Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter 1916 : Commemorating a hundred years on


     Today is a day of importance, pride, commemoration in Ireland. Today we mark the centenary of the Easter Rising,  Dublin 1916, when the Irish Republic was proclaimed. Easter 1916 has always been viewed as 'the pivitol moment' in Irish History. It was from this spark that led to Ireland's independence in subsequent years. This  is an area of History which has been much contested thus  has always captivated me.  It is a dynamic story, that prompts analyzing and demystifying.  Most importantly, it is a story that resonates with every believer of,  to paraphrase Seamus Heaney's words, hope and history rhyming. 

    Why is it important? A hundred years on we still dwell on that same question.  It has been discussed, investigated ,interpreted  and revised by politicians, historians and artists for decades now. Our nation as we now know it was born from myth, mysticism, hope and dreams.  Yet the event  of the actual rebellion itself was 'farcical' as many historians say. Too rash, too ill conceived, too unprepared, too naive. There are many great opinions on the details of the prelude to the Rising, the Rising itself and its aftermath. Recommended listening :

     It is the issue of commemoration today in 2016 that fascinates myself and many.  Commemoration is complex. It rekindles our thoughts on pre-conceived notions of an event we thought we knew well. It 'connects us with people from the past', as historian Charles Townshend remarks. This centenary not only celebrates the achievements of the Rising, but confronts the reality of the triumph of failure as it is well known in a new way for Ireland as a nation.  Commemoration should, as Townshend puts it 'be experienced with a degree of objective detachment' which was unthinkable of in the past. Politics were at the forefront before. How can we properly evaluate the significance of not just History  but memories if we are too attached? This is perhaps the message of the 1916 commemorations.  Does the bloodshed  during the decade of death from 1913-23, of which over 6000 died actually validate freedom?  As W.B. Yeat's questioned 'was it needless death after all?' Was it unavoidable  or pernicious?  Did it have the true welfare of Irishmen and Irish women at it's core, as stated in the Proclamation? Has the democratic system that the Rising envisioned and that was instigated in the War of Independence, been adequate?  

    Presently, for the first time in Irish History, public awareness of truth has been raised. The blinkered blindfolded biased 'simple' commemorations of the past especially that in 1966 of the 50th anniversary under the Presidency of Eamon De Valera,  have been eradicated. The power in raising the curtain on previous beliefs  and myths and seeing  events with perspective has replaced old ways. A expanded and complicated narrative of our past  is thriving as Historian Diarmuid Ferriter maintains, highlighting new fresh perspectives and proving that the Rising's history is still continuous. History is being revised, as is memory.  Commemoration draws on memory even more than on History. Memory is very different to History, as Townshend explains: 'Memory is people who carry the past with them, History is in a way an artificial attempt to re-create it, of what no longer is. Memory can be re-awakened, embodied in living society.  Historian Rebecca Graff McRae, author of 'Remembering and Forgetting 1916' gives a wonderful explanation of what commemoration is, or ought to be

       "Commemoration is thus an invocation of the past and the present, a negotiated tension between remembering and forgetting; a calling up of ghosts; a political act. The problem of commemoration does not be to define a definition - it is all of these things yet none. Commemoration serves to raise or bury political ghosts - those of unity and division, consensus and conflict, continuity and rupture, absence and presence. This appeal to memory through invocation, suppression or revision of the past inscribes or rewrites the boundaries of the political itself. It is not merely an event - a parade, a statue, a graveside aeration. It is not an act or a word. Nor is it inaction or silence. Commemoration itself is constantly under negotiation."

    Thus the question of who  actually owns the legacy of 1916 - be it the Sinn Fein of then, yet certainly not of now - political parties, or Irish citizens  comes to the forefront. It still has not been answered. Or perhaps it  has. Perhaps every person that believes in freedom and that it is worth fighting for,  believes a dream can be realized, believes in mysticism , in the power of words and of the  arts to liberate, believes in having a vision - owns the true legacy, which is a transcendental one not a political or militant one. Was  the 1916 Rising not born from poets and mystics like P.H. Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas Mc Donagh ? The event  did not just declare  us as dreamers but as doers nonetheless.  Perhaps foolish unprepared preposterous  naive doers, but doers no the less.  It created of men of destiny, men of action, men of hope, men of great strength. Men that have lived become entangled in our individual and collective memory.

    More than anything,  this commemoration is not  a celebration  but rather a reflection on remembrance. Easter 1916 was not a victorious event, least not instantaneously. It was an event in which death and defeat was inevitable. Yet it empowered people, it instilled change.  Dublin was destructed as a city, physically and characteristically.  Once again, the words of Yeats ring true, 'All is changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born'. Isn't change the outset of any rebellion? Change is possible but with sacrifice.  Hence when a nation commemorates,  the question of justification is prominent. We  are still reflecting on this a hundred years later.  Was 1916 just? Ferriter points out it is important to view events through the lens of 1916, not just from hindsight. Eoin Mc Neill himself said it was unjustifiable at the time, is  that still valid today? How different a nation would Ireland bee without 1916?

    More than anything, commemoration confronts us with the idea of identity. This is important. It is identity that defines us as both a nation and an individual after all, thus creating a sense of belonging.  Through observation, we are witnesses to past and present.  Only with the  thriving of revisionism can we as a nation really growth, comprehend, really progress from the past into the future.  Yes, it is a day of remembrance rather than glorification, a day of  solidarity rather than celebration,  a day of hope rather than  nostalgia.  What is the purpose of History but to provide insight, to simplify the complex, to complicate the simple. Things are not so black and white anymore.  Easter 1916 was more  a revolution of the mind than of  the military. In that respect, it was one which  has been successful and still is influential today.

    The centenary's commemoration questions the founding myth of which the nation is based on. It dissects it, dismantles it, re-arranges it. Retells the story of our past with a fresh voice.  The polarity of events become evident. Was it a coup d'eteat or bloody protest as FX Martin  previously examined.  Common mis-beliefs become more unravelled. Now, for the first time commemoration involves all facets of the Rising including the unfavorable : recognition of all casualties  not just the rebels, including children,civilians, women, British soldiers and police; womens role in the Rising; the contrary nature of Irish soldiers fighting for Britain in WW1 at the time; the elitist aspect,the under looked characters involved in the Rising;  the British viewpoint. Many publications on these facets have become popular in the the past year, with books like Joe Duffy's 'Children of the Rising' being a bestseller. Also Neil Richardson's 'According to their Lights: Stories of Irishmen in the British Army, Easter 1916'  being a groundbreaking publication. As we well know, memory plays tricks on us, both as individuals and as a collective. Modern memorial has  disowned selectiveness,  as memory should in the name of truth and sincerity. Adverse aspects of the Rising have challenged the  mythic legacy of the Rising;  confronted illusion and clarified disillusion.

    Thankfully, commemoration of the centenary has coloured a previous black and white narrative and continues to do so.

Recent 1916 publications
Complexities of Commemoration

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