1916 Rising and getting beyond the commodification of remembrance [Redux]…

So the decade of commemorations? Remember that? So far it has turned out to be little more than a damp squib. The reason for that may lie in the fact that it was originally framed by an Irish government which is no longer in power, and at a time when money and resources were less of an object than in these times of austerity.

One of the governing ideas of this decade was to begin to look for island wide resonances and to draw them into a single, yet plural, space. Shorn of that context much of argument around next year’s ‘celebration’ of the 1916 Rising has fragmented into short term party political argument.

That was perhaps inevitable. The 1916 Proclamation differs from say the American Declaration of Independents in the sense that the latter was a document drafted amongst representatives of an already naisant United States, whereas the Proclamation more a declaration of intent more than description of an already defined public will.

As such it is open to different views and interpretations. In A Fatal Path Professor Ronan Fanning argues that it was an inevitable consequence of the inability of Home Rule party to come to terms with the pre war uprising of the Ulster Unionists.

Charles Townshend in his study of what came after the Rising lays out just how profoundly unready the Irish Revolutionaries were in terms of what it meant to generate a Republic almost from scratch.

Indeed, the tricolour, the very first of which had been been made for Young Ireland leader Thomas Meagher in Paris and unveiled in Lower Abbey Street in Dublin in April 1848 did not become associated with the Irish Republican cause until the revivalism of 1917 and 1918 took hold on the popular mind.

Townshend includes this telling quote from Kevin O’Sheil on the ‘new’ flag’s effects of the balance in public displays in his home town of Omagh.

Previously nationalist displays had been a monochrome green. The ‘inexorable laus of patriotism confined them to one colour – green – and forbade any display of “England’s cruel red”… It took Sinn Fein to add orange to the depressing traditional green, thus giving nationalist processions a tiny touch more colour and brightness’.

The tricolour had been just one of three flags raised at the GPO. In the aftermath as the revolutionary banner took public precedence some had difficulties with Meagher’s own proffered logic of 1848, claiming that the Orange was in fact Gold. A resentment still shared to this day.

Having lost the pilot of the original plans for 2016 commemorations even plans in the Republic have begun to fragment. As Mick Clifford memorably put it last week in the Irish Examiner:

As with the Rising itself, different agendas are at work. The political parties appear to be asking not what they can do for 1916, but what 1916 can do for them.

At a time of political upheaval, and with the more immediate issue of a pending general election, the centenary presents an occasion for all to warp the Rising around election posters.

In a slightly different context, this is close to what Niall Ferguson has called, the commodification of remembrance, and it often comes with results opposite to the ones intended.

For instance, Ferguson recalls one ill fated centenary in 1913 which was never so publicly celebrated again:

Once upon a time, there were celebrations to mark the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the “Battle of the Nations’’, which spelled the end of Napoleon’s empire. Precisely 100 years after the event, there was a grand commemorative festivity, complete with an imposing Teutonic monument.

The idea was not only to celebrate the victory of some (though not all) German states in alliance with Austria, Britain and Russia, but also (as the King of Saxony put it) to contrast the devastation caused by the battle of 1813 with “the scene today of undisturbed and advancing civilisation and commercial energy … the nations competing in friendly rivalry”.

Remembrance in this case proved ephemeral. Within 10 months, Germany and Austria were again at war with France, but this time with Britain and Russia on the other side.

Clifford touches on the ephemeral nature of the Proclamation:

The spectre of the “blood sacrifice” as a central plank of the leaders’ intent should be proofed for mythology in the coming year.

Connolly, by all accounts, wasn’t interested in that kind of stuff, and while Pearse apparently was, it has passed into mythology that this notion informed all their actions.

Sacrificing oneself for a cause can be noble, but the Rising resulted in 485 deaths, most of them civilians who had no interest in sacrifice.

At the other end of the island in a confessio from Irish News Tom Kelly columnist notes:

The Irish Government’s attempts to water down the actualities of the Rising are mistaken and allows for its misuse by others for narrow propaganda purposes.

The Easter Rising should be seen for what it was and in the time and context it took place. Armed insurrection amidst the turmoil and the beginning of the end for empire was inevitable and former taoiseach John Bruton’s revisionism is misplaced and illogical. It should be commemorated and celebrated.

The ideals in the Proclamation have yet to be met. Religious and civil liberties are in outright conflict with the aspiration for equal rights. Violence marred the right of Irish people to pursue happiness.

And the majority communities in either parts of Ireland have never learned how to accommodate with generosity or tolerance towards their minorities.

Clifford again..

Examination of the mythology would be timely, but it remains to be seen whether the country has the stomach for it in the coming year.

The John Bruton school of opinion on the Rising has it that it was a waste of human life, ahead of what would have been the inevitable granting of Home Rule.

This opinion carries the implication that the leaders were profoundly anti-democratic, an idea that has some merit, but ignores the context of the time.

At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional view of the Rising as the actions of a band of men prepared to give up their lives to drag a slumbering nation into throwing off the shackles of imperialism.

This view implicitly relegates the lives of the overwhelmingly civilian casualties to an acceptable cost of awakening the nation. Somewhere in the middle the myths thin out.

A unionist friend who thinks broadly that most of these centenaries, from the Home Rule Bill, to the gun-running at Larne, then Howth, the Rising, the Somme and onwards to the very set up of two Irish states are all to one degree or another about tragedy, lost opportunity and failure.

Perhaps we would not feel compelled to remember if they had been devoid of tragedy. The question is what next? Further repetitions of history, another rising? Or some kind of careful bridge-building between the orange and the green?

Given what has befallen us in the past, perhaps we should worry. But not so much that we blot out the possibility of finding a healthy future together?

“Worry is one of our finest qualities and should be applied sparingly and judiciously: worry enough to be able to form new questions, then worry less and less, allowing new answers to unfold.”

 – John Kellden

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