The dignified celebrations of the 1916 Rising remind us that celebration reflects as much of the present as it does of the past. And it allows us identify what we are taking from that past as resources to build our future. How we are celebrating 1916, therefore, has a lot to tell us about what sort of future we have in store.
Historians point out, for example, how the centenary of the 1798 Rising helped give impulse to the revolutionary ferment that eventually resulted in 1916. As Kevin Whelan has written:
As disenchantment with the contemporary political paralysis of the 1890s peaked, there was a rebuking return to the past in the quest for exemplary political heroes. The centenary of 1798 was brilliantly orchestrated as a separatist riposte to the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’ (Kevin Whelan, 1996: The Tree of Liberty: 172).
This involved ‘a massive procession’ of 100,000 people to attend the laying of the first stone of a statue of Wolfe Tone at the top of Grafton Street in the heart of unionist Dublin by veteran Fenian, John O’Leary. The centenary ‘became easily the most spectacular commemorative event of the nineteenth century’ (ibid.).
But, in promoting themes of political separatism and Catholic nationalism, the 1798 centenary rested on a particular reading of what it was commemorating, a reading that was functional to the political struggles of the time. Today we like to think of ourselves as adopting a more professional reading of the historical narrative so that the 1916 centenary is more inclusive and accurate in its portrayal of what happened.
But how does it fit with contemporary political struggles and what does it tell us about how we are using history? Given the role of the centenary in marking the founding moment of our state, it is no surprise that the dominant themes are very safe, honouring the sacrifices of those who fought and the imaginative courage they showed, emphasising the cultural pluralism of that generation and the invention of a broad sense of Irishness, and acknowledging their lack of understanding of the unionist tradition.
While mention has been made of more social themes such as treating all the children of the nation equally, and the contemporary crises in health and housing, the centenary has failed to spark the sort of critical examination of contemporary Irish society that might have been hoped for. Indeed, concerns such as entrenched social class stratification, the power of multinational capital over our society, and our inability to address the challenges of climate change have been almost completely absent.
It may not be surprising that the commemoration fits easily into a neo-liberalised Ireland, failing entirely to expose its glaring injustices, but we should at least be aware that our form of commemorating also contains its biases and its selective readings of history. It therefore fails gravely to do justice to the social and political vision that inspired most of those who participated in the events of the Rising.
Unlike the centenary celebrations of 1798, we can have little hope that the centenary we celebrate over these weeks will inspire a new revolutionary generation, though we have a great need of such. It is ironic that, at a time when our politics is fragmenting and showing a very poor ability to incubate a new project of social justice, we use this opportunity of commemoration to legitimise the present rather than to critique it. What is missing is any robust debate about the kind of future that might more faithfully represent the ideals of the generation of 1916.
Yet, maybe some seeds may be sown, despite our best efforts to avoid this. For, whatever about the top-down celebrations, organised with the full backing of the state (despite attempts by Sinn Féin to hijack the centenary for its partisan political purposes), no one can control the impacts on the consciousness of a younger generation.
Roy Foster recounts in his book Vivid Faces how ‘the energetic and imaginative young Ulsterman Patrick McCartan, who would become influential in revolutionary circles on both sides of the Atlantic’, was ‘exposed to the full force of the 1898 commemorations’ when he attended St Macartan’s College, Monaghan. McCartan recalled that these ‘raised a nice little spirit among the boys’ who discussed Fenianism and revolutionary tactics when given a life of Wolfe Tone to read (42).
There is some evidence that the 1916 commemorations are awakening a new awareness among the generation coming to adulthood of the origins of the state they take so much for granted. Might we dare hope that this could lead to a more robust examination of the glaring injustices of contemporary Ireland and a dedication to address these through a more imaginative and creative politics? Now, that would be a worthy outcome!