Conflicted over the memory of 1916?

This week sees the nintieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1916. It is a subject not to be trifled with. Inthe online edition of the Observer Geoffrey Wheatcroft was avalanched with strident criticism for his characterisation of the Rising as a betrayal of democracy. He mentions “Pearse’s exalted (or insane) words about the tired old earth that needed to be enriched by the spilling of much blood”. Though as Dan O’Brien has argued this same theme was echoed in the work of Pearse’s contemporary, Rupert Brooke. John Waters detects a discomfiting dilemma (subs needed), when he argues that the bursting of the lid of Northern Ireland made the Rising less an iconic artefact of history than an uncomfortable present day narrative:

Unlike the British, the French or the Poles, we are paralysed in our sense of history by conditions beginning with the letter “a”, and this paralysis has in my lifetime never seemed more total than it does now, as we approach the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

There is one good reason for this: the unfinished business of Irish reintegration. Without this incompleteness or, more precisely, without recent attempts to complete it, none of the “a-words” would have any dominion. Had partition not occurred, or had it proved less controversial and problematic, there would be no sense of discomfort now about remembering the beginnings of independent Ireland.

At the least, had the lid been kept on the Stormont state, we would be going about the business of commemoration without much thought for ambiguities, and the idea that survived in Irish culture for more than half a century – that the Easter Rising was the most glorious and triumphant episode in the history of Ireland’s struggle for freedom – would be as current today as it was at the time of the 50th anniversary in 1966.

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