Year of cen­te­nar­ies

The War of In­de­pen­dence will be at the heart of 2019 com­mem­o­ra­tions.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Ro­nan McGreevy

Ire­land’s Decade of Cen­te­nar­ies has reached its mid­point with the end of the cen­te­nary of the first World War and the 1918 British gen­eral elec­tion. The decade ac­tu­ally lasts 11 years. It be­gan in 2012 with the cen­te­nary of the first Home Rule Bill and will end in Septem­ber 2023 when the Ir­ish Free State joined the League of Na­tions.

Ahead lie the most dif­fi­cult com­mem­o­ra­tions. The War of In­de­pen­dence, the Civil War and par­ti­tion re­main con­tested his­tory in Ire­land. They all have the po­ten­tial to res­ur­rect old en­mi­ties for a new gen­er­a­tion.

Be­fore Brexit, re­la­tions be­tween Bri­tain and Ire­land had never been bet­ter. The visit of Queen El­iz­a­beth II to Ire­land in 2011 with her won­der­fully couched eu­phemism that “with the ben­e­fit of his­tor­i­cal hind­sight we can all see things which we would wish had been done dif­fer­ently or not at all” seemed to presage a new era of mu­tual rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Yet the next phase of the decade of cen­te­nar­ies is hap­pen­ing against a back­ground of grow­ing dis­trust be­tween the Ir­ish and British gov­ern­ments and mount­ing in­credulity in Ire­land at the fath­om­less ig­no­rance of British politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors when it comes to Ir­ish his­tory. There is also the ab­sence of a Stor­mont govern­ment and no hope of a com­mon nar­ra­tive emerg­ing in the North over the com­ing years.

If a hard bor­der emerges in the com­ing years, the British will be blamed for it at a time when the cen­te­nary of var­i­ous atroc­i­ties car­ried out by the Black and Tans are be­ing com­mem­o­rated.

Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins, in an in­ter­view with this news­pa­per be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, warned against turn­ing the col­lec­tive me­mory into “ha­tred’s forge – rekin­dling old con­flicts rather than heal­ing them”.

The next phase of the decade of cen­te­nar­ies will be­gin in earnest on Jan­uary 21st when the twin cen­te­nar­ies of the am­bush at Solo­head­beg, the event that started the War of In­de­pen­dence, and the first Dáil will be marked.

A joint sit­ting of the houses of the Oireach­tas will take place in the Round Room of the Man­sion House, the place where the first Dáil met on Jan­uary 21st 1919. It will be a cel­e­bra­tion un­like so many other events in the decade of cen­te­nar­ies which will be com­mem­o­ra­tions where peo­ple lost their lives. The dura­bil­ity of Ir­ish democ­racy is some­thing which will be cel­e­brated un­equiv­o­cally.

This will be a State event; Solo­head­beg will be or­gan­ised lo­cally.

Paid agents

The Solo­head­beg am­bush is a mi­cro­cosm of the type of com­mem­o­ra­tions that are likely to take place to mark the War of In­de­pen­dence. These were usu­ally small-scale en­gage­ments and the dead on both sides were pre­dom­i­nantly Ir­ish.

At Solo­head­beg, Royal Ir­ish Constabulary con­sta­bles James McDon­nell and Pa­trick O’Con­nell were killed while es­cort­ing a con­sign­ment of gelig­nite to a lo­cal quarry. The for­mer was a flu­ent Ir­ish speaker and a wid­ower with six chil­dren.

They were both paid agents of the British state in the eyes of repub­li­cans and largely writ­ten out of the nar­ra­tive af­ter­wards.

The Solo­head­beg com­mit­tee has agreed to in­vite the rel­a­tives on both sides to the com­mem­o­ra­tion which will take place on Sun­day, Jan­uary 20th so as not to clash with the cen­te­nary of the first Dáil.

“That was quite im­por­tant for us,” said Tim Hanly, of the Solo­head­beg cen­te­nary com­mit­tee. “We have made con­tact with the McDon­nell and O’Con­nell fam­i­lies. We want to be in­clu­sive and re­flec­tive that

The Harp So­ci­ety is de­ter­mined to en­sure that the men who died in po­lice uni­forms are prop­erly com­mem­o­rated

this was a painful his­tory. We don’t want a glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of war,” he said.

Some 550 RIC men were killed in the War of In­de­pen­dence. They found them­selves on the wrong side of Ir­ish his­tory. The Harp So­ci­ety, which re­mem­bers all the for­mer Ir­ish po­lice­men who died in var­i­ous con­flicts, is de­ter­mined not to al­low the War of In­de­pen­dence cen­te­nary pass without en­sur­ing that the men who died in po­lice uni­forms are prop­erly com­mem­o­rated.

The first World War was part of the shared his­tory of Bri­tain and Ire­land, and some­thing in which na­tion­al­ists and union­ists had an equal stake. That can­not be said about the next phase of the decade of cen­te­nar­ies.

In its 2017 British gen­eral elec­tion man­i­festo, the DUP spoke of an Expo 100, a pub­lic hol­i­day, new pub­lic art and a legacy project to mark the cen­te­nary of North­ern Ire­land in June 1921.

Sinn Féin says it will take no part in any cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions to cel­e­brate 100 years of the “lit­tle statelet” as Sinn Féin pres­i­dent Mary Lou McDonald put it.

Sinn Féin has also set out its stall as to how it in­tends to com­mem­o­rate the Civil War. A se­ries of par­lia­men­tary ques­tions was put down by Cork TD Pat Buck­ley ear­lier this month to the Min­is­ter for Cul­ture, Her­itage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madi­gan who has re­spon­si­bil­ity for com­mem­o­ra­tions.

Au­then­tic ap­proach

Will the Govern­ment be apol­o­gis­ing to the fam­i­lies of those who were ex­e­cuted by the State in the Civil War? he asked. There were 77 in to­tal. Will they be apol­o­gis­ing for Ball­y­seedy? This refers to the no­to­ri­ous in­ci­dent when Na­tional Army sol­diers tied eight anti-Treaty repub­li­cans to a mine in Ball­y­seedy, Co Kerry, and blew them up in March 1923.

The Min­is­ter did not ad­dress the ques­tion di­rectly ex­cept to say that com­mem­o­rat­ing all those who lost their lives will be based on the “re­spect­ful, sen­si­tive, ap­pro­pri­ate and au­then­tic ap­proach that has be­come the hall­mark of the decade of cen­te­nar­ies com­mem­o­ra­tive pro­gramme”.

There will be many such de­mands in the com­ing year. There will be de­mands for the British to apol­o­gise for the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Aux­il­iaries and the Black and Tans, and for the par­ti­tion of Ire­land. The Ir­ish Govern­ment will be asked to apol­o­gise for the atroc­i­ties of the Civil War – for which there are usu­ally counter- atroc­i­ties by those on the anti-Treaty side.

UCD pro­fes­sor of his­tory Diar­maid Fer­riter says the State has “noth­ing to apol­o­gise for how it came into be­ing”, but sug­gests that the British do have ex­plain­ing to do for its re­fusal to recog­nise Dáil Éire­ann in 1918 and for its sub­se­quent poli­cies of co­er­cion in Ire­land.

“They have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for that re­fusal and the things that flowed from it,” he main­tains, but adds that the ap­proach by the British to the Ir­ish War of In­de­pen­dence cen­te­nary may de­pend on which govern­ment is in power at the time.

Nav­i­gat­ing the decade of cen­te­nar­ies has been en­trusted to the ex­pert ad­vi­sory group com­pris­ing of the coun­try’s finest his­to­ri­ans and chaired by Dr Mau­rice Man­ning. It is in­de­pen­dent of the Govern­ment.

It has rec­om­mended that aside from a num­ber of show­piece cen­te­nary events, the Govern­ment should leave the War of In­de­pen­dence cen­te­nar­ies to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. A suc­cess­ful tem­plate was set in this re­gard with the de­ci­sion to fund lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in 2016 and com­mu­ni­ties re­sponded ac­cord­ingly with thou­sands of events to mark the Easter Ris­ing.

There will be de­mands for the British to apol­o­gise for the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Aux­il­iaries and the Black and Tans, and for par­ti­tion

The ad­vi­sory group has told the Govern­ment that “con­sid­er­a­tion should be given to the or­gan­i­sa­tion of spe­cific ini­tia­tives to com­mem­o­rate the RIC and the Dublin Metropoli­tan Po­lice and to ac­knowl­edge their place in his­tory”.

The group is si­lent on whether or not there should be a com­mem­o­ra­tion for the Crown forces killed in the War of In­de­pen­dence as there was for British sol­diers who died in the Easter Ris­ing.

Neu­tral stance

How­ever, it does state that there should be a for­mal com­mem­o­ra­tion for all those who died in the War of In­de­pen­dence which should take place on July 11th, 2021, the cen­te­nary of the Truce or the most suit­able date clos­est to that cen­te­nary.

The group has rec­om­mended one ma­jor event to re­mem­ber the Civil War with the pos­si­bil­ity of a me­mo­rial to those who died. In­ter­est­ingly it rec­om­mends that the State should adopt a neu­tral stance in re­la­tion to who was right and who was wrong 100 years ago.

It states: “The State’s task is to en­cour­age a re­flec­tive and a rec­on­cil­ia­tory tone that recog­nises that nei­ther side has the mo­nop­oly of ei­ther atroc­ity or virtue and that this was true of words as well as ac­tions.”

This in it­self is a con­tentious com­ment, as many in Fine Gael be­lieve the Cu­mann na nGaed­hael govern­ment im­ple­mented the demo­crat­i­cally ex­pressed will of the peo­ple in en­forc­ing the Treaty and that Michael Collins was sub­se­quently vin­di­cated when he sug­gested the Treaty pro­vided the “free­dom to achieve free­dom”.

There was con­sid­er­able alarm among his­to­ri­ans when Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar sug­gested ear­lier last year that the Decade of Cen­te­nar­ies should not end on a “down­beat” note with com­mem­o­ra­tions to mark the Civil War.

In­stead, he pro­posed that mark­ing the 75th an­niver­sary of the Repub­lic in 2024 would end it on an “up­beat and op­ti­mistic note”.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee has not taken his sug­ges­tion on board. In­stead it has posited that an end to the Decade of Cen­te­nar­ies should hap­pen in Septem­ber 2023 with Ire­land’s en­try into the League of Na­tions.

Clockwise from main: the bod­ies of British of­fi­cers killed in Dublin dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence are taken back to Eng­land for burial, in Novem­ber 1920; a sus­pected mem­ber of Sinn Féin is searched at gun­point by the Black and Tans; Free State Army troops march into Vic­to­ria Bar­racks, Athlone, Fe­bru­ary 1922; sus­pects be­ing searched on the street of Dublin, 1920.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: GETTY IM­AGES

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