The Politics of Commemoration

The commemoration of 1916 in different sites is an anthropological moment – a snapshot on the politics and tensions of a particular time. Margaret O’Callaghan outlines the complexity of commemoration in Ireland.

In 1966 the Fianna Fáil government under Seán Lemass confidently assumed that they could control the narration of the Rising and its meaning for the future, and appeared to succeed in so doing. But for Terence O’Neill, commemoration, in conjunction with the tensions of the time, proved a tipping point as it provided Ian Paisley with the platform he had long sought after. Commemorations may not make things happen, but governments have more limited capacities to control them than they imagine. 

For over 30 years the Irish government found it necessary not to hold any ostentatious Easter Rising commemorations. In 2006, however, Stuart Elson, Christopher Ewart Bigg’s successor as British Ambassador to Dublin sat on the stand outside the GPO with members of the Irish cabinet, while leading members of Sinn Féin and former members of the Provisional IRA stood nearby. This 90th anniversary, led [then Taoiseach] Bertie Ahern, under the combined liberation of the peace process and fears of the electoral challenge posed by Sinn Fein, to set a template for the centenary commemorations in 2016. 

Commemoration is not history, and memory is not history. But public commemoration and private memory, however socially conditioned and different, may both be ways in which ‘the historical’ is experienced by the individual and by the group. The state desires to control political meaning through controlling public commemoration. In this decade of centenaries all of this ground is being travelled by historians and political analysts, as governments seek to mould into a reconciliatory shape the commemorative practices already in process. 

The memory industry has burgeoned in recent years. At its most grandiose [American historian] Jay Winter tells us that commemoration is the new religion of the West, and that commemorative spaces are our new temples. Practices of commemoration are always about present politics, though the past is the site of memory they invoke. Commemoration tells us more about now than about then. The Irish state has sought to frame its projected commemoration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising in a compatible space bordered by the Great War, but it may not prove as simple a process as is envisaged. In societies subject to fundamental contestation about legitimacy, states have a limited capacity to control the meaning of the past and mould the meanings of commemoration. The peace process has allegedly quashed such contestation in Ireland, but in the mordant phrase of Conor Cruise O’Brien commemorations are when ‘ghosts walk’. Political parties and interest groups aspire to choreograph the movements of the ghosts.

The 19th century Irish nationalist tradition of memorialising and commemorating, formulated out of successive reframing of the past to publicly galvanise demands for Irish independence, was itself an inherent feature of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Rising of April 1916. Commemorating past generations of republican heroes furnished the revolutionaries of 1916 with genealogy, ideology and historical context. Many had been politicised through the vibrant 1798 centenary commemorations of their youth. Thus in commemorating that Easter event 50 years later, in 1966, Irish nationalists reiterated their allegiance to a tradition of unbroken – and for some incomplete – struggle for Irish freedom.

Ten years later however, in the heat of the Northern Ireland conflict, the commemoration had gained new purchase as a means of integrating the then contemporary Provisional IRA campaign and a gamut of Official IRA and breakaway campaigns into narratives of resistance to British State power in Ireland. The northern republican commemoration of 1916 in 1976 also represented a threat to the independent Irish state, as the various IRAs sought to appropriate and claim as their inheritance ‘republican memory’ in modern Ireland. The Irish State saw itself as the legitimate inheritor of the republican past, but key actors were intensely wary of the uses to which the then contemporary IRA wished to put what they claimed was their continuity with the Irish revolutionary past. Thus commemorating 1916 in 1976 in Belfast or Dublin was a very different matter to commemorating 1916 in 1966. The raising of genealogical questions about who owned the Irish flag, and who owned the revolutionary tradition, was far more starkly heightened on the latter occasion. Commemoration acquired new resonances in conflict. They raised questions of legitimacy, mandate and genealogy. 

Commemoration in a post-conflict situation is just as likely to be a way of perpetuating and recalibrating divisions, as it is likely to lead to reconciliation. Memory is co-opted by sovereign state power in a variety of contexts. But it is not just state power that can co-opt memory. Political parties do so too, and the party in power or in government seeks to shape commemoration to reflect their image, bolster their electoral prospects and refurbish their political and cultural capital. All conflicting interests in Ireland draw upon their respective genealogies or their renovated perceptions of them to recalibrate and reformulate their perceived political interests in the present.

Trauma is not just present after an event, and ‘the Troubles’ were not an event, but a series of events with a multiplicity of points of observation over three decades, so we can look at particular points during the Troubles to appreciate how trauma and memory and the utilisation of commemoration at different times worked in the mesh and weave of the conflict. The ‘Troubles’ were, and remain in retrospect, at least partially a propaganda war, but they were also wars about meaning, perspective and narration. At the centre of narration was the practice of commemoration.

The tens of thousands who flocked to the streets of west Belfast in 1966 in commemoration of a broad Irish nationalist identification with the 1916 Rising had been replaced, by 1976, by a few thousand people amid a war-zone. Helicopters, Saracen armoured cars, flaming houses and militarised streets were an ominous setting for a commemoration that allowed factions formerly united in a broad coalition to tear one another apart while using the event to spell out both legitimacy and future intent. In Dublin, the Irish State effectively jettisoned commemorating 1916 and was forced to counter the bid by Provisional Sinn Féin to occupy the space abandoned by the State on O’Connell Street to commemorate the Easter Rising.

The 1916 commemoration in Dublin by 1976 was emblematic of how internalised the revisionist critique of the 1966 commemoration then was. In the penultimate year of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, the Irish State repudiated the right of Provisional Sinn Féin to control the streets of Dublin. Irish Government fury at British negotiations with Sinn Féin found expression in showing the Provisionals that they had no power to control the Irish State. Belfast, the aspirational capital of an optimistic new politics in 1966, was now a desperate war zone with a new dispensation of Ulsterisation, criminalisation and normalisation just in train.

The commemoration of 1916 in different sites is an anthropological moment – a snapshot on the politics and tensions of a particular time.

But the past is also a foreign country. As anti-austerity parties seek to wrap the green flag round themselves, as Government parties and opposition fight it out for ownership of the complex past, as those who maintain the revisionist position on 1916 itself and ascribe any negative outcome of the 20th century in reformatory or De Valera’s Ireland to some projected personality deficit of those who fought, parties should perhaps beware. The fissile, rich, complex and multi-layered construction of an anti-imperialist Irish nationalism by remarkable individuals in the past retains its protean and phoenix-like capacity to change politics in the present and history in the future.

Margaret O’Callaghan

Margaret O’Callaghan MA (NUI) PhD (Cantab.) is a historian and political analyst at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast. A former Laski Research Scholar at St John’s College Cambridge and Fellow of Sidney Sussex, College, she has taught at the Universities of Cambridge and Notre Dame. She co-edited with Mary E. Daly 1916 in 1966; Commemorating the Easter Rising (Royal Irish Academy, 2007). 

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