Friday, April 25, 2014

What Exactly Are We Commemorating Here?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

It’s time to talk about 1916. It’s a pity that we have to talk about it at all, as the anniversary should be, in theory, like a second St Patrick’s Day at its very worst. But recent events and remarks in the press about inviting British Royals to attend whatever ceremonies will happen now beg the question what exactly is it that we’re commemorating, and what do we hope to achieve in that commemoration?

The momentum behind the idea of the British Royal Family being involved suggests that this hasn’t been thought through at all, and if we only learned one thing in recent years, we should have figured out that not thinking things through can only lead to trouble.

Fifty years ago, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, things were much clearer. The then President and Taoiseach were both active participants in 1916, and were going to push the boat out come what may.

Fifty years later, we are in a very different Ireland indeed. Thirty years of war in the North has made a lot of people ambivalent about nationalism. The continuing recession has made people bitter, and the continuing exposure of scandal-ridden state institutions as being deeply, deeply flawed eats away at national pride. The current government was elected to change all that in what felt like a culturally seismic election, and nothing has changed at all.

And through all this, Ireland’s warped relationship with the English now bubbles up again to distract further from the major work of repairing the country, ninety-four years after we were returned charge of it. England is Ireland’s frenemy, to use that useful phrase popularized by our sisters in the TV show Sex and the City.

We need them and we hate needing them. We insist that we are different because we are scared at how alike we are. We live and die with their soccer teams while lustily booing their soccer teams’ stars during the World Cup.

And of course for the English, the Irish are just a detail, like a bothersome bumble-bee at a picnic. The English are traumatised by the loss of their Empire, their national identity and, if things go Alex Sammond’s way in October, a good big slice of their United Kingdom itself. They really can’t make time for the Irish not knowing how to feel about Steven Gerrard.

Ireland isn’t the only country to have won a kind of freedom from the English. The United States of America did so as long ago as 1776. British Prime Ministers and Monarchs have visited the United States in official capacities many times since, but I don’t remember any of those Prime Ministers or Monarchs being asked to make goms of themselves at any Fourth of July celebrations.

India – another country where the British thought partition would be an answer – celebrates her Independence on the 15th of August. You will see His Royal Highness the Prince Harry buying beasts at the Fair in Belmullet on that day before you will see the Indian Government feeling the need to invite a Royal to India to confirm that there are no hard feelings, no, really.

Because isn’t that what this invitation is about, really? To reassure ourselves that we are still loved by our betters? There is no other way to explain it. It’s got nothing to with the dead generations from which Ireland derives her long tradition of nationhood, is it?

There’s an argument to be made that the idea of the nation state is a fading one, and the growth of the superpowers – the USA, a United States of Europe / European Federation, Russia, China and the rest, with individual national identities being to the super-state what Ballina is to Mayo, or what Mayo used to be to Ireland, is the way of future.

The future has a tendency to happen whether or not we’re prepared for it. The problem with a 1916 Commemoration Invitation to a British Royal is that such an invitation isn’t looking to that future.

If it were, the invitation would be to Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi and Francois Hollande (we’d have to give Hollande a +1 of course, rather than name his partner – you know what that fella’s like). But nobody’s talking about inviting our current and future partners. The invitation is to our former rulers, who still loom so large in our heads.

Why is that? Why, after ninety years, have we not learned to stand alone? And why, in the spurious “decade of commemoration,” aren’t we talking about the reasons that the Rising happened in the first place? What place will that long tradition of nationhood referred to in the Proclamation have when we celebrate its hundredth anniversary?

Liam Ó Briain, who later went on to become a Professor of Romance Languages in UCD, wrote a memoir, Cuimhní Cinn, of his own time in the Rising as a young man. Ó Briain was stationed on St Stephen’s Green West, near the Royal College of Surgeons. One night, he led a squad of men to raid some nearby premises to see what they could loot to use as barricades.

One of the troops found some old, thick books and suggested they be used, as they were thick enough to be as good as sandbags. Ó Briain examined the books – they were annals of the monasteries, the old books like the Book of Leinster and the Book of Ulster, which contains the first written history of Cúchulainn.

“We can’t use them lads,” Ó Briain told the men. “If we’re fighting this war for anything, we’re fighting for those books.”

The Government hopes to have a role for the British Royal Family at the 1916 Commemoration, and ideally they’re hoping that the Royals will be represented by the heir to the throne himself. What role will those old books have, the old books that Liam Ó Briain thought justified having a Rising in the first place? Or are we still standing by the gate, waiting for a nod from Sir as he rides by? Will the Irish stand there forever?