The destination for history

History matters in Ireland


At present Ireland is in the middle of what has been called the decade of centenaries. This relates to the period 1913-23 and includes anniversaries of the First World War, the 1916 Dublin Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, the founding of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, and the Irish Civil War.

Commemoration of these events has the potential to be damaging for relations not only between communities in Northern Ireland, but also between north and south and between Britain and Ireland. In the past such commemorations and anniversaries have led to controversy and conflict.

Referring to the 1960s, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield wrote: ‘Anniversaries are the curse of Ireland. Like saints’ days, the dates of historically resonant events punctuate the Northern Ireland calendar, calling for an orgy of reminiscence, celebration and demonstration from some section or other of the population’. He added that it seemed to matter little if these annoy or infuriate. For some, he observed, this is ‘a principal attraction’.

In recent decades, however, commemorations have not had such damaging consequences. Evidence of a new approach can be seen. In part this is because the work of historians has helped to give a more balanced and objective view of these events. In part also it is part of the peace process, whereby people, the public and the politicians have been keen to promote a sense of shared history and also to avoid the detrimental effects of earlier historical controversies.

12 July continues to be an important day for Orangemen, when they commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Recently, however, there have been efforts by some members of the Orange Order to make the ‘twelfth’ celebrations more of a festival and have organised Ulster Scots events and historical events to make the day more family and tourist friendly.

In the Irish Republic, an important gesture was made by President Mary McAleese in relation to the Boyne. From 1998, every July on a date on or close to the ‘twelfth’, she held an official reception at the presidential residence in Phoenix Park to recall all the ‘Jacobites and Williamites’ who were involved, and to honour the Protestant community in the south, particularly the southern Orangemen, many of whom were invited to the occasion. President Michael D. Higgins has continued to hold this reception.

Commemoration of the Dublin Rising of 1916 has witnessed change in the ways in which it has been marked. There have been efforts to make it more inclusive. At the official 90th anniversary of the Rising in Dublin in 2006, for the first time, the British ambassador was an invited guest on the official platform outside the GPO at the main parade in O’Connell Street. This invitation was repeated at the centenary commemorations.

In April 2016, as part of these centenary commemorations a memorial wall to all those who died during the Rising was unveiled at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. It listed not just participants and civilians but also members of the British army, in an effort to be inclusive.

On 10 July 2016 at the Irish National War Memorial, Islandbridge, Dublin, there was a major ceremony attended by political leaders from both sides of the border to remember more than 3500 Irishmen, north and south, who died at the Battle of the Somme. On Armistice Day, 11 November last year, the end of the war was commemorated by communities throughout Ireland.

In May 2011 Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland. This visit was seen as very significant historically, not just as the first trip of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland since 1921, but also, in the words of the Times, as marking ‘the final reconciliation between two peoples after centuries of misunderstanding and resentment’. In the course of this four day visit, there was frequent reference to history, but in a way that included regret for past conflict, an acknowledgement of each other’s traditions and history, an appreciation for shared history and a determination to move together to the future.

The Queen and President Mary McAleese visited the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square, Dublin, where the Queen laid a wreath in honour of all those who died for Irish freedom. The following day she went to the Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge where both heads of state laid wreaths in honour of the many thousands of Irishmen who gave their lives in British uniform during the Great War.

Such changes are evidence of a new maturity towards remembering and celebrating the past. Some of the events to be commemorated in the next few years will be contentious. Nonetheless, this experience in recent years of how to handle such historical events gives hope for the future.

By Brian M. Walker

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