IT’S a truism that the victors write history to serve their own ends. Occasionally, the mask slips, as it did when an elderly Winston Churchill wondered if the bombing of Dresden might have been a war crime, or when former Pentagon hawk, Robert McNamara, expressed soul-wrenching regret over American belligerence in Vietnam.
However, controlling the teaching around great events is part of consolidating their momentum, it is part of a continuing war for hearts and minds. In the longer run, it is probably more important — for the victors, at least — to frame an event positively than it is to frame it accurately.
The teaching of history in our schools, for the first half century of this Republic’s existence, was as much about propaganda and self-justification as it was about truth. Children, often little more than gurgling toddlers, were force-fed blood-and-glory ballads as if they were hymns to a higher, more elevated state of Irishness. That many of these songs make us cringe today is an indication that we live in a far more questioning and, hopefully, rounded, time. The legacy of that uncomplicated teaching of a very complex period will be active this year, as we mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.
Some people will put sacrifice and militarism at the centre of their celebrations. Others will reflect soberly that the Rising was the catalyst for the creation of an independent State and, more importantly, that it created the conditions that allowed it evolve into a modern, self-determining, almost liberal European democracy. Yet more people will remember that the Rising ran parallel to the sacrifice of those who served Ireland by volunteering to go the trenches of World War I. Others will, accurately, point out that the Rising was an act of insurrection by extremists standing far beyond the fringes of mainstream nationalist politics and that they had absolutely no democratic mandate.
Unsurprisingly, Sinn Féin have organised their own programme, because they were unhappy with official Ireland’s proposals. That they would not have been centre stage in those celebrations would have, in an election year, influenced their thinking. The party will show, again, how disconnected they are from the collegiality and tolerance that characterises today’s Ireland. Rather, they seem determined to disinter the old, cordite fantasies, the dangerous, tribal mythology that allows Gerry Adams to assert that members of the Provos were not criminals. These anti-democratic delusions remain one of the cursed legacies of 1916.
Most Irish people will properly mark the centenary by recognising the core nobility of the ambition, courage and selflessness shown that Easter week. Hopefully, the passage of time allows for a more nuanced view than the one that informed the 1966 commemoration, a festival of blinding green that helped give birth to the Provos. That might, ironically, bring the objectives of the 1916 Proclamation all the closer, and, finally, allow us treat history as history, rather than as current affairs. But, most of all, we must answer the unavoidable question: Have we made the best use of the opportunity given to us by the dreamers and idealists of a century ago?
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