Seeing the past through different prism

THE past is rising up to meet the present right now but, maybe, that’s down to the future being so uncertain.

We are entering a period when there’s going to be a whole lot of remembering going on.

First off, is the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the great lock-out of 1913. That takes place in Dublin next Saturday at an event that has already generated some controversy.

O’Connell Street will be closed to traffic for a time, a move that has upset city centre retailers who say it will adversely impact on trade on the last Saturday before schools re-open.

No such complaint was aired when similar disruption occurred on the visit of Queen Elizabeth two years ago. And neither was there much fuss when the street was partially closed off — and the Luas curtailed — on a Saturday in 2010 when Tony Blair was in town, flogging his autobiography.

Memory, as always, is selective in such matters.

Over the next few years, there will undoubtedly be further controversies as we remember the various events that shook, and ultimately transformed, the country through the decade running up to 1923.

One commemoration that generated some controversy might serve as example of how memory can play tricks on collective psyches. Ten days ago, the Irish Examiner reported on a tiff over plans to redevelop the site of the Kilmichael ambush.

The site in West Cork is due for a makeover. Some might question whether the site of a military engagement should be developed for anything other than a way to remember those who died there. And, in the case of Kilmichael, most of the casualties appear to be the last thing anybody wants to remember.

Kilmichael was a significant event in the War of Independence. On Nov 28, 1920, local volunteers under the command of Tom Barry ambushed a column of Auxiliaries travelling from their base in Macroom. The Auxiliaries had an appalling record of human rights abuses since their arrival in the country.

Sixteen Auxiliaries were killed in the ambush. Another was mortally wounded and another escaped but was later captured and shot dead. Three Volunteers died in the engagement.

The military defeat shocked the British forces and authorities into the realisation they had a serious enemy on their hands. Locally, the Auxiliaries carried out indiscriminate reprisals, culminating in the burning of Cork.

In the aftermath of the ambush, controversy was quickly generated about what had occurred. Some of the dead Brits had been shot at close range. Barry claimed there had been a false surrender and, when his men had let down their guard and advanced forward, the surviving Auxiliaries opened up, killing one Volunteer. Thereafter, Barry said, he instructed his men to keep firing until all the enemy were dead.

This version of events was largely accepted for decades. It fits neatly into the narrative of a volunteer force of young men behaving in an exemplary manner towards the evil, cunning and deceptive enemy. In the 1990s, historian Peter Hart wrote a book in which he disputed this version, claiming his research was based on interviews with witnesses and relatives. He claimed that a number of the Auxiliaries were summarily executed on Barry’s orders.

Hart’s work has, to a certain extent, been discredited, but you don’t have to be a revisionist to question the myth that Barry and his men were incapable of stooping so low as to commit what might be considered a war crime. History has shown young men thrust into the horror of war are capable of anything. Even when a cause is just, the notion that those fighting for it are always reinforced with nobility in battle simply doesn’t wash.

That’s the disputed background to Kilmichael. Commemorating such an event would be fitting if the objective was to remember the sacrifice of those who fought, the lives of the dead, why they died, and use the event to wag a finger at the future, saying “never again”.

Instead, the proposed Kilmichael development sounds like something approaching a macabre theme park, glorifying violence. Sean Kelleher, secretary of the Kilmichael Historical Society, told Claire O’Sullivan in this newspaper that the development would be in good taste.

“We don’t want to interfere with the nature of the area but we want to explain who was where and what happened,” he said. “We want to explain over the three acres the various stages of the ambush.”

A controversy arose over a planning proposal that the dead Auxiliaries would be remembered in the redevelopment, with a plaque including their names. This was dismissed by Mr Kelleher.

“An architect employed by the West Cork Development Project did suggest that a replica of the 1920 Crossley Tender vehicle be included at the site to reference the British troops, but both us and the Kilmichael and Crossbarry Committee met and both said that we would not accept it.”

So, a site of violent death is to be remembered solely in military terms and those who died won’t even be acknowledged by name. This accommodates remembering the dead Brits not as human beings but disembodied, evil, expressions of occupation.

History here is not so much being written by the victors as scrawled like graffiti over the graves of the defeated.

The priorities of those remembering Kilmichael differ sharply from those who remember Michael Collins at Beal na mBláth. Tomorrow, Bill O’Herlihy will deliver the annual address at the spot where Collins met his end. He is expected to touch on the possibility of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael finally regarding each other through a prism for the future rather than the rear mirror of history.

Down through the years, the Beal na mBláth event has concentrated on what role Collins may have served had he lived. His principal legacy was a military one but that’s not what they remember him for at Beal na mBláth. They reach instead to cherish what he could have been in a time of peace, rather than who he was in prosecuting a war. Their priorities are fitting for a country a century on from its violent inception, even while others cling to a sanitised version of the past.

Elsewhere, a broader vision of the past is also opening up. At a time when the violent struggles of a hundred years ago will get prominence, it is appropriate that the legacy of one who pushed the country towards its destiny receive a proper memorial. The inaugural Daniel O’Connell summer school will take place in Cahirciveen and Derrynane on Sept 6-7. A series of talks and events will examine the Liberator’s legacy on reform, human rights and leadership, and frame the legacy in the requirements of a modern state. Belatedly, wider recognition will be given to a patriot who served his country exclusively with pen and tongue rather than the sword.

History records that violence was ultimately required to break free from the colonial power. But there is a big difference in commemorating the sacrifices, and glorifying military victories.

- Daniel O’Connell Heritage Summer School:

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