Commemorating Ireland


Ruán O'Donnell reviews Commemorating Ireland, history, politics, culture, edited by Eberhard Bort , Irish Academic Press  €

THE FIRST two essays in this collection, contributions by Peter Collins and Mary Daly, address different themes but share common ground in their discussion of the recent 1798 bicentennial commemorations.

Important ground is covered by both writers whose differing yet complimentary interpretations confirm the claim of their editor, Eberhard Bort, that Commemorating Ireland is ‘not yet another book on ’98 or the famine’.

Collins and Daly collectively make a strong case for full length treatments of their various sub themes, matters which go to the heart of the difficult evolution of the modern Irish state.

Collins outlines many of the key United Irishman commemorations of the last century and his survey is necessarily cursory owing to the constraints of the essay format. There is, for instance, no room for an account of the 1903 commemorations in Dublin which belatedly delivered the sense of political unity and progression sorely lacking in the capital in 1898.

However, the many insights and details provided by Collins bring the ongoing examination of his chosen topic to a new level. He is particularly strong on the northern dimension with its myriad complexities.

Daly, similarly, raises numerous points which warrant further attention whilst managing to avoid the myopia and cynicism which has vitiated most previous critiques of the Irish commemorations. One aspect which must eventually be tackled is the differing tenor of ‘official’ 1798 projects sanctioned and financed by the Fine Gael and subsequent Fianna Fail led governments in the late 1990s.

Readers must also await an explanation as to why the Famine exhibition planned for the National Museum never took place, an intriguing point flagged in Daly’s ‘History a la carte?’ Speculation on such matters will probably be left to columnists until historians have access to supporting documentation.

The ‘two nations’ view of 1798 mentioned in passing by Daly, however, has been rightly knocked on the head by one vital strand of commemoration output not surveyed in this volume: Irish academia. One does not have to grapple with post-modern concepts of ‘facts’ and ‘historicity’ to convincingly demolish the more facile aspects of unionist orientated 1798 ‘history’.

The great irony of trenchant Orange Order opposition to the Act of Union and the degradation of the northern Presbyterians by the established ascendancy has never been properly explained by the new unionists in print, even though 1798 commemorations in Belfast, Newry and Rostrevor heard frank discussions of such matters from Presbyterian historians.

Tony Canavan’s essay on Remembrance Day and Royal British Legion politics in Ireland is another stimulating contribution. Canavan makes an important point in his sustained argument that far more than mere tribal anti-Britishness militated against widespread Irish support for commemorating the war dead of 1914-18 and 1939-45.

Ray Burnett’s article contains interesting information on James Connolly’s activities in Ireland and Scotland in 1898 and Hiberno-Scottish reflections feature strongly in several other pieces. In fact, Commemorating Ireland is a misleading title given the amount of Scottish content in the fourteen contributions.

Books of this variety tend to be uneven and this is no exception. All in all, there is more than enough to justify at least one reading and certainly sufficient fresh content to inspire several PhDs.

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