The approach of St Patrick’s day brings to mind once again the ambivalent relationship that historians have with festivals and anniversaries. On the one hand they are our bread and butter. Regular commemorations are what keep the past alive in the public mind. And big anniversaries, like 1989 for historians of the French Revolution, or 2009 for historians of Darwinism, can provide the occasion of conferences, exhibitions, publishers’ contracts, and even invitations to appear on television. On the other hand, historians are trained to look behind supposed traditional observances for the discontinuities and inventions they conceal. They also see it as an important part of their role to point up the gaps between myth, whether popular or official, and what actually happened. All this tends to cast them in the role of spoilsport. When the emphasis is on commemoration, who wants a curmudgeon in the corner pointing out that Britain’s Glorious Revolution was really an evasive compromise that evades the great issues of political principle that were at stake, or that William Wallace was not really Scottish?
Where Ireland is concerned, these issues are all the more familiar, because there anniversaries retain a political significance that elsewhere they have largely lost. In 1991 the Irish government was attacked for its failure to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the rising of 1916. Later in the decade, with republican violence in Northern Ireland suspended and the economy booming, there was a greater willingness to embrace a frankly nationalist version of the Irish past. Events to mark the sesquicentenary of the outbreak of the Great Famine of 1845-51 got stridently under way in 1995, with a renewed emphasis on the crisis, not as a natural disaster, but as a wrong done to the Irish people. Next came the even more enthusiastic celebrations accorded to the rebellion of 1798, presented as a time when Catholic and Protestant supposedly united behind shared national and democratic goals, and hence as a blueprint for post-ceasefire Ireland.
Since then, the urge to commemorate has abated somewhat. The centenary of the act of union (2000) was a muted affair, while the anniversary of Robert Emmett’s insurrection in 1803 was perhaps a victim of the overkill of 1998. Today, however, we can see, looming ahead of us like icebergs out of the fog, a succession of further centenaries to which we will have to find an appropriate response: 1912, when Ulster Protestants, through the mobilization of the Ulster Volunteer Force, took command of their own destiny but also set Ireland on the road to civil war; 1916, the actual centenary (as opposed to the questionable seventy-fifth anniversary) of the Easter Rising; 1920 and 1922, the foundation of two states within a divided Ireland.
Against this uninspiring background St Patrick’s day stands out as a more benign event. Ireland’s patron saint, it is true, has not always been an uncontentious figure. Over several centuries ecclesiastical historians engaged in a frankly partisan debate over whether what Patrick had established was a faithful part of papal Christianity or a proto-Protestant church independent of the authority and doctrinal errors of Rome. Today, in a more secular age, these controversies are largely forgotten. Instead 17 March provides the occasion for a good natured round of parading, celebration and the flourishing of shamrocks and shillelaghs, whose observance extends well beyond Ireland itself. Indeed it is one of the curious features of the event that it is in Washington, rather than Dublin, that senior members of the Irish government are generally to be found on their country’s national day.
Perhaps the most interesting recent developments in the history of St Patrick’s Day have taken place in Belfast. 17 March, downgraded to a minor festival by the Unionist administrations of the past, was observed as an explicitly nationalist event, focussed on west Belfast. Since 2005, on the other hand, the city council has taken over the sponsorship of a carnival-style parade in the city centre. The process of divesting the day of its perceived political associations has not been straightforward: at one point, stewards, to avoid a potentially contentious display of green, resorted to distributing multi-coloured shamrocks. But my colleague Dominic Bryan, who monitors the event on behalf of the city council, reports that the aim of a politically neutral event has been largely achieved. If so, and if the festival continues and takes root, historians of the future may at some point comment airily on another example of the officially inspired invention of tradition. But for the moment, considering Belfast’s long unhappy experience with festivals and anniversaries, the best course is surely to keep quiet and let them get on with it.
Featured image: Waterfall in Ireland. CC0 via Pixabay.