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Remembrance of Easter 1916 and the changing character of Irish nationalism

This paper was submitted to the European Social Science & History Conference which was held in Ghent, Belgium in April 2010. It is an updated version of previous research I did for my dissertation at the London School of Economics in 2008. The piece below is the introduction and the full text can be found in a dedicated page here.

“Commemorations are as selective as sympathies. They honour our dead, not your dead. Charles Haughey cannot visit Béal na Bláth, let alone wear a poppy” (Longley, 1991: 29). Thus wrote Edna Longley in 1991 during a period when the discomfiture within Irish nationalism at the legacy of the ‘physical force’ tradition was in the ascendant. Yet Haughey’s predicament also reflected the contested memories regarding the birth pangs of the Irish state. In its earliest formation, the Irish Free State emerged from four bitter conflicts: Irish and English; Catholic and Protestant; constitutional nationalists and separatists; and, ‘Treatyites’ and Republicans (Fitzpatrick, 2001: 186). As such, it has proved difficult to find a commemorative focus that would include all factions.


Contestation over the place of the Great War – and those Irishmen who fought in the British forces – in Irish ‘realms of memory’ (Nora, 1992) proved divisive in the extreme. The rise of Sinn Féin[1] from 1917-21 was to push those who fought in the Great War to the sidelines of Irish history. The Government of Ireland Act (1920) partitioned Ireland into a predominantly Protestant North and Catholic South. In that southern entity the 1916 Easter Rising emerged as a mutual focus of remembrance for those remaining factions who had been so divided by the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Civil War. It represents the utility of memory as a unifying, and dividing, force in national identity.

For Renan, nationality was predicated on the desire to live together, but also on the possession of a common and rich legacy of remembrance (Renan, 1994: 16). “Remembrance of Easter 1916” as our title suggests, places the Rising as a locus classicus of national identity. ‘Remembrance’ and ‘commemoration’ imply the active propagation of those memories by the state, civil society and individuals (Winter and Sivan, 1999: 10). Furthermore, these actors come into conflict regarding the legacy of the memory and the strategy of remembrance. Equally, remembrance is vulnerable to decay as new memory traces can interfere with the trajectory of remembrance in subsequent generations (ibid: 30).

Raphael Samuel commented on this intergenerational dynamic in saying that memory is:

Historically conditioned, changing colour and shape according to the emergencies of the moment; that so far from being handed down in the timeless form of tradition it is progressively altered from generation to generation. It leaves the impress of experience, in however mediated a way. It is stamped with the ruling passions of the time (Samuel, 1994: x).

If memory is, by this rationale, inherently and inadvertently revisionist, are we to assume that commemorative communities revise themselves with their memories? This is the object of the second part of our title: “the changing character of Irish nationalism”. Locating the Easter Rising as a central founding memory in twentieth century Irish nationalism, we will attempt to assess whether changing attitudes and strategies of remembrance are representative of a changing nationalism.


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