challenge in this welter of words and in contemporary thinking is whether or not the Rising might have had the characteristics of an act of terrorism and its main combatants, as Roy Foster suggests in Vivid Faces, had been radicalised (modern terminology, of course, but it is one that brings a potent new contemporary lens with which to view these historical events). Certainly they and their followers might have thought of themselves as a military force, but the morality of sentimental militarism, going into battle largely unarmed and at huge civilian cost is a matter that has painful contemporary relevance (Aleppo and its citizens come to mind as I write). The question of whether or not it would have been better to wait for Home Rule, which would have delivered less admittedly, but more peacefully, is an urgent one which for me has to remain on the table for continuing debate.
Many more challenges were thrown out, and these often resonated in other papers – the liturgical and religious significance of its being associated with Easter; whether or not all had been ‘changed utterly’ as Yeats so portentously proclaimed in one of the most famous elegies of the century. He even questioned the founding sacred text, the Proclamation, and its ownership by diverse groups (including physical force and anti-partitionist factions) subsequently, and the inevitable sense of dismay when its utopian claims to speak for all, and its aspirations could not be delivered by successive Free State governments, and later by the Republic.
Despite the orgy of re-visionings of the foundational events of 1916, Fitzpatrick queried whether in fact the nationalist mythos had been fundamentally re-examined, and question time exposed that ‘Blood Sacrifice’ remains a powerful motif in the nationalist panoply of symbols and rhetoric. As does comparison with WWI and WWII and their justifications. It’s a divisive point in examining the Rising. Do pure intentions and violent means (including the Civil War) justify ends? It’s an old question but a good one, and perhaps the answers are more complex in 2016 than they have seemed in the intervening century. It’s been a really useful exercise in clarification for me to read intensively about the Rising this year, and to attend my third conference on the subject. What richness we’ve been offered!
David Fitzpatrick’s paper was carefully constructed and intricately argued, so it will be good to read the full version in the fullness of time.
If you want to more information on the Irish Studies Association Australia and New Zealand (ISAANZ), click here.