This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, a violent attempt by Irish republicans to end British rule in Ireland. Though a momentous event in itself, the Rising should be understood in the context of a decade of revolutionary activity during which Irish political culture was profoundly radicalized and partition came to look inevitable. It must also be understood in the context of the First World War which was the single most important influence on the political development of modern Ireland.
The connection between the War and the Rising was clear to contemporary observers but links between the two were often elided by subsequent commentators, until relatively recently. Yet the links between the commemorations of these two events are also strong. Both present modern governments and other vested interests with considerable challenges as well as opportunities.
The Great War now allows Dublin, Belfast and London to speak of an Irish past which was characterized, albeit fleetingly, by common sacrifice rather than enmity. This provided a useful backdrop to the ongoing peace process, as well as to the effort to highlight improvements in Anglo-Irish relations. The Easter Rising, however, has provided no such opportunity for the celebration of a shared past. Nevertheless, its centenary, like those relating to the Great War, was planned with Anglo-Irish relations and contemporary politics in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland firmly in mind.
IRA and loyalist guns may have fallen silent in recent years, but a number of proxy intellectual and political wars have continued to be fought in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland about sovereignty, national identities and North-South relationships. History remains central to the perceptions which underpin these: the commemoration of the Easter Rising provoked violence in the past precisely because it encouraged the airing of profoundly different versions of modern Irish history. These fundamentally different understandings continue to matter because contemporary political agendas and justifications continue to be based on them. But these days, the two main tribes on the island have learned how to defuse or avoid any prospect of direct confrontation over such commemorations.
What has changed since the less diplomatically choreographed, more strident celebrations of the Easter Rising in 1966? The Rising itself and the nationalism it represented has been subjected to searching critiques, set in the context of Irish membership of the European Union, of Anglo-Irish and ongoing relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland, as well as the enormous shift in international opinion on terrorism since 9/11. The armed force wing of Irish republicanism had played its violence out and by this year’s centenary of the Easter Rising sat as part of the cross-party coalition government in Northern Ireland, having renounced violence as a way of achieving its aims. The context in which the violence of 1916 was remembered had therefore changed completely from 1966.
Though a momentous event in itself, the Rising should be understood in the context of a decade of revolutionary activity during which Irish political culture was profoundly radicalized and partition came to look inevitable.
Historians have watched these developments carefully and have, on the whole, adopted an interested yet guarded position on the centenary of the Easter Rising. Wary of earlier attempts to politicize history and aware of the tendency of politicians to recast Irish history, academic or otherwise, as propaganda, historians have been alive to the potential impact of large scale commemoration of the Rising and of their collusion in this. A number of us have been slightly alarmed at times by the sheer scale of commemorative activity and concerned about some directions of travel. But I doubt that I am the only historian of modern Ireland who has been impressed by the originality of some commemorative initiatives and relieved to see the availability of a number of opportunities for the expression of interests of all kinds. Some of us have been relieved at the relative absence of triumphalism, but also exasperated at times by what seem to be highly contrived expressions of broad mindedness and conciliation.
Yet, while many of us have complained about 1916 overload, it would be churlish not to recognize how fortunate we are to work on a period of modern history which continues to excite and which genuinely continues not only to matter to a wide range of constituencies, but which continues to shape the way many people think about the past and the present in the two Irelands. Very few historians work in fields or periods which attract as much public and institutional attention and therefore, which provide all sorts of possibilities for dissemination of research and the development of our field.
The effect of this has been to produce much public history, though live events, TV, radio, and newspaper articles, that tells the story of the Easter Rising in ways that were not possible fifty years ago. We now see the Easter Rising of 1916 not only through the eyes of its leaders and their supporters, but through the eyes of others caught up in the mayhem; through the eyes of British troops and the RIC; and through the eyes of those killed, most of whom were not among the rebels and had not chosen that fate. At the same time, we have not lost the story of the rebels themselves, a remarkable and unusual group of individuals. Some might argue that the result of this expansion of interest is a failure or refusal to deal with some of the hard questions posed by the Rising and its political legacy. They have a point, but new questions, some of them equally challenging, about feminism, internationalism, violence and resistance to the Rising, have in recent years become central to debates about 1916. The commemoration has have given them audiences and platforms and debates about the legacy of the Rising have been the richer for it.
Featured image credit: Easter Rising: British Soldiers, by Unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.