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Irish Nationalism & Remembrance



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.


Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s decision in 2006 to revive state commemorations of the Easter Rising of 1916 sparked a wave of controversy regarding the place of such an event in the meta-narrative of Ireland’s twentieth century. In the national press, journalists observed in retrospect the commemorations of 1966 in light of the conflict that followed in Northern Ireland. Speculation to the effect that these commemorations precipitated the Troubles emerged from some quarters of the media, the academy and from some politicians.

The object of the present paper has been to address such assertions with reference to broader debates on remembrance. We begin with a theoretical analysis of place of memory, and more specifically commemoration in society, drawing on Zerubavel, Nora, Winter and Sivan, and others. These we relate to theories of nationalism, adopting Breuilly’s typology as a framework for our empirical analysis.

From the theoretical framework, the paper proceeds to carry out an historical survey of Irish nationalism since independence. Thus, it is comparative over time rather than space. We find that Irish nationalism has changed in content and context throughout our period of review. This is shown relative to our typology of nationalism. However, remembrance does not have the power attributed to it by journalists. It is the contention of this paper that remembrance reacts to changes in nationalism (and in circumstance) rather than precipitating them.

The Irish case emerges as an outlier, due in part to the country’s unusual position as a Western European colony. Thus, the conflicts that emerged after independence reflected a contested nationalism akin to those of post-colonial states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Irish patterns of historiography often diverged from those of other polities in the West and this is reflected in the patterns of remembrance of what Pierre Nora might call Ireland’s “lieu de mémoire”: the Easter Rising of 1916. History and memory would collide in the public sphere as the forces of irredentism and democracy fought one another for the right to define Irish nationhood on their own terms.

While the southern state formed by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act eventually became a dominant platform for definitions of nationalism, the conflict in Northern Ireland would precipitate a sea-change in Irish historical reflection. Out of the ashes of burnt-out homes and the blood of thirty years of violence emerged an agreement that reconceptualised sovereignty and citizenship in both Ireland and Great Britain. Their experience of pooled sovereignty and consensual democracy in the European Union facilitated a new approach. This was reflected in a different characterisation of Irish nationalism and, as such, in patterns of remembrance.


I would like to thank Professor John Breuilly and Dr. John Hutchinson of the London School of Economics for their advice on choosing a viable topic as well as their wise counsel on finding research materials. Dr. Bill Kissane has been particularly helpful in helping me to formulate my topic and gave invaluable advice on structure and areas of research. Dr. Mark Boden, also provided valuable instruction on structure and methodology.

Further to this, I wish to thank the staffs of the British Library Newspaper Archive in Colindale and the Department of the Taoiseach for assistance in finding primary research materials. Ms. Lorraine Larkin at the Government Press Office was especially helpful in this regard. My good friend, Ms. Hannah Deasy was both helpful and rigorous in our discussions on my topic and in suggesting further reading materials.

Finally, I wish to thank Dr. Ernst Stetter, Secretary General at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies for supporting the presentation of my paper at the European Social Science History Conference in Ghent.


Abstract                                                                     2

Acknowledgements                                                             3

Table of Contents                                                    4

Introduction                                                              5

Section I: Remembrance, history and nationalism                               6

–       Towards an Irish lieu de mémoire                                                                    6

–       An analytical framework for Irish nationalism                                       8

Section II: From reverence to revision – 1920-68                                    9

–       The Easter Rising in historical context                                       9

–       The mnemonic battles of the Irish Free State                                         11

–       A state-owned memory?                                                                     12

–       ‘Revising the Rising’: historiography in the 1960s                                                 13

Section III: The Trouble with remembrance – 1969-97                          16

–       Dust and heat                                                          16

–       Ideological pigeons come home to roost                                   17

–       Debating atavism                                                    18

–       Necrocracy is incompatible with democracy                              19

Section IV: From Good Friday to Easter Monday – 1998-2007               20

–       Pageants and politics                                             20

–       Negotiating nationalism                                       22

–       Changing commemorative habits                         23

Conclusion                                                                24

Bibliography                                                             27



“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.

The theoretical framework in Section I cites relevant analyses of memory and national identity. This will encompass finding an appropriate typology of nationalism with which to assess the Irish case. Subsequently, we will subject this typology to empirical analysis through three phases: 1920-68; 1969-97; and, 1998-2007. The decision by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to revive state commemorations of the Rising in 2006 comes in for considered analysis in the latter section. In this light, we must question theories of post-nationalism as related to the Good Friday Agreement. Remembrance of the Easter Rising 1916 must be analysed relative to the contexts and contingencies of the periods under review. As such, it serves as a prism through which one can analyse the character of Irish nationalism.





Despite the growing discourse on identity politics, notions of memory and identity can sometimes appear vague. While one might disagree on precise meanings, it is clear that they are linked and even interdependent. For Gillis, “the notion of identity depends on the idea of memory and vice versa. The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely, a sense of sameness over time and space, is sustained by remembering; and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity” (Gillis, 1994: 3). This implies that a change in strategy of remembrance emerges as the group’s identity alters in tandem. Identities and memories are highly selective and serve particular interests in particular contexts. So those events, memories and myths which do not fit into the appropriate world view will undergo a sort of collective amnesia.

National identities, Gillis attests, are constructed and reconstructed, in the process sustaining relationships, social boundaries and power. The utility of remembrance and commemorations is in their definitively social characteristics. They co-ordinate “individual and group memories, whose results may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of processes of intense contest, struggle, and, in some instances, annihilation” (ibid: 5).  We can infer from this the rationale behind Irish nationalist idolatry of the ‘men of 1916’ in the early years of the Free State. The Anglo-Irish Treaty mitigated, but did not settle, the Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant conflicts mentioned earlier. For the main factions of Sinn Féin (for whom the Treaty itself was the dominant focus of conflict), the Easter Rising became a mutual focus of commemoration. The Easter Proclamation, and Pearse’s writings “remained seminal texts for both major parties, and the martyrs were celebrated with competitive enthusiasm by all factions descended from revolutionary Sinn Féin” (Fitzpatrick, 2001:195).

Socialisation into nationalist discourse is a product of mnemonic battles fought out in the public sphere by our forbears and repeated up until the present. This process emphasises the subjectivity of collective remembrance. Socialisation is governed by certain norms of remembrance that tell us what we should remember or forget (Zerubavel, 2003: 3-5). Such tacit rules are based in historical context and social structure. Furthermore, the social meaning of past events depends on how we position them relative to others (ibid: 7). An event such as the Easter Rising can become a source of conflict or consensus depending on the particular social, political or historical context. However, in national discourse it remains as an important symbolic legacy for the state, what Pierre Nora might describe as one of Ireland’s lieux de mémoire. He defines a lieu de mémoire as “any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community” (Nora, 1992: xvii).

History comes into conflict with memory as a means of reflection on the past. As remembrance seeks to enshrine the symbolic resonance of past events, history seeks to explain them with the benefit of hindsight. This must not lead us towards what Laffan calls the ‘Whig interpretation of Irish history,’ which analyses everything in terms of what came after (Laffan, 1991: 108). However, it will allow us to reflect on the divergent histories of the Rising, from the hagiographic and official versions of the early years, to the iconoclasm among revisionists in the 1960s and after. Analysing such mnemonic discourse, as well as subsequent offerings surveyed in Sections III and IV, will present us with Pierre Nora’s new kind of history:

A history . . .  less interested in actions remembered or events commemorated than in the traces left by those actions in the interaction of those commemorations; less interested in the events themselves than in the construction of events over time, in the disappearance and re-emergence of their significations; less interested in “what actually happened” than in its perpetual reuse and misuse, its influence on successive presents; less interested in tradition than in the way in which traditions are constituted and passed on (Nora, 1994: xxiv).

So we will examine the construction and commemoration of the Easter Rising through successive ‘presents’.

However, Smith has warned that we must move forward from the past in “an open empirical manner” so that we do not risk reading the past only through the eyes of our present, as a “product of the needs and preoccupations of present generations and elites” (Smith, 1998: 180). This paper accepts the challenge to move carefully and empirically. As we shall see later, however, Nora’s prescription for historical analysis comes to the fore. While we observe the variations of remembrance and historiography in twentieth century Ireland we see how the Irish nationalist construction of the past has generally been shaped by the present. It is with this in mind that we approach the subject of nationalism theory.



Jonathan Githens-Mazer, in his Myths and Memories of the Easter Rising (2006) applies an ethno-symbolist analysis to the radicalisation of Irish politics after the Rising. While acknowledging previous investigations of the structural, political and economic factors surrounding the overall separatist movement, he focuses on the Rising as a ‘cultural trigger-point’. In connecting radical nationalism to the myths and memories of the Irish nation, the thrust of the argument is that these memories determine political behaviour (Githens-Mazer, 2006: xiv). Conversely, in our analysis of remembrance of Easter 1916, we will examine how the social and political landscape determines political behaviour, which in turn affects the manner in which memories are represented.

In addition, the Irish case is difficult to classify in terms of dichotomies such as the ethnic-civic paradigm (Kohn, 1955). The nationalism of the Easter rebels contained elements of both. The inclusive (civic) character of their vision for Ireland was, perhaps incongruously, combined with an especially Catholic and Gaelic code of morality and civil society. Factors such as this would emerge sporadically during the period under review. Yet our empirical analysis, in particular Section IV, shows the difficulty of placing Ireland within such a constraining dichotomy.

Thus we must choose a typology of nationalism that aids our understanding of the nation’s successive ‘presents’ and the socio-political circumstances in which the nation finds itself.  Breuilly’s thesis focuses predominantly on cases of oppositional nationalism. Yet much of our analysis here will be based on the case of Irish nationalists in power too. The aspirational character of even official nationalism in Ireland lends it a confused character which leaves it more open to change given certain exigencies and circumstances. The notorious Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution provided evidence of the irredentism and the drive to unification found among Breuilly’s ‘classes of nationalism’ (Breuilly, 1993: 12). Similarly, republicanism in Northern Ireland can be placed in the same typology among forms of separatism. So while Breuilly argues that government nationalism is more difficult to define, his typology for nationalism can effectively be applied to the Irish case.

The definition goes as follows:

“The term ‘nationalism’ is used to refer to political movements seeking or exercising state power and justifying such action with nationalist arguments. A nationalist argument is a political doctrine built upon three basic assumptions:

(a)  There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.

(b)  The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.

(c)   The nation must be as independent as possible. This requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty” (Breuilly, 1993: 2).

The above characterisation of nationalism serves a specific function regarding our analysis of the Irish case through the prism of remembrance of the Easter Rising. In his writings, Pearse voiced the ‘explicit and peculiar character’ of the Irish nation in an especially romantic tone. In honouring the Easter rebels, the state also gave credence to the values and interests advocated by them. Yet, as we shall see, changes in circumstance would alter the mnemonic framework in which the state operated, and with it the character of remembrance.





In his examination of the Gaelic Revival, Hutchinson provides an account of the role of myth-making as used by the revivalists, some of whom became rebels on Easter Monday 1916. Pearse drew upon a fusion of Gaelic and Catholic motifs of redemption through self-sacrifice “which he exemplified in his self-portrayal as a Christ-Cuchulain figure” (Hutchinson, 1987: 309). As an oppositional force, cultural nationalism emerged to challenge the position of the Irish Party as the single voice of Irish nationalism. Revivalists charged the Irish party with becoming too normalised in British politics to adequately represent Irish identity. This critique purported that “As it ossifies, political nationalism not only reflects the norms of the dominant state, but it also lays a dead hand on the national community, attempting to stifle any extra-parliamentary movements outside its control” (ibid: 282). However, once in power, the separatists were placed in the awkward position of having to protect their political gains, stifling extra-parliamentary movements while trying to retain the legacy of 1916 for themselves.

Much of the discourse on the Easter Rising up until the 1960s belonged more to the realms of hagiography and idolatry than to considered reflection. This was evident in the manner of commemoration in the early period of independence as well as the shape that nationalism was to take during this time. The Rising has proven difficult to place in its appropriate historical context (Boyce, 1996: 195). In the Free State period, politicians and historians were cautious when referring to recent history. Further to this, there was little analysis of the kind of politics for which the Rising was staged (ibid: 167). In a way, its removal from historical context and serious political analysis gave the Rising greater power as a lieu de mémoire. Thus, the Rising became an inherent component of what Brown calls the “republican nationalist orthodoxy” (Brown: 2004: 284).

There are various reasons for such sparse discourse. For Townshend, “The second fight, which led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State, had the effect of stilling re-evaluation of 1916 for many years” (Townshend, 2006: 344). The divisiveness of the subsequent Civil War necessitated a mutual focus of remembrance during the early years of the state. Laffan offers a practical assessment: Firstly, commemoration of the Rising had the effect of offering legitimacy to adherents of the Sinn Féin tradition, rather than their defeated Irish Party rivals. Secondly, the virtual absence of historical materials until the 1960s mitigated scepticism of the official version of events among historians until the 1960s (Laffan, 1991: 106-109).

It is thus necessary to distinguish between the Rising as history and its influence on Irish political thought. In Pearse’s own words “True political independence requires spiritual and intellectual independence as its basis, or it tends to become unstable, a thing resting merely on interests which change with time and circumstance” (Pearse, 1952: 299). Pearse may not have realised how prescient this statement would become in his wake. The Rising offered a restrictive and intellectually stifling account of Irish history. Pearse sought to create an Ireland of the future in the image of his idealised Gaelic order of the past. Yet his thinking reflected his obliviousness to realities in Ulster, where resistance to Home Rule, not to mention secession, was blatantly obvious. To quote Lee, “Generous and inclusive though Pearse’s definition of Irish nationalism was, there was no place for a distinctive Ulster room in the house of his thought” (Lee, 1991: 137).

For the Rising, Pearse was strategically chosen as leader by his co-conspirators for the ‘messianic certainty’ he offered the cause. His aptitudes as a poet, playwright, teacher and orator enabled him to mould a new ideal of the Irish Hero, an amalgam of Christ and Cú Chulainn who identifies with the Fenians, the suffering Irish and the republican determination of Tone (Martin, 1967: 247). Thus, upon execution, Pearse emerged as the focus of a cult of the hero. Breuilly has contrasted the cults of leaders in nationalist movements from their communist counterparts. “Nationalist leaders”, he says, “have been used as a symbol of the movement during the phase of political opposition, whereas the ‘cult of personality’ in communist movements tends to occur only when the movement is entrenched in power” (Breuilly, 1993: 64).

However, the Easter Rising seems to set Irish nationalism off on a different trajectory. The leaders were largely ignored and even ridiculed during the period of mobilisation. Yet subsequently, they were given retrospective approval by the Sinn Féin landslide election of 1918. The leaders became part of a sort of apostolic lineage of Irish nationalist heroes to be venerated by their followers. Perhaps, as Longley suggests, “Sanctified histories are Ireland’s equivalent of Marxist-Leninism, all the more insidious because their roots go deeper” (Longley, 1991: 49). Indeed, this may have been Pearse’s intent. The Rising was deliberately memorable, as well as being commemorative of previous struggles. Pearse invoked everyone from Hugh O’Neill and the Gaelic aristocratic order he represented, to the Jacobin republicanism of Wolfe Tone as evidence of a historic struggle of which he was a part. His political heirs praised his name ad nauseum until, reflecting Pearse’s own aphorism; his name conflicted with those ‘interests which change with time and circumstance’.

Yet for a Free State government attempting to establish a new democracy, commemorating an armed insurgency could prove problematic. As republican groups sought to claim the mantle of 1916, governmental nationalism was placed in the uncomfortable position of seeking legitimacy in the physical force tradition of the past while refusing to grant that same legitimacy to subsequent extra-parliamentary groups. Nations worship themselves through their past but regimes born of revolution have always shown ambivalence towards memory (Gillis, 1994: 19). Just as their Home Rule rivals had drawn on the revolutionary tradition of 1798 and 1867, Sinn Féin’s successors appropriated the Rising. Furthermore, they rejected contemporaneous efforts at insurrection, just as the Irish Party had done. Rebellion was, by this characterisation “a fine thing, but not to be repeated” (Boyce, 2001: 261).


Commemorations of the Easter Rising became contentious early on. Contention, however, was not over the legacy per se, but over who could claim it. In 1922, in the midst of the Civil War, both pro- and anti-Treaty politicians addressed large crowds on Easter Week, but the event was not marked officially. From the outset, such commemorations were indicative of partisan rivalry (Walker, 2000: 92). The first official state ceremony was held in 1924 when government ministers convened at Arbour Hill, the burial place of the executed rebels. This was marred by poor attendance from the 1916 leaders’ relatives. In 1925 and 1926 awkward relatives were removed from the roster as ceremonies became increasingly closed. Rival republican ceremonies throughout this period quickened the need for the state to claim the mantle of the Rising for itself (Fitzpatrick, 2001: 190).

The government sought to present itself as the legitimate face or Irish nationalism. It is significant that 1924 was chosen as the first year of official commemoration. On Easter Week, the Irish Times ran an article on the trip to London that week of President[2] Cosgrave and Justice Minister Kevin O’Higgins for a meeting of the ill-fated Boundary Commission (Irish Times, 21 April 1924). The Executive Council were undoubtedly frustrated by what they must have known would be a failed negotiation process. The inauguration of commemorative activity in this light was indicative of their discomfiture at their weak position. That same day, the Irish Times also reported on further republican ceremonies held in Dublin, Dundalk and Castlebar (ibid.).

Upon accession to government in 1932, Fianna Fáil proved ‘much less reticent in claiming the mantle of the martyrs’ during commemorations of the Rising (Fitzpatrick, 2001: 197). That year, the public were admitted to the rebels’ graveside after the official celebrations. Rival republican ceremonies continued under Fianna Fail’s government (Irish Times, 25 April 1932). The remnants of anti-Treaty Sinn Féin resented Fianna Fáil’s entry in to the Free State Dáil. For such groups, this revoked de Valera’s right to claim the mantle of 1916. By 1937, the Fianna Fáil government’s commemoration was similar in character to their Cumann na nGaedhael predecessors’ in terms of their exclusivity of protocol

However, that same year, a new constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, was passed by plebiscite. For many republicans who had refused to accept the 1922 settlement, this came as a popular mandate for the state. Below we find Seán MacBride’s position:

I certainly took the position that once the 1937 constitution was adopted, the whole position of the country was radically altered . . . We should accept any constitution which invested sovereignty in the people of Ireland and work through it to achieve the rest of the independence of the country (quoted in Ferriter, 2007: 188).

The mandate offered by the constitution gave the state a more significant claim to the legacy of 1916. In line with the definition of nationalism offered earlier, the explicit and peculiar character of the nation became more widely accepted. Some aspirations of the Rising were still voiced at parades, with government leaders criticising partition. However, it was evident that as unification became an increasingly distant hope, the interests and values of the nation would change. With regard to sovereignty, people were already becoming socialised into the 26-county state, and the affairs of that state took precedence.


“The twenty fifth anniversary of the Insurrection of Easter Week, 1916 was celebrated in Dublin yesterday by the largest exhibition of military strength seen in the capital in recent years” (Irish Times, 14 April 1941). As the state came to dominate the discourse around Irish nationalism, the official version of the Easter Rising went largely unchecked during this period. The Rising became more firmly established as an Irish lieu de mémoire during continuing Fianna Fáil governance. President[3] Hyde spoke at the 1941 celebrations saying “Twenty-five years ago in Easter Week the chains that bound us began to be broken at last, and gradually they were thrown off, so that we here today are a free people” (ibid.). Celebrations were limited until the end of the Second World War (Walker, 2000: 93).

Throughout the twentieth century political concerns would inform the character which commemorations took. After sixteen years out of government, the old pro-Treaty faction, now Fine Gael, would seek to bolster their nationalist credentials when forming the First Inter-Party Government in 1948. It seems no coincidence that the inauguration of the Irish Republic in 1949 would take place at one minute past midnight on Easter Monday (ibid: 94). This was a most emphatic form of commemoration. When placed in context, one can see that Taoiseach J.A. Costello sought to emphasise his party’s nationalism vis-à-vis Fianna Fáil as well as his junior coalition partners, the republican Clann na Poblachta. Yet this measure would, if anything, re-enforce partition. Indeed the hierarchy of concerns for southern politicians was demonstrated that same year by their adverse reaction to the ‘intrusion’ of northern nationalists into the new Republic’s elections.  (Ferritter: 2005: 484-86). Thus, it seems political pragmatism would continue to supersede nationalist aspirations.

From 1954 military parades outside the General Post Office (headquarters of the Rising) became an annual occurrence. The failure of the IRA’s border campaign from 1956-62 reduced that organisation’s activity and state-organised parades were considered relatively unproblematic. Thus by 1961 the state had an established hegemony in the national discourse on the Rising. That year, Irish participation in the United Nations mission to the Congo was emphasised as part of the 1916 legacy. The decorated UN soldiers formed the vanguard of the military parade which saw de Valera unveil a commemorative plaque at the GPO (Irish Times, 3 April 1961). In terms of collective memory, the Easter Rising was placed on a pedestal as an unquestionable good in national discourse. Yet such idolatry would soon be met with iconoclasm and revisionist history as, for the first time, the Rising was subjected to analyses other than those of the competing nationalisms of the Civil War factions.


Emphasising the tension between history and memory, Tony Judt wrote the following:

Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive – which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins. But history does need to be learned and periodically re-learned. In a popular Soviet-era joke, a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing.’ (Judt, 2005: 830).

Ireland was not unique in going through a period of transition during the 1960s. While the fiftieth anniversary commemorations represented perhaps the last unabashed manifestation of the certainties of ‘republican nationalist orthodoxy’, history and memory would collide during this decade.

The transition was reflected in the emergence of a new historiography which questioned the orthodox view of the past. In many ways it was from this time that the past ‘kept changing’. Memory alone could no longer reinforce itself as a new wave of scholarly interest raised questions about old national certainties. For Laffan:

it was facilitated by changes in mood and attitude in the Republic. By the time of the Lemass boom years of the 1960s, independent Ireland was more obviously a success story than she had been twenty or thirty years earlier, and her citizens found it easier to be proud of their collective achievements (Laffan, 1991: 109).

This bears out theories on memory when related to social, cultural and economic conditions. Zerubavel has argued that yearning for yesteryear is more pronounced in groups that experience sharp political, economic or cultural downturns (Zerubavel, 2003: 39). As such, the need to remember was especially pronounced up until the 1950s when Ireland was bedevilled with the social ills that accompany recession. Indeed, from the Anglo-Irish Treaty to the mid-1950s, the GDP of the Irish economy only grew a total of one percent (Garvin, 2004).

The 1966 commemoration represented “the last over-the-top purgation of a debt to the past which most of the celebrants secretly suspected would go unpaid” (Kiberd, 1991: 6). So, while the huge military parade that accompanied the celebrations had the appearance of the old orthodoxy, nationalist pieties were slowly unravelling (Townshend, 2006: 349). De Valera, now President, talked of the continuing struggle for the ideals of the 1916 rebels, who had placed intellectual and spiritual development, language and family, on a higher plain than economic necessity or ‘political freedom alone’ (Boyce, 1996: 178). All the while, intellectual discourse was taking a more questioning turn, most emphatically represented in the historical revisionism of Conor Cruise O’Brien.

In The Embers of Easter, O’Brien declared that “The greatest tragedy about the creation of a State on the basis of ideals impossible to attain was the release sought through national fantasy” (O’Brien, 1967: 232). He highlighted the Dublin government’s tendency to propagate such fantasy while punishing those who act upon it. Regarding the social aims of the rebels, Ireland was far removed from the Workers’ Republic of Connolly or the pedagogic haven envisaged by Pearse. While there were recognisable achievements – maintaining a solid democracy and, for a time, an independent foreign policy – in terms of the aims of the Easter Rising, O’Brien concluded: “We have no cause, in this anniversary year, for self congratulation” (ibid: 237).

F.X. Martin went further in his revision with a stinging criticism of the bases, justification and consequences of the Rising. Some defenders of the Rising had proffered Catholic ‘just war’ doctrine as a legitimating factor. Martin argued that this did not hold up. For a war to be considered just, he argued, a country must be under a tyrannous government with no legitimate rule, which can only be removed through armed force. Additionally, the damage caused by insurgency must be proportionately less than the ills inflicted by the regime; there must be communal approval and a possibility of success (Martin, 1967: 248). For Martin, the Easter Rising met none of these prerequisites. Conditions had been improving with suffrage being progressively extended, while Ireland was undergoing a relative economic boom during the Great War.

The Irish Times celebrated the new awakening of historical consciousness, which was not confined to the academy alone, but was prevalent among the general public too. The article captured the mood with the following lines:

It has been said ever so often that the Irish should forget their history. This is not true. They should read enough of it to be able to discern truth from propaganda. A well-stocked mind cannot be narrow and is less likely to be a bitter one than when the mental diet has been a select list of prejudices (Irish Times, 14 April 1966).

Thus, with a half-century past since the Easter Rising, Irish nationalism appeared to be emerging from the realms of idolatry. It was only in subsequent years, with the Troubles[4] in Northern Ireland in full flight, that journalists, historians and politicians returned to examine the 1966 celebrations as a possible source of conflict or of tacit support for the Provisional IRA. However, in 1966 the IRA was in disarray, and the Provisional faction did not yet exist (Townshend, 2006: 349). The newspapers of the day said little of the possible resurgence of physical force republicanism. Instead, reflecting on the legacy of the Easter rebels, the Irish Times concluded: They could “at least be discussed without dust and heat. And that is something” (Irish Times, 14 April 1966).





One of the peculiarities of what Gillis calls the ‘national phase of commemoration’ is the tendency to prefer the dead to the living. Yet by the late 1960s, Gillis argues, this phase was coming to an end. Memory was becoming more global and local, moving out of the nationalist frame of collective memory and into the post-national phase (Gillis, 1994: 11-13). In terms of war memory, this reflects the ‘dialectic between the need to remember and the need to forget’. Remembrance becomes vulnerable to decay as new memory traces interfere (Winter and Sivan, 1999: 17-30). Yet it was memory traces in Northern Ireland that were to interfere with mnemonic dialectics in the Irish Republic. The year 1969 was to alter the manner in which 1916 was remembered and commemorated. The early sparks of that fiery conflict – seen in the clashes between civil rights marchers, the RUC and loyalists at Burntollet Bridge; the subsequent resignation of Terence O’Neill; the deployment of British troops; and the split in the IRA that led to the inauguration of the Provisional[5] faction (Ó Dochartaigh, 1997) – heralded some serious soul searching above and beyond the historiography of the previous decade.

Some of this reflection returned to the jubilee year of 1966 when both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising were celebrated with palpable bombast North and South respectively. At least this was the conclusion in retrospect. Even as late as 1998 Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the Northern Ireland Victims’ Commissioner, purported to “identify the first stirrings of the current conflict in the clash of conflicting ideologies in 1966,” warning that “in our society commemoration itself can too easily take on a confrontational quality” (quoted in Beiner, 2007: 386). Yet one must remember that these commemorations came at a backdrop to an increasing rapprochement between the two the two jurisdictions in Ireland, as well as between the Republic and Great Britain (Boyce, 2001: 266). While underlying republican continuity, Taoiseach Seán Lemass softened its tone, emphasising unity of people as opposed to territory. Indeed he took control of the commemoration committee himself, in an effort to avoid encouraging the ‘wrong’ kind of politics (Tobin, 1984: 24).

So, as the Troubles approached, Irish nationalism, in the Republic at least, seemed to be changing in terms of its explicit and peculiar character. The national interests and values were on the move from the irredentism of previous eras as, for the first time since independence, a Taoiseach paid an official visit to a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. But is it possible that the commemorations of 1966 could lead to the breakdown in this political ecumenism? The PIRA was not formed out of deference to Easter 1916, no matter how much they drew upon that legacy. Rather, paramilitarism emerged out of the building tensions in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, events in Northern Ireland would affect remembrance in the Republic. Thus, as the conflict worsened, annual military commemorations of the Rising were cancelled in 1970 (Beiner, 2007: 366).


The reaction of the political classes in the Republic to the conflict next door manifested a certain irony regarding the Easter Rising. It became evident through the Troubles that what was alive of the republican tradition in the 26 counties was dead in the North. Alternately, what was dead of that tradition in the South was very much alive in the North (Aughey, 1991: 73). While southerners had become socialised into a 26-county context, the maintenance of the national territorial claim in Bunreacht na hÉireann had made intransigence a principle of politics, while freeing the state of any actual obligation to bring unity. Commemorative activity served to salve the conscience of southern republicanism. However the re-emergence of sectarian violence and the claim of the PIRA to the legacy of the Rising represented such ‘ideological pigeons coming home to roost’ (ibid: 87). Thus, the republican tradition in Northern Ireland posed a threat to southern (constitutional) nationalism.

There was a generational gap at play in the Republic too. In the early days of the Free State, participation in the Rising had been a necessary part of the political resume for aspiring politicians. ‘Where were you in 1916?’ became a familiar taunt from the Fianna Fáil benches in the late 1920s (Townshend: 2006: 344). Indeed, 1916 had produced a new generation of political leaders whose participation gave them greater authority to tame southern insurrectionary tendencies during the early years of statehood. In 1969, however, democratic politicians had no such pedigree to bolster their counter-insurgent position (Garvin, 1991: 25). Despite the rapprochement under the Lemass leadership, this was the first time since 1925 that Dublin had been forced to take a real look across the border. Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch showed indecision when strong leadership was required. While talking of peaceful reform, rumours were already bubbling of gun-running by two of his senior ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney (Keogh, 1994: 622).

The descent into violence in Northern Ireland undermined much of the romanticism the Rising had held in the Republic. With a growing abhorrence of violence internationally during the 1960s and 1970s people were already questioning the case for commemorating militancy. The Troubles emphatically shifted the balance against the case for armed struggle (FitzGerald, 2003: 5). The PIRA represented an ideological throwback that gave acute discomfort to southern politicians (Boyce, 1996: 181). Until the 1990s, such discomfort overrode the will to contest claims to the Rising’s legacy. Yet, it is common for organisations like the PIRA will seek discursive continuity with the past. Historical analogies show that our ‘ties’ to the past are often purely symbolic (Zerubavel, 2003: 52). This was evident in the links drawn between the blood sacrifice ideal of 1916 and the hunger strikers in 1980-81. In such a context, it would prove extremely problematic for the Republic to continue commemorating the Rising’s legacy.


At a backdrop of bitter violence in Northern Ireland, analyses of the Rising took various shapes. There were those of the ‘tribal voice’ school who sought to explain the Troubles in terms of atavistic tendencies inherent in the Catholics and Protestants of Ulster, and Ireland more generally. Gilley provides an example of this in invoking the alleged ‘revolutionary character’ of Irish Catholicism that Pearse had appropriated so successfully to provide religious legitimation for the Rising. Thus, for Gilley, “The passionate purity of the young firebombers in Belfast is Pearse’s legacy” (Gilley, 1986: 42-43). Kearney describes the PIRA’s invocation of martyrdom as proof of the Rising’s lasting legacy for republicanism. So, the hunger strikers in the Maze were driven by politics but inspired by myth, in the process invoking the idea of redemption embodied in the Easter Rising (Kearney, 1997: 110).

The Easter Rising was won, not when the rebels shot at the British, but when they were shot by them. The hunger strikers took this motif to their death beds in a most dramatic form of commemoration. The PIRA were, as a result, depicted not as terrorist aggressors but as sacrificial victims. The ‘military wing’ cited revolutionary socialism while the ‘prison wing’ would turn to the mythic idioms of Catholic Irish nationalism (ibid: 112-113). Events, by this rationale, are interpreted vis-à-vis images and symbols from the national past. Regarding the Rising itself, Githens-Mazer asserts that the rebels’ sense of injustice emanates from this repertoire of national myths and symbols (Githens-Mazer, 2006: 2). The same rationale has been applied to those young fire-bombers in Belfast.

Yet the above analyses give too much power to myths and memories. The Civil Rights movement did not emanate from myths and symbols. Nor did it reflect a desire to emulate the Easter Rising. Activists demanded to be treated as equal British subjects if they were to remain in the British polity. It was from this perspective that their sense of injustice emanated. The rise of militant republicanism must be placed in its appropriate context, not in an abstract apostolic past of which Pearse was a proverbial messiah. Thus, McGarry and O’Leary reject such ‘culturalist’ interpretations. It was not memory that motivated the PIRA but rational calculations in pursuit of strategic objectives, even if these calculations sometimes precipitated irrational behaviour (McGarry and O’Leary, 1995: 245). While the PIRA might have drawn upon the Easter Rising, it was neither a motivational force nor a call to arms. Had the Rising clashed with their characterisation of nationalism, it would not have been used.

Nonetheless, the PIRA’s appropriation of the legacy of 1916 caused discomfort in the Republic, where even Fianna Fáil began to show revisionist tendencies (Laffan, 1991: 116). In the Republic, characterisations of the PIRA’s campaign bore striking resemblance to Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell’s analysis of the Rising when writing to British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith in 1916: “It is not an Irish Rebellion – it would be a pity if ex post facto it became one, and was added to the long and melancholy list of Irish Rebellions” (quoted in Ó Broin, 1966: 122). Thus, many of these politicians regretted looking over the border. The avoidance of state commemorations for the Rising represented a will to forget the kind of politics the Rising could potentially represent.


More than any other jubilee year, the 75th anniversary in 1991 reflected the dialectic between the need to remember and the need to forget. The newspaper reports of Easter Week 1991 were most reflective of that dialectic. The Sunday Press, a nationalist publication closely linked to Fianna Fáil, had the following to say:

Today we celebrate and commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the 1916 Rising and we do so with pride. To refuse to commemorate this historic event because it might be taken, as justifying the campaign of death and destruction of the Provisional IRA is to further boost that organisation’s continuing attempts to justify their claims to be the inheritors of the ideals of the men who fought in 1916 (Sunday Press, 31 March 1991).

The Irish Times was more circumspect in its analysis. While emphasising that the Rising was a “calculated conspiracy to spill blood” whose participants knew that that most of the blood would be that of innocents, Ireland was not alone in her bloody foundation. While proposing that without the resort to arms Ireland might not be partitioned, or the North in conflict, much of the coverage was based around contextualising the Rising. So, in the same article the reader was urged not to judge the Rising by the standards of today: “Easter 1916 was a different world. It must neither intimidate nor antagonise us in today’s Ireland” (Irish Times, 30 March 1991).

Among scholars, Garvin argued that Ireland was not committed to realise the vision of the Easter rebels’ self-sacrifice: “Necrocracy,” he wrote, “is incompatible with democracy” (Garvin, 1991: 28). Aughey furthers this point in saying “To celebrate the fixed community envisaged by the Easter Rebellion is to celebrate a never-ending ought to be” (Aughey, 1991: 83). The state, he concluded, had recognised this predicament in having only the most perfunctory of celebrations. Thus, it seemed that the state’s reluctance to engage in over-the-top commemorations indicated its enthrallment to another set of values. The state itself had become increasingly central to national identity, while economic concerns occupied a higher order of values and interests than Pearse’s romantic idyll (Ó Crualaíoch, 1991: 60).

The 1996 anniversary came at a backdrop of a PIRA statement over the prospect of negotiated peace. They acknowledged the need for negotiations but showed inflexibility in their terms, holding the British responsible for the conflict and emphasising the pursuit of Irish territorial unification (Irish Times, 6 April 1996). However, their subsequent bombing of Canary Wharf later that year made obvious the need to move beyond traditionalist versions of self-determination towards a more imaginative conception of nationhood. However, the Easter Rising was not discarded amid the strenuous efforts at finding such novel conceptions. Interestingly, it was combined with other memory traces and, as before, subjected to the contexts, exigencies and interests of the time.

We will see in the final section how negotiations culminating in the Good Friday Agreement altered conceptions of sovereignty in both Britain and Ireland, bringing a sea-change in Irish nationalism. Revisionism since the 1960s had succeeded in demythologising the Irish past, making history and remembrance uneasy companions. By 1991 this had begun to ‘percolate the public mind’ (McBride, 2001: 37-38). While the 26-county state became a normalised frame of reference for citizens of the Republic, remembrance of the Rising could not be understood solely in this context. Events in Northern Ireland would always inform southern reflection on this lieu de mémoire.



In this final section our thoughts turn to the character of Irish nationalism during Bertie Ahern’s period as Taoiseach. Given Ahern’s role in negotiating a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland, it seemed incongruous that in 2006 it was he who revived the annual military commemoration of the Easter Rising. Speaking retrospectively in 2007, Ahern addressed the controversy surrounding the event, asserting that it was not “a sectional memory”. He proceeded to extol the virtues of all those who took part in the Rising, irrespective of their stance in the Civil War. In addition he sought to commemorate those Irishmen who had died in the Great War (Ahern, 2007a). However, as was noted during the previous two years, Ahern’s party made much political capital out of the event. In the first instance, his announcement that the commemoration would be revived was delivered not to an official state forum, such as Dáil Éireann, but at the Fianna Fáil Árd-Fheis, the ruling party’s general meeting (Beiner, 2007: 367).

Village Magazine pointed to Ahern’s concern with the growing popularity in the Republic of Sinn Féin[6], who posed a danger to Fianna Fáil’s electoral base (Village, 26 October 2005). Thus, the 2006 commemoration was taken as a political stunt to ward off Sinn Féin’s claims to be the inheritors of the 1916 legacy. The commemoration itself provoked further debate as much of it was framed in brazenly partisan terms. Ahern’s speech at the National Museum referenced the ‘high points’ of the twentieth century, but only mentioned events over which Fianna Fáil had presided (Pine, 2008: 224). Observing the event, Vincent Browne wrote the following:

[Ahern] said the four great cornerstones of Irish history over the 90 years were the 1916 proclamation, the 1937 Constitution, the ratification of the Treaty of Rome in 1972 (which resulted in Ireland’s entry to the EU) and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty doesn’t rate apparently, the device whereby this part of Ireland became independent! In the divisive 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Fianna Fáil’s pretence to diminish the Treaty was commonplace – but this is in 2006? (Village, 12 April 2006).

Yet if Ahern’s partisan sense of history aroused the umbrage of journalists and opposition politicians in the Republic, how were Ulster Unionists to take such commemorations? Indeed, in the context of paramilitary decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland, such a display of martial pageantry seemed rather inappropriate. Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern sought to redress such problems in writing an article entitled “Shared History Can Help Build a Shared Future” (Irish Times, 11 November 2005). He urged the celebration of the year 1916 more generally as a year of significance for the whole island. Thus, the Easter Week commemorations would be followed in July 2006 by a state commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. For Beiner, this combination of events while “falling short of conciliating Northern Irish animosities, recognized conflicting perceptions of both trauma and triumph and touched on an ingrained common legacy of Ireland’s “mythistory”” (Beiner, 2007: 389).

However, it is the contention of this paper that such pageantry could not have taken place without the institutional provisions of the Good Friday Agreement[7]. As we shall see, these provisions altered the constitutive and regulative structures of the two jurisdictions in Ireland. As such, remembrance has once again come in response to circumstances, and to political exigencies and opportunities. We will now present a brief analysis of those aspects of the GFA that have altered the character of Irish nationalism with regard to our typology in Section I.


Aside from the consociational elements of the GFA, there were key additional elements that enabled its institutionalisation. One is of crucial importance to the third tenet of our adopted typology of nationalism: that the nation should be sovereign (Breuilly, 1993: 2). The GFA recognised that the cause of the conflict lay in competing claims to sovereignty over Northern Ireland (O’Duffy, 1999: 523).  The resolution sought to re-evaluate constitutive elements of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In an international context, the decline in the particularistic sovereignty of nation-states in Europe did much to aid this process (Mann, 1993: 487). Following a similar rationale, Gillis asserts that the world was entering a post-national era as far back as the 1960s, which must construct new memories and identities to adapt to contemporary complexities:

In this difficult and conflicted period of transition, democratic societies need to publicize rather than privatize the memories and identities of all groups, so that each may know and respect the other’s version of the past, thereby understanding better what divides as well as unites us (Gillis, 1994: 20).

However, the GFA cannot be characterised as a post-nationalist solution. While remembrance has adapted to some of the mores suggested by Gillis, in many ways it still proceeds from the institutional creativity of the Agreement. In recognising opposing nationalisms as the core of the conflict, the GFA addresses ‘constitutive’ aspects of sovereignty, moving away from the proto-Westphalian paradigm of absolute, unitary states. Evolving from the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), it addresses regulative aspects, facilitated by the experience of ‘pooled sovereignty’ in the European Union (O’Duffy, 2000: 399-405). Negotiations sought to bring greater symmetry to the sum of relationships relevant to Northern Ireland: between the British and Irish governments; and, internally, between Nationalists and Unionists. Thus, the Irish government amended Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution as a conciliatory gesture to Unionists. Reciprocally, Westminster amended the 1920 Government of Ireland Act that had precipitated partition (ibid: 410).

The effect of the above machinations was to express national self-determination in a consensual manner. It addressed the ethno-nationalisms within Northern Ireland and the institutions of the civic nations of Ireland and Britain. The GFA emerges as recognition that Ireland/Northern Ireland presents a challenging case for ethnic-civic dichotomies. A ‘unitary-statist’ alternative (whether British of Irish) would prove unacceptable to either of the ethno-national minorities within Northern Ireland (O’Duffy, 1999: 525; 2000: 428). As such, the GFA establishes federal and confederal arrangements within the UK and Ireland that help to balance the internal consociational structures. Here we will address only the Irish federalising processes, found in Strand 2 of the GFA.

The North-South Ministerial Council is characterised in some quarters as an embryonic institution of a federal Ireland. The amendments to the Irish Constitution officially recognise two jurisdictions on the island, each with the power to their own self-determination. Hypothetically speaking, any process of all-island unification would be consensual rather than assimilative, with Unionists offered the same protections in Ireland currently given to Nationalists in Northern Ireland (O’Leary, 1999: 85). Thus, Irish nationalism has shifted considerably from the irredentism of republican nationalist orthodoxy and indeed from the obliviousness of the Easter Rebels to the Ulster Unionist tradition. Consent has become a “constitutional grundnorm” in the Republic (O’Duffy, 2000: 412).


Such institutional developments invariably alter the character of commemoration. By contrast with the position of Charles Haughey in 1991, referred to at the beginning of this paper, Bertie Ahern is not so constrained with regard to remembrance. While he may choose not to credit the achievements of his rivals in the Dáil (depending on exigencies of political game-playing), he is no longer inhibited from doing so. Indeed he could address the Joint Houses of Parliament at Westminster in 2007. Here he emphasised his pride at having commemorated the Easter Rising in 2006. Yet in the following breath he said: “Irish nationalism has its heroes as does unionism. We need to acknowledge each others pride in our separate and divided past” (Ahern, 2007b).

Bertie Ahern’s politics are by no means post-nationalist, but a recasting of his party’s tradition in response to the context of his time: “As an Irish republican, it is my passionate hope that we will see the island of Ireland united in peace. But I will continue to oppose with equal determination any effort to impose unity through violence or the threat of violence”. Unity by consent, he purported, had become the “unchallengeable consensus” of our time (ibid.). This is a nationalism that still aspires to unification but is framed in the terms of the GFA. Thus, in remembering the nationalist past, Ahern invokes those tenets of the Rising and the Proclamation that reflect his aspirations but invokes alongside them motifs of consensus and shared history. When dealing with political parties in the Republic, he vacillates between magnanimity and outright opportunism.

Pearse had tapped into the idea that memory is not understood, but somehow innate, and that it requires a ‘Him’ (namely Pearse himself) to unlock its mystery. The character of remembrance in the years that followed showed that this was manifestly not the case. For Boyce, “It is hard to see how a ‘collective memory’ can be formulated and asserted without some political necessity to express it, and the means of doing so” (Boyce, 2001: 264). During the Troubles, such means were not available for the southern state. The fear of encouraging the martial endeavours of Provisional Republicanism undermined such commemoration. Yet the GFA subtly altered the character of the Irish state and the tone of Irish nationalism.

Ahern could announce the revival of military commemorations in 2006 because of a very different context that provided him the means of doing so. Sinn Féin’s participation in the peace process gave them more credibility among voters in the Republic, posing a danger to Fianna Fáil’s position. In a broader perspective, the decision to commemorate the Rising once again can be taken, like many traditions, as a response to a novel situation by reference to an old one (Hobsbawm, 1983: 2). The GFA gave the Republic of Ireland a greater stake in Northern Ireland than at any time since independence. Yet it came at the cost of some long-held aspirations and required recognition of a new reality. As such, the 2006 Easter Rising commemoration must be taken in tandem with the commemorations of the Somme as representative of a changed and changing nationalism.


Early on we accepted the challenge from A.D. Smith (1998) to move forward in an open and empirical manner, so as not to read the past solely from the perspective of our present. Yet in choosing a topic such as remembrance this paper has sought to analyse the manner in which successive ‘presents’ have reacted to Irish nationalism’s lieu de mémoire, the Easter Rising. The dynamism of remembrance comes from its utility as a social force in fostering a sense of identity, structure and ‘sameness’ (Gillis, 1994: 3). However, nationalism, as a political force, utilises the ductility of memory to further the national project. With regard to our chosen typology of nationalism, we have seen how Irish nationalism has changed in subtle ways throughout the period under review. This has affected the manner in which the Easter Rising was commemorated.

Section II, traced the problematic nature of commemorating insurgency in a state that was attempting to stabilise itself. Irish nationalism in this period was somewhat confused. Politicians outwardly adhered to the aspirations of the Rising despite becoming quickly accustomed to the 26-county state. The Easter Rising was far from official, yet official nationalism in the Irish Free State was beholden to it. Drawing on the oppositional character of the Rising appeared, ironically, to buttress official nationalism. Commemorations therefore proceeded until this buttress collapsed under the pressure of inquisitive history and the fires of the Northern Ireland conflict.

By the 1960s historical analysis removed the Rising from the realms of idolatry as it was subjected to serious investigation. People began to recognise that Ireland’s golden hour did not await the realisation of the Easter rebels’ aspirations. The 1966 parade was noted for its triumphalism and bombast. However, much of this note-taking took place after Northern Ireland had descended into conflict. Numerous scholars have, in this regard, neglected Smith’s warnings about reading the past solely through the eyes of our present. While the historiography of the 1960s questioned the mores of ‘republican nationalist orthodoxy’, it offered no prophecies of impending conflict

Section III observed the effect that the Troubles had on nationalism and remembrance in the Republic. Even if citizens in the Republic had become accustomed to a 26-county state, this period showed that Irish nationalism is better understood in a 32-county context. The onslaught of the Provisional IRA made southern nationalists uncomfortable with their ideological baggage. Thus, official commemorative activity was cancelled during the conflict. Despite being forced to look over the border, Irish governments sought to protect the sovereignty of the 26-county state. It became clear that the interests of this entity would outweigh all others.

Irish nationalism, North and South, is not a product of atavism. In the Republic, those in power suppressed revolutionary nationalist opposition rather than adhering to some tribal call to arms. It was sectarian realities and political opportunity, rather than mnemonic legacy, which spurred republicans to arms. Once again this emphasises the point that remembrance is not a stimulus in itself but responds to the changing character of a group’s identity. Even for the PIRA, the Easter Rising alone could not have precipitated a call to arms. Thus, remembrance of Easter 1916 for republicans served a similar function to that which it served for the Irish state: as a cohesive force that would respond to their characterisation of nationalism.

Section IV examined the most noticeable change in Irish nationalism under the auspices of the GFA. Subsequently, the ideals of the Rising were interpreted in a context very much of our contemporary ‘present’. Consensus became enshrined as one of the state’s primary interests and values under the tutelage of British-Irish intergovernmentalism (O’Duffy, 1999: 527). The establishment of the ‘double protection’ for minorities (in both Northern Ireland and the hypothetical unified Ireland) saw consensus outweigh the values represented by irredentism. The experience of the European Union had already recast the concept of sovereignty for Ireland and Britain.

In 2006, Bertie Ahern sought to reaffirm his position as leader of nationalist Ireland. This took a somewhat party-political tone, attempting to offset the emergence of Sinn Féin as a significant electoral force in the Republic. Yet he also wished to establish a sense of continuity with the nationalist past, and more particularly Fianna Fáil’s legacy in it. For Zerubavel, “The discursive production of a continuous biography consists of playing up those elements of our past that are consistent with (or can somehow be construed as prefiguring) our present identity while downplaying those that are incongruous with it” (Zerubavel, 2003: 53). The revived Easter commemorations added a new chapter to this continuous biography. This process involved including an Ulster room in the house of Irish nationalist thought, as Pearse had neglected to do (Lee, 1991: 137).

So, the Battles of the Somme and the Boyne were placed alongside the Easter Rising in Irish mnemonic discourse. This does not, however, signify Ireland’s entrance into the post-nationalist phase, merely the malleability of such ‘realms of memory’. But then, “lieux de mémoire thrive only because of their capacity for change, the ability to resurrect old meanings and generate new ones along with new and unforeseeable connections” (Nora, 1992: 14). That the Easter Rising can be conjoined with such ‘unforeseeable connections’ shows the responsiveness of remembrance to changing nationalism. That it can be conjoined with previously oppositional lieux de mémoire shows how significantly Irish nationalism has changed since Easter Monday 1916. Commemorations are still as selective as sympathies, but such sympathies depend on assumptions regarding the explicit and peculiar character of the nation. The changes in Irish nationalism have, as a result, altered its framework for remembrance.




Irish Times

Sunday Press

Village Magazine

Internet Resources

Department of the Taoiseach

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[1]‘Sinn Féin’ here refers to the party established by Arthur Griffith in 1906, not directly involved in the Rising, but mistakenly credited with its organisation.

[2] President of the Executive Council: Prime Ministerial office of the Irish Free State, 1922-37.

[3]Non-executive office of head of state established by the 1937 Constitution (AKA Uachtarán na hÉireann).

[4] A widely used euphemism for the conflict in Northern Ireland

[5] Hereafter PIRA

[6] In this instance we refer to the contemporary (Provisional) Sinn Féin, formed in 1970-71 after a split in the wider republican movement (see Ó Dochartaigh, 1997: Ch. 5). The appropriation of the name of the earlier Sinn Féin presents another useful example of Zerubavel’s ‘search for discursive continuity’.

[7] Hereafter GFA


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