Already there has been plenty of uproar about how the government and its cultural institutions intend to commemorate the rising. Sean Finnan takes a look at how conflicting narratives battle over 1916 to legitimise contemporary concerns.
Commemorating 1916 has always been both a factitious and contentious event. In 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, the events of Easter week were celebrated with militaristic bravado while in 1991,with the war in the north still rumbling on, the militarism of the rising was embarrassingly hushed by the then government, for fear of legitimising the ongoing violence.
I spoke to Robert Ballagh, artist and one of the founders of Reclaim 1916, on the government’s initial unwillingness to adequately commemorate the founding moment of the Irish nation-state.
“For a long time those of us who were interested in commemorating and celebrating this seminal event in our history were kind of amazed at the lack of interest and the lack of planning that the government were engaging in. Then last November they conducted the debacle at the GPO which I think offended an awful lot of people with their video #IrelandInspires which airbrushed all the men and women of 1916 out of history in the very place they made history.”
The #IrelandInspires video, pulled shortly afterwards, effectively made 1916 into a non-event. Stock images brought us skipping through the past 99 years, until all the video showed were of a contemporary Ireland, one of multinational internet companies and laboratories. In distancing contemporary Ireland from the historical moment, the idealism that inspired the men and women to action is being removed on an official level at least, from the current debate.
The programme may have been improved on since, yet the initial actions of the government show the awkwardness that exists on really delving into a critical analysis for their commemorative programme.
“But the one thing I’m pretty confident that the state won’t be engaging in is any type of critical analysis, any sort of comparison between what were the aims and objectives of the men and women of 1916, their notion of the transformation of society and the fact that transformation was spelt out in the Proclamation of 1916,” states Ballagh.
“I think the current reality is that we as a state have failed to deliver in any meaningful way on those aims and objectives. Now I don’t think the government will be engaging in that sort of critical analysis.”
Dr. P.J Mathews, Professor of Irish Literature at UCD and co-editor of The Handbook of the Irish Revival tends to agree.
“I think commemorations always reflect, particularly official commemorations always reflect the pressures of the moment. I think one of the issues here is that how do you celebrate the moment of revolution shortly after a time that we’ve just lost our sovereignty and I think that’s a real issue for official Ireland. At a time when people are marching in the streets against water charges and all the rest of it, at a time when official Ireland is uncomfortable with that.”
Reclaim 1916, is as Ballagh describes, a citizen initiative, a collection of activists and artists that wish to open up the conversation on 1916. Rather than ‘official’ Ireland controlling the narrative on the Easter Rising as it has continually done, Reclaim seeks to critically engage citizens in the historical moment of 1916 and determine what has occurred to the deterioration of that vision since.
“In the outworkings of the Civil War, it wasn’t so much that the Republicans lost, it was that the counter revolution won,” Ballagh states on the deterioration of the idealism of 1916 in independent Ireland. “The forces were not keen on, shall we say, on the vision of 1916, the radical intentions that were contained in the Proclamation, they were the victorious nationalists in the civil war, and they set up a state called the Irish Free State which suited their interests and you know they were made up mostly from big farmers, the professional classes, there weren’t too many working class people involved in the new Irish establishment and also they chose as their allies, the pretty reactionary Catholic church.”
Obvious then why the government wishes to airbrush history and use 1916 as a kind of stock event, to manipulate the energy of discourse that surrounds the centenary and attach it to their own rhetoric of stability and growth at a time of social deterioration. Unlike before however, there seems to be greater scope to challenge such official rhetoric, as the Abbey Theatre found out to its detriment last month. After the launch of their programme ‘Waking The Nation’, which included only one female playwright out of ten, in a theatre so symbolically important to the foundation of the state, it was clear that women’s voices were once again being ignored on the reflection of history.
“Judging by the depth of anger and emotion brought up over the past two weeks, the Abbey’s 2016 programme was just a tipping point,” states Lian Bell, set designer and instigator of the #WakingtheFeminists discussion on twitter.
“I think that the combination of the programme having such a clear gender imbalance (again!), while purporting to be the reflection of a nation at a pivotal moment of looking back to where we came from, really highlighted how deeply the vein of gender bias runs in the theatre, and by extension, in society as a whole.”
Beginning as a discussion on Twitter challenging the marginalisation of women in Irish theatre, the discussion has taken a much broader scope on the question of gender imbalance in Irish society.
“Both the Abbey and the Irish Film Board have made statements pledging to address the problem of gender imbalance,” continues Bell.
“This is a great starting point. Personally, I’d like it to go much further. I think this is a chance to look at the structures of society as a whole – how we subtly disadvantage girls from the start.
One speaker at Waking the Feminists meeting at Abbey Theatre set and lighting designer Zia Holly, talked about growing up as a girl in a family of boys and being told she could do anything the boys could, and imagining that the boys were never told they could do anything a girl could.
“That’s the frightening insidiousness of gender inequality. It’s so deeply ingrained in us, that it’s almost impossible to imagine how to root it out. But the first step is naming it, and calling it out when we see it in ourselves and in others.”
As the reaction to the Abbey’s programme has made clear, the centenary of 1916 already has an incendiary spark, one that the government will try to dampen in its de-politicised programme for the centenary, while others will try to augment and attach their struggles as a continuation of the struggles of a century ago. What other conversations catch on the energy of the centenary will be interesting to see.
Illustration by Karen Vaughan