02 April 2006

1916 stories that remain hidden

Sunday Business Post

By Eunan O’Halpin
02 April 2006

Today’s Sunday Business Post opinion poll indicates that a large majority (80 per cent) of respondents agree that the Easter Rising was a ‘‘positive event in recent Irish history’’, a noteworthy and legitimate act of national self determination. It also shows that 71 per cent agreed that Ireland ‘‘owes a debt to the leaders’’ of the rebellion. Yet only 50 per cent of respondents thought that it was appropriate to ‘‘celebrate the 1916 Rising with a military parade’’, and 32 per cent definitely disagreed.

Eight years after the Good Friday agreement, a year after IRA decommissioning, the Irish public remains equivocal about any reminders of the role of physical force in the establishment of Irish independence.

In recent years, state commemoration of historical events in Ireland has often attracted criticism, or ridicule, or sometimes both. Officially-supported commemorative activities marking the bicentenary of 1798 inspired torrents of condemnation from critics.

They argued that these activities glossed over sectarian elements of the rebellion, and generally represented a deplorable dumbing down of historical complexities. The 150th anniversary of the Famine brought some clumsy official gestures, and the vastly expensive famine ship, the Jeanie Johnstone, became a farcically mismanaged essay in historical reconstruction.

There was intense press criticism in 2001, particularly in The Irish Times, of the state funeral and reinterment of the ten men executed in Mountjoy jail during the War of Independence.

I helped to carry the coffin of my mother’s uncle, Kevin Barry, and I was more impressed by the dignified public response to the occasion than by the shrieks of outrage from D’Olier Street.

A disjuncture between public commentators, and the public who attend and thereby participate in commemorative events, will probably again be apparent at Easter, when the state will organise ceremonies to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising.

No doubt the former will thunder against the remilitarisation of commemoration - it is reported that about 2,500 members of the Defence Forces will be involved - and the necessarily one-sided nature of the occasion (although it is hard to see what consolation unionism could draw from the proceedings).

The government will make conscious efforts to acknowledge the fate of all who died in the Rising, on either side or on none, as well as of the very much larger number of Irishmen who served and died in British colours on the battlefield or at sea. The critics will not be satisfied, but the public will probably not mind. Who is right?

This is not the first occasion in recent years when national commemorations have proved problematic.

In the spring of 1994 I attended a commemorative function to mark the 75th anniversary of the first meeting of Dail Eireann in the Mansion House. Why, I asked an official, had the event not been organised for 21 January 1994, the actual anniversary date? Apparently, no one had realised this in time.

Instead the state hosted a reception in late April, the centrepiece of which was a brief and historically inaccurate video documentary, and speeches by the Taoiseach and other dignitaries in descending order of importance. Albert Reynolds was listened to in respectful silence, but as the speeches went on the volume of chatter rose as people turned their attention away from reflections on history and towards the more immediate issue of getting more drink - no expense had been spared, and spirits were available as well as beer and wine. Everyone also received a little commemorative badge to bring away.

The 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Irish Free State was commemorated in similarly amiable style with a reception in Dublin Castle, the leaders of the smaller parties baying plaintively into the microphone as the herd strayed away towards the refreshments, and everyone got a set of stamps from An Post on the way out.

These fairly low-key commemorations escaped the wrath of commentators, perhaps because they were held behind closed doors. This in turn meant that they had virtually no public impact. The forthcoming official commemorations of 1916 around Ireland will, however, be very public events.

Whether one believes that the Rising was an entirely legitimate act of self-determination, or an anti-democratic and unrepresentative coup, or a mixture of the justifiable and the unjustifiable, aspects of it remain morally problematic.

The first person killed during the rebellion was a police constable standing alone and unarmed at the gates of Dublin Castle, shot without compunction by a member of the Irish Citizen Army when he could easily have been captured or brushed aside. This brutal and unnecessary act was scarcely consonant with the aspirations of the 1916 proclamation, in which the signatories ‘‘pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity or rapine’’.

More civilians than rebels or Crown forces died during the fighting in Dublin, and the decision to centre the rebellion in a densely populated area of the city indicates at best a reckless disregard for the safety of the ordinary Irish men and women in whose name the Rising was launched.

A few civilians were killed deliberately in cold blood, most notoriously the pacifist Owen Sheehy Skeffington, shot by a firing squad in Portobello Barracks on the orders of a fellow Irishman, the deranged Captain Bowen Colthurst.

Others were shot in their dwellings by soldiers during confused fighting in North King Street. Most, however, died incidentally in cross fire or as a result of bombardment.

How are these people to be commemorated?

There is one straightforward and inexpensive measure that the government could take which would cause no controversy and which would greatly increase our understanding of the events of 1916 and the following years.

For decades the most reliable and detailed sources on the Irish revolution were British official records, including police and military documents as well as cabinet documents and the papers of key political figures. I and many others have used these extensively for research purposes, and they remain enormously valuable.

The problem is that such sources of necessity tend to present the British perspective on unfolding events and politics. In the last three years, however, research on the Irish revolution has been transformed by the release of more than 1,700 ‘‘witness statements’’ collected by the government’s Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 1950s from participants in the events that led to Irish independence.

These were released on the initiative of the Taoiseach after years of bureaucratic bumble.

They contain the detailed recollections of men and women caught up in the independence struggle, and often constitute the only record of what individuals did, felt and thought. Some are self-justifying, some are formulaic, but many are highly informative and deeply personal.

The value of this recently-released material can be seen in the extensive use made of it in such excellent new work as Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion and John Borganovo’s edition of Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence.

Yet the state still keeps secret two other equally invaluable sets of records.

These are the military service pensions files, and the 1916-1923 medals files, of the Department of Defence, which remain sealed, almost a hundred years after the events for which they hold vital evidence, largely through administrative inertia.

Does anyone in government know or care about them?

By way of illustration, the military service pension file of my grandfather James Moloney contains a wealth of detail on his service from 1919 to 1923, including the IRA units in which he served and as a member of the anti-treaty IRA leader Liam Lynch’s staff, which neither family memory nor other documents can provide.

There are no good reasons for continuing to withhold such invaluable historical material, only lame excuses and the Department of Defence’s unwillingness to provide the necessary staff for the Military Archives.

It is ironic that an Irish government which in 2000 publicly beseeched Tony Blair to open all the British records on Roger Casement, executed for treason in 1916, remains content to sit on many thousands of Irish files which would deepen our understanding of the nature and complexity of the Irish revolution and cast fresh light on the men and women involved in the independence struggle.

What better moment to change such an indefensible policy than Easter 2006?

Eunan O’Halpin is Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

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