A Year to Remember: 1916

I’ve been quiet on the blog of late as I just completed my last month of maternity leave and celebrated the Christmas holidays. Rather belatedly, I’m writing my first post of 2016 as I start back into work and get stuck in to my agenda as a Research Fellow in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s.

2016 is a big year in the history of the island of Ireland – 1916 is year to remember for all sorts of reasons, not least because of the Easter Rising (so important to Catholic nationalists) and the Battle of the Somme (so important to Protestant unionists).

Already there are plans for commemoration after commemoration, north and south, by official Governments and by grassroots groups. There’s been a lot of groundwork laid, particularly since 2012, in this ‘decade of commemorations’ of key events in the island’s history.

From an Irish Christian perspective, one of the best books one might read to begin reflecting on this year is Johnston McMaster’s 2012 Overcoming Violence: Dismantling and Irish History and Theology. McMaster demonstrates how the ‘Christendom’-inspired theologies of the time and the abuse of power by the island institutional churches contributed to and reinforced violence.

If Christians, and the churches, are to make any constructive contribution to reflection on 1916 it must begin with an awareness of the role that religion has played in inspiring and justifying violence.

Patsy McGarry’s article in yesterday’s Irish Times, ‘Pádraig Pearse’s overtly Catholic Rising was immoral and anti-democratic’, is one example of how the role of religion can be deconstructed in public debate. Readers familiar with so-called ‘revisionism’ in Irish history will not find much surprising in his critique. (I must confess I was convinced of the merits of ‘revisionism’ studying Irish politics with Tom Garvin at UCD). McGarry suggests Pearse’s thinking was quasi-blasphemous:

‘The timing of the Rising for Easter was deliberate, and intended to signify a risen people commensurate with the risen Christ.’

I think I would say blasphemous rather than simply quasi-blasphemous!

McGarry also recommends a distancing of 1916 commemorations from the Easter holiday to the last weekend of April, which would mitigate its religious symbolism. This also seems sensible to me, and it would be interesting to hear how the leaders of our institutional churches would weigh in on such a proposal.

I think it’s worth reflecting on the final few paragraphs of his article as we head into 2016:

Had constitutional politics prevailed in Ireland beyond the 1914 Home Rule Act, it is probable a southern state emerging from such legislation would have had a more easeful financial separation from Britain than that precipitated by 1916.

Then it might not have been necessary to reduce the old age pension in the new state by 10 per cent in 1924, two years after it came into being, while the penury and mass emigration of subsequent decades might have been avoided.

None of this is to ignore the 485 people killed in the Rising, most of them civilians, 40 of them children under 17, none of whom asked to die.

All were ignored at the Dublin Castle ceremonies last Sunday, except for the 78 volunteers killed, whose names were read out. They at least chose to be part in the Rising.

Singling them out simply continues the glorification of political violence sanctified by 1916 that has bedevilled the island of Ireland for most of the past 100 years.

Further, such 1916 commemorations should not take place at Easter but over the last weekend of April each year.

Marking the event at Easter is to concede to the quasi-blasphemous religious stance of Pearse and his colleagues.


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