CCBS Annual Talk at the John Hewitt Summer School
This year’s John Hewitt Summer School was organised around the theme, A Role in History: the Rising, the Great War and a Shared Past. Contributing to the conversations around this theme, Catriona Crowe, Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland presented the CCBS-sponsored lecture, How have we remembered 1916?
The commemoration of the events of 1916 this year is for many people the high point of the Decade of Centenaries– from the anniversary of the third Home Rule bill and the Ulster covenant to the end of the Civil War (2012 to 2023). Reflecting that she had warned in 2012 that the decade of commemorations is “capable of all kinds of uses, abuses, interpretations, misinterpretations, illuminations, mischiefs, sublime new understandings and ancient bad tempers”, Catriona concluded that “on balance we have had more sublime new understandings than ancient bad tempers” over the past four years.
A number of recently published books draw upon important new primary sources that have opened up the field of investigative and interpretative operations – in particular, the records of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions Projectnow sited at the new Military Archives building at Cathal Brugha Barracks.
The records of the Bureau of Military History have transformed the study of the period. Quoting from some of the personal testimonies in the collection, she explained that “because the statements dealt with peoples’ recollections of their actions quite a while after they happened, they are relaxed and give a flavour of the writers’ personalities,”. The Military Service Pensions Project, a more reliable and much larger archive for the period is currently being released to the public. Other valuable online archives from the period have been made available by the National Library, the National Museum, Maynooth University, Trinity College, UCD, the Irish Times and RTE.
The official State response was “an enormous and ambitious programme of events” and a capital programme including the refurbishment of Kilmainham Courthouse and the new Military Archives building; the schools flag and Proclamation initiative; and funding for myriad projects all over the country. The centre of the ceremonial events was the military parade on Easter Sunday. The National Concert Hall ran “an astonishing series of events”, Imagining Home; and the performance, on Easter Sunday of Paul Muldoon’s 100 Years a Nation,
“was a moment when the authority of the poet took over for half an hour, to remind us that there are things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of in our history, and in that we are no different to any other country.”
Catriona went on to reflect on the controversy about the Remembrance Wall at Glasnevin Cemetery and the contribution of site-specific theatre productions as a means to deliver good public history. She noted also that all of our major universities hosted major conferences dealing with different aspects of events; while Universities Ireland [www.universitiesireland.ie], has been to the fore in running successful public history conferences. Last and perhaps in this case also least, were some examples of ‘commemoration kitsch’, including the chocolate Proclamation “which allows you to munch your way through Irishmen and Irishwomen, the dead generations and our gallant allies in Europe.”
In conclusion, Catriona Crowe expressed her hopes that the difficult remainder of the decade of centenaries will go as smoothly, but also that we do not go through these years with a soft-centred aspiration to please everyone. Rather, we should aim for “a new understanding, well supported by good archival evidence, with no concessions to sacred cows.”
Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland. She is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, which has placed the 1901 and 1911 censuses online free of charge over the last years. She is an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, which published its ninth volume, covering the period 1948 – 51, in November 2014. She is editor of Dublin 1911, published by the Royal Irish Academy in late 2011. She is Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Limerick and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. She contributes regularly to the broadcast and print media on cultural and historical matters.