Turning to the past: global contexts for the 2016 commemorations

By Niall Ó Dochartaigh

In this year of peak commemoration much of the reflection on 1916 has been infused with the spirit of global history, locating the Rising in geopolitical and transnational contexts. The commemorations themselves are far less often discussed in this broader context however. The Rising was acted out on the world stage, but the celebrations in 2016 are all about Ireland it seems; Ireland coming to terms with its past, Irish identity, Ireland’s changing relationship with Britain – at a stretch. But the hunger for history that is evident in the massive popular mobilisation and engagement around the commemorations suggests the influence of much wider patterns of change and much broader European anxieties. Accelerated changes in migration have brought linguistic and religious diversity to small-town Ireland on both sides of the border. Visits by Troika representatives to Dublin in recent years dramatised the power of supranational institutions over nation states in the most direct way while the global economic crash of 2008 created deep uncertainty – felt with particular force in Ireland as the North and the Republic experienced linked property crashes that broke all records. Much damage has been done to confidence in the power of states, especially smaller and more exposed states such as the Republic of Ireland. But even in the largest and most powerful states there is increasing anxiety about the capacity and willingness of states to keep their safety nets mended and to shelter their citizens from global storms. In this context the Irish search to anchor contemporary identities and projects in the secure seabed of a national past reflects a broader concern about the capacity of nation-states to meet the challenges of global change, and is part of a broader turn to the past evident on both left and right across Europe.

The huge public interest in this national commemorative project was particularly striking because 1916 was competing for attention in a crowded and noisy global marketplace of innumerable TV channels, social networks, online games and online news and entertainment. The Irish nationalism that infused the celebrations – available in both ethnic and civic varieties – demonstrated the persistent power of nationalism to provide a focus for shared identity and political action in a more mobile world, as an identity and ideology that promises clear boundaries, historical depth and a shared territorial project. In the face of rapid changes in the European and global order the history in which Ireland seemed for so long to be imprisoned re-emerged in 2016 as a source of certainty. It resonated with new audiences far beyond conservative traditionalists clinging to the past. Reimagined now in diverse ways, Irish history is no longer the nightmare from which Stephen Daedalus was trying to awake, but a reassuring bedtime story, dramatic and complex enough to hold our attention but ending happily, promising continuity and a certain predictability.

The global security environment provided a crucial context for the commemorations. Dominick Chilcott, the British Ambassador in Dublin who sometimes says more interesting things than we expect to hear from an ambassador, highlighted this in an oblique way in his approving comment that the main parade in Dublin “was done in a way that put the Irish Defence Forces at the centre of the affirmation of the statehood of Ireland”. The aircraft flying overhead, the military vehicles and the marching ranks of more than 3,500 soldiers, located the Irish state firmly in the mainstream of European military traditions. 1916 provides a useful foundation myth for an Irish state that is becoming more comfortable with its martial traditions. A state that for a long time defined itself by its neutrality and its distance from the great western powers is now directly involved in EU foreign and security policy and its defence forces are increasingly coming into contact with those of NATO countries including Britain. In this context the discourses of peace and anti-militarism that were so loudly advocated during the Northern Troubles as an argument against the Provisional IRA campaign have almost outlived their usefulness. As Ireland works ever more closely with European partners in the foreign policy arena an Irish state comfortable with the use of force to achieve political ends will fit much more comfortably with its European partners.

Where is the North in all of this? The centenary of the Easter Rising coincided with the 35th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike and although the parallels are strong there was little public mention of the powerful connections between the two outside Sinn Féin and the various Republican factions that compete with them. This is in marked contrast to the debates back in 1981 when there was widespread acknowledgement among both critics and supporters that common themes linked these two Irish Republican challenges to the British state – themes of martyrdom and self-sacrifice and a militant vanguard confident that its democratic mandate would be confirmed in retrospect. Ten Men Dead, David Beresford’s gripping account of the hunger strike, directly linked 1981 with the ‘Sixteen dead men’ of Yeats’s Easter 1916 while Padraig O’Malley’s Biting at the Grave situated the hunger strike squarely within a long-run historical context, tracing it back through Terence MacSwiney in 1920 and the blood sacrifice of 1916. The neglect of the North in the 2016 commemorations south of the border reflects a certain sense of detachment from the legacy issues of the Northern conflict, partly because the debates on ‘Dealing with the Past’ have framed this as a matter internal to the North.

The direct links between the two sets of Irish ‘Troubles’ have been acknowledged at a few official events. The most significant recognition by official Ireland was the event at the Abbey Theatre tracing the journey from 1916 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 in music, poetry and drama, with guest of honour George Mitchell providing a direct link to the resolution of the recent conflict. It is perhaps an early acknowledgement that at some stage the decade of commemorations will have to engage in a more direct way with that closer and more difficult period of violence in Irish history. As the decade of centenaries enters its final stretch it will bump up against a thick clustering of commemorable dates from the more recent conflict, beginning with the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights marches (2018) followed by the arrival of British troops (2019) and the founding of the Provisional IRA (2020). It might provide an opportunity for more sustained reflection on the links between these two phases of conflict, and it might open the way to a more explicit recognition that the Troubles in the North are part of a broader shared history of violent contention in Ireland.

 

Niall Ó Dochartaigh is senior lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway. For further details of his research, see https://niallodoc.wordpress.com/bcn/

 


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