Memory is not to be relied upon. It is both imaginative and insidiously self-serving. History, as institutionalised memory invested with academic rigour, is especially questionable. The rigour it employs as its credential insists as much. At best, it relies on sources which, however accurate, are incomplete. Many sources are self-serving by dint of their partial accounting or partiality. Nonetheless, imperfect but never-to-be-fully-trusted memory and history are frequently all we have. And we must have a past, a context, a reason why.
This week is a great gathering of memory and source material. It is an impressive accretion of knowledge that pushes out our sense of context for the Easter Rising. When the rubble was cleared away, so too was a lot of inconvenient fact. Working-class Protestant Dublin, the world of Bessie Burgess in O’Casey’s plays, and the role of women of every political stripe, were shunted aside.
The Rising was the culmination of decades of cultural revival and frustrated political effort for Home Rule, irrigated by the hot springs of militant nationalism. It was also the capstone, via the State founded in 1922, of decades of land reform which saw a landless post-Famine peasantry become proprietors and small holders. The social conservativism of the new State was not the Catholic frenzy of a messianic Pádraig Pearse; it was a long-settled, materialistic consideration, by a newly arrived class of small property holders determined on their own status and respectability. That conservative political settlement had been arrived at in the Parnell split and mandated by the series of by-elections which sealed his fate. The Rising came a generation after those events. It, and the cultural revival, challenged that settlement in critical respects but it did not overturn it. What if Pearse and Connolly had survived? We will never know. Perhaps the first item on the agenda would have been a split. The greatest loss in the aftermath of the Rising was not only the loss of life, it was also the loss of radicalism. I say that now of course as sepia-tinted hindsight. Across Europe in the 1920s and 30s radicalism took horribly divergent paths. Would ours have been different?
History, with journalism as its first draft, is mainly written by the professionally but not always authentically sceptical. The history of 1916, overwritten again for this week’s commemoration, was revised over the past 50 years from a largely anti-establishment, as well as scholarly, standpoint. The establishment, seen as an antithesis of modernity, was embodied by the State on parade at the 50th anniversary commemoration in 1966. De Valera was attended metaphorically by John Charles McQuaid — figureheads and bogeymen. This view, entrenched over recent decades, was formed in the culture wars of the 1960s onward. It was as much the white heat of current affairs as a cold look back over history.
The lack of understanding of how before the foundation of the State and the social structures of nationalist Ireland had been arrived at ironically did those old men on parade in 1966 too much credit. The State they presided over in 1966 was as much the continuum of they inherited as anything which socially or economically they innovated. But continue it they did. In the revisionist history of the past 50 years, the innovative reach of the founding generation who led the State after 1922 was overplayed, the better to portray them as forces of darkness compared to the light, the prerogative of their critics. That fight was never really about the past, but about ownership of modernity. In contrast, their achievements became largely underappreciated, even deprecated.
For regular updates on news and features (as well as twitter action action as it may have happened 100 years ago) to mark the revolutionary period follow @theirishrev HERE
Continuing reinterpretation is a function of scholarship and underlying societal assumptions at any given time, or at least that part of society that does the history writing. Now, unlike 50 years ago, new technological platforms allow a wider swathe of interested people to join the conversation. Perhaps, in hindsight, historians 100 years hence will see the seminal expansion of the public conversation as the revolutionary event of our era. Unlike the political veterans of the Rising on parade in 1966, or their prominent critics thereafter, disruptive technology has, for the first time ever, effectively enabled a post-authority generation. Neither politicians, bishops, nor editors command the stature they formerly did.
Of bishops, I would make one aside. The reconsideration of 1916 has largely been a pushing out to examine the role of those other than men, particularly famous men. Women of every class are one example. So, too, are children and Liveline’s Joe Duffy’s examination of the lives and sometimes tragedy of children in the Rising was poignant. Perhaps reflecting history’s role as current affairs and the struggle for who owns modernity, the role of religion in the Rising is seldom touched upon now, in an otherwise self-conscious attempt to be comprehensive. Yet themes of sacrifice and blood were self-consciously enacted during Easter week, by people not only literate but inured in belief. Mainly, we can no longer claim even to passing literacy in religious belief, let alone deeper understanding. So revisionism is constantly evolving. Commemoration is always more about the present than the past. This week is really all about how we see ourselves, now.
Clearly, the Rising created a chasm. The 1922 State was implicitly a Catholic state for a Catholic people, and the North was avowedly its opposite. The sundering of the hinterland of plurality from both, was an awful price to pay. But the state which did emerge, if conservative, was also constitutional. Emigration, however, was the sinkhole through which difference and dissent disappeared and social institutions, including industrial schools and Magdalen laundries, mopped up the rest. There is an authentic, bleak history to be written.
Yet there were towering achievements that cannot be lost sight of. First WT Cosgrave and then de Valera created and sustained a constitutional democracy which, almost uniquely in Europe, has remained intact and at peace since. The 1937 constitution, written within 20 years of the Rising, is the oldest written constitution extant across the continent. If still tenuous, the Good Friday Agreement, a work in progress under successive government since the late 1980s, is another seminal achievement. The 1937 constitution, in its time, was a foundational document of political moderation and personal liberty. Times change and so naturally does perspective.
Gore Vidal defined a narcissist as anybody better looking than yourself. It’s a little like that with Irish history. Vidal fancied himself as America’s great biographer, via his historical novels. Fiction is both a gateway and the ultimate end of all history. Truth can never be captured nor understanding ever complete. In a sense, the most insightful historians are our creative writers. Has any professional historian ever bested Seán O’Casey? I do not think so. The best historians are scholars who master the craft of creative writing.