Challenging myths and underlining tensions

Who owns 1916 and what can we learn from the 1966 50th celebrations of the Rising wonders Diarmaid Ferriter

Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising

Roisín Higgins

Cork University Press, €39

GIVEN the approaching centenary of the 1916 Rising, the publication of this book is timely. Not only does it offer a nuanced, intelligent and frequently fascinating overview of the public commemorations of the Rising during its 50th anniversary in 1966, but also the many public and private concerns it gave rise to.

It also reflects broadly on the issues that emerge in relation to commemoration generally: how should the past be remembered? Who should be involved? What are the dangers of hijacking? What is to be remembered and how, and are certain issues or individuals conveniently forgotten or ignored? Higgins, a research fellow in Boston College-Ireland, is well placed to explore these questions as someone who has devoted much time to researching commemoration and its various political and cultural forms.

The supposedly glorious, sectarian and insensitive celebrations in 1966 have often been cited as a factor in the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but Higgins pours cold water on this theory.

Although there was undoubtedly little consideration given to the impact the commemorations in the Republic might have on relations with Northern Ireland, the official commemorations in 1966 were also about “the presentation of a new reality”. There was a sidelining of the republican movement in favour of a focus on a prosperous, modernised and industrialised republic. What it amounted to, in essence, was a “tug between past and future”.

As Taoiseach on the last lap of power, Seán Lemass was upfront about this: “forget the Island of the Sean Bhean Bhocht and think of Ireland of the technological expert”. He also intervened to acknowledge his and others’ guilt in questioning the motives of the Irish who had volunteered for service in the British army in the First World War, though there persisted a denial that some of these had fought for the British Empire.

Inevitably, there were different meanings ascribed to 1916, and it was presented as “an idea, an ideal, an illusion and a delusion: all bitterly fought over”. Commemoration also involved the exclusion of alternative narratives; the Labour movement, for example, was subsumed into the broader nationalist story.

In terms of the official state commemorations, what is striking are the varying degrees of enthusiasm that existed; the original plan for a two-week celebration was watered down to one week. There was a strong emphasis on education, scholarships, pageants, religious services, parades and lectures and debates, including one in Naas with the title “Has Pearse turned in his grave?”

There were alternatives to state commemoration. Many were dissatisfied with contemporary conditions and what was perceived as the betrayal of the ideals of 1916, including Irish language groups, artists and disgruntled republicans.

Commemoration in Northern Ireland was tense and saw a re-emergence of the UVF. The idea that nationalists were not part of the citizenry of Northern Ireland was implicit in some of the unionist denunciations of the commemoration that witnessed 70,000 parading to Belfast’s Casement Park and a rival Ian Paisley parade. But arrests on Easter weekend in 1966 were minimal and some local representatives of the RUC encouraged compromise. There was contention over the use of the tricolour, but Easter celebrations were not banned outright as long as they were kept out of view of unionists. Higgins suggests the activities in Northern Ireland cannot be held responsible for the outbreak of the Troubles; they were instead, “one of a series of events that exacerbated the fault lines within the societies and contributed to the growing sense of division”.

Higgins is very strong in bringing out the cultural tensions, including the concerns about RTÉ’s hugely ambitious TV drama, Insurrection, written by Hugh Leonard, which involved 200 extras and 300 members of the defence forces. The idea was to underline the “heroic drama” of the week for a younger audience while also giving space for the voices of the survivors. At the beginning of the project, Leonard believed “the entire project seemed as gallant and doomed as the Rising itself”. Insurrection was broadcast twice in 1966 and never since, not, as is often maintained, due to the Troubles or political correctness, but because of the cost of repeat fees. It was a big success, and Higgins suggests it made a valiant attempt to complicate a simplistic narrative of the politics of the Rising by referring to social conditions.

Memorial sites were also an important aspect of remembrance, including the newly opened Kilmainham Jail museum and the Garden of Remembrance. Oisín Kelly, who fashioned the Children of Lir memorial in the Garden, referred to the general difficulty of expressing “the heroic in our time”. The absence of the aged children in the sculpture suggested “a sense of the nation’s lack of completion”, underlining two conflicting realties in 1966: the achievement of independence and the failures of freedom. But perhaps the most dramatic development was “not in monument but in anti-monument”, with the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar. It was this gesture that effectively provided the iconic moment of the Golden jubilee; a measure of the popularity of the toppling of Nelson was reflected in the fact that a song, “Up went Nelson”, topped the charts for eight consecutive weeks.

Culturally, there were robust challenges to any sense of complacency. For all the emphasis on the notion of the poetic Rising, Dublin Magazine maintained, “if we are prepared to confront realities we must surely admit that from a cultural point of view Ireland is a disgrace”. It was regarded as humiliating that the Northern Ireland Arts Council received double the funding of the Republic’s. In relation to artistic endeavour there were “pockets of ambiguity and ambivalence that tilted at the official message”.

The mission to project modernisation while also preserving the “folk values” of the past was a difficult balancing act in relation to the commemorations abroad and provided a headache for Bord Fáilte, which got fed up with Irish stereotypes and the use of the phrase “the Irish of it” to describe “all acts of ignorance, clumsiness and shiftlessness”. The government was also concerned about the desire of Breton nationalists to participate in the commemorations, a reminder that for all the desire to take credit for striking a decisive blow against the British Empire in 1916, by the 1960s the state had “a vested interest in the promotion of international law and in international stability”.

This is a polished, revealing book by a historian who, while occasionally verbose, has a clever turn of phrase and an eye for the telling quote. She has mined both archival sources and published material very comprehensively to give a multi-layered account of 1966 that challenges some myths and underlines the degrees of tension in an event that has been overly simplified as one dimensional and triumphalist. It will be fascinating to see how the question of who owns 1916 and how it should be commemorated will play out in 2016 at a time when some of the tensions of 50 years ago have vanished but new ones have taken their place.

* Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD


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