Machnamh 100 Seminar VI, entitled “Memory, History and Imagination”

Thu 17th Nov, 2022 | 19:00
location: RTÉ Player

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Thursday, 17th November, 2022

“1922 – The Most Significant Year?” Machnamh 100 Seminar VI: Memory, History and Imagination

17th November, 2022

It is to be welcomed, that, during the period of our Machnamh 100 seminars, so much new work has been published on the period of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the early years of the establishment of the Free State, that would, some decades later, be declared the Irish Republic.

Among such is Ireland 22 edited by Darragh Gannon and Fearghal McGarry, published by the Royal Irish Academy.

The 50 pieces from 50 contributors on 50 chosen themes of 1922 are an attractive invitation to reading below the surface of what was a most important, but horrific year, 1922.

The Irish Labour History Society’s Seeking No Honours on Tom Johnson published by Trade Union Forsa, is also essential for an understanding of the period, as is Colum Kenny’s work on Arthur Griffith. Both Tom Johnson and Arthur Griffith have been drawn out of neglect by such recent work.

1922 to 1925 is a defining period in much more than constitutional terms.

It is a period in which the rawness of division has exacted great hurt, a hurt that perhaps should be acknowledged before any attempts at narratives of State formation success are presented as singular accounts.

When Basil Chubb wrote many years ago of ‘Ireland a successful Democracy’ he was right, but the judgment was of an institutional success.

The period is significantly lessened in terms of non-violent possibilities by the absence of the idealistic or pragmatic leaders of the previous decade, such as Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, or, earlier again, James Connolly.

This is shown in how events fell out, events that were sometimes calculated, more often spontaneous or uncontrolled.

In terms of interpretation of events, this creates a complexity that cannot but be dealt with by a diversity of narratives and at several different levels.

Neither is working the relationship of memory to history any single challenge. Layers of memory wrestle with each other and from differing perspectives. It is an unending struggle, producing tentative but temporary conclusions.

In contemporary times those of us exercising imagination to recover the period, must seek to begin with the fullest bag of pencils we may have, to draw some semblance of what life was like in the struggle to come from under the blanket of empire – a smothering that had in its time sought its implementation by the forbidding of most rights to freedom, of belief, of speech in one of the oldest languages.

It had involved dispossession, debasement, all based on the assumption that those who were seeking freedom constituted a dangerous threat, that they were a lesser, backward, untrustworthy people, that could, at best, be but possessors of a quaint, but still dangerous, disposition.

Generation after generation of our ancestors lived through a complex set of exclusions and humiliations that should serve as a qualification of any contemporary hubris.

It is not the case that our ancestors were passive, in any simple Gramscian sense, that they did not know what the sources of exclusion or repression were. It is not any false consciousness that restrained them.

Something very real, important for the future, was being stored. It is a supressed experience of hurt, that based on humiliation, of being regarded as lesser. It is one that is transmitted through the generations.

The hurt, such as is inflicted, is not cast aside, forgotten, but imbued with anger, takes on a shape that enables it to be available for its catalytic release. James C. Scott has described such so well in his Domination and the Arts of Resistance using literary materials as well as ethnographic research.

It is a great challenge, beyond the task of inclusive integrating of acts of memory, the accepting of distance from what was painful, and seeking to do so with a rejection of any false palliative amnesia, recognising that our task is to live ethically in the present, create futures with possibilities.

There will be, no doubt, some who might suggest that creating pictures of the past to accommodate the present should appeal, but such will not suffice for any adequate response to present or future.

The acknowledgement of the role of myth is of an entirely different order.

By 1922, the Irish people were a wounded people. They had suffered the First World War, both in terms of participation and in resistance to conscription terms, many had died in the Great Flu, an election that had released a great energy and desire for change, that, had its result been accepted, would have made a War of Independence and an ensuing Civil War unnecessary.

The obduracy of imperial pressure, however, would require that the opportunities for peace be thrown aside, and such tragic folly would be repeated during the Civil War.

The year 1922, and its events, are ones of heroic commitment to their tasks, in the most difficult circumstances, on the part of many, but it is a year which is marked so deeply, not just by the failure of diplomacy, as indeed we are in our current times, but by the reliance on such a coercive force of unscrupulous practices, such as would prevent any peaceful departure from the gripping fingers of empire.

Empires, in so many settings, have shown that this would also be the experience of others of the colonised.

Security of tenancy-holding had given way to security of ownership.

“To Hell with Home Rule. It’s the land we are after”, George Bermingham was told in his day in the late 19th century in Mayo.

There is a violence that comes from land hunger. It is impossible to understand the events of 1922 and the year that followed without recognising the importance of the land issue.

The long journey from the 1880s in terms of land division was not over. In 1923 there were 114,000 untenanted farms, 3,125,000 acres of domain land, yet to be distributed.

The 1923 Land Act that was coming would offer reward to some, give an opening opportunity to some congests, but would, in its allocations too, exclude not just those regarded as still dangerous in 1923 – ‘irregulars’, many of whom would remain incarcerated until 1924, even though the arms surrender had been on May 24th 1923 – but exclusion included those too who were ‘on the wrong side’.

In my paper for Machnamh 5, I drew on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work on the Prison Diary of Joseph Campbell as a source for reflection on what those incarcerated discussed between May 24th 1923 and their release.

They had lost, would not get their jobs back, would not be getting land, and the ban on emigration to the U.S. by De Valera would not be lifted until July 1925.

I have a personal connection to the period. My father, uncles and aunt were activists in the War of Independence but my father and uncle were on opposite sides in the Civil War. My uncle was in the National Army, my father in Hut 3 in the Curragh Internment Camp.

Later applying for a small pension, my father wrote to the Pensions Board:

“I was in employment as a Grocer’s Assistant at a salary of £130 per year plus £50 for travelling after my release from internment camp.

A deputation [he mentions his previous employer] was approached and asked for me to be taken back in his employment. He refused to do so, with the result that I was idle until 1st August 1924 when I got a position as a junior assistant from Michael Nolan, Eyre St, Newbridge, at a salary of £50 per year indoor. At the time very few people would employ an ex-internee”.

What I have quoted was the signed statement of my father, John Higgins, dated 18th April 1935, in support of his application which he, like so many others, would repeat, for a military service pension.

The Pension Files contained in the National Archives record their long and exhausting battle for a small pension, which in my father’s case was eventually granted in 1956, almost 22 years after his first application, and just eight years before he died in December 1964.

Such was the bitter reality for many of the non-landed, the internees, who were now unemployed, too many perceived as "unemployable".

Their previous comrades in the newly emerging Irish State, were now estranged from them. A State was coming into being, one of which it would quickly become clear that it was modelling its administrative practices, not on any Michael Collins type of administrative radicalism, but on a mimesis of what it felt might be the excellences of imperial practices.

Ireland’s ongoing ‘Decade of Commemorations’ and our six Machnamh 100 seminars have sought, and it is welcome, to focus attention not only on the political and constitutional context of the events

of 1912–1923, but also on the wider experiences of war, conflict, the Great Flu, and the horrific political violence associated with land security and land hunger within Irish society, and not only that violence which was being imitated or reciprocated, but new forms of violence, including gendered violence. The period carries so many examples of cruel punishments as well as killings.

This broadening of scholarly perspectives beyond constitutional and military history has greatly enhanced our understanding of how conflict and war is experienced and registered as a cultural, social and emotional phenomenon within Ireland’s recent past, as Guy Beiner’s work has shown.

Among what remains to be given adequate space in the historical accounts are the efforts of those who sought peace – be it Archbishop Clune in the War of Independence, the Trade Union Movement, the Labour Party, the People’s Rights Association in Cork.

However, the security of land, its promise, the urge to acquire more, something far beyond sufficiency, is the dominant feature in the background.

There is a privileging in the period of the achievement of order, of a necessary coercive authority. It is one which would lead to State executions in response to assassinations.

This would in time have the outcome of a State with strong authoritarian tendency and practice, one that would cede control in key areas of policy to an authoritarian version of the Church.

Of those who put parliamentary process and peace first, contemporary writing is sparse.

One could not but have been moved when one read of a visit by young Jim Larkin and Barry Desmond to Tom and Marie Johnson, Tom a peace-pursuer and foundational parliamentarian, then retired. He was found living in straitened circumstances, no pension, broken TV set, struggling to heat his home.

This was the fate that befell the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of 1922.

The objective of achieving and maintaining a ‘respectability’, one sustained by having property, as a launching pad, was paramount; respectability of the name, of the immediate family, an essential aspect of the decision as to whether you were being really called for the dioceses.

The Christian Brothers to a large extent were left to source the missions.

For so many people in the 1920s, in diverse circumstances and in overt and covert ways, loss of dignity and humiliation were being experienced – be it those who were incarcerated, such as others had in national memory been enduringly symbolised in John Mitchell’s iconic Jail Journal, one of the most widely read books of its time.

Such loss of dignity could have results that were near irreparable and were transferable. It was not solely individuals who were affected. Loss of health, the consequences of life with Flying Columns, sleeping in dugouts, all had consequences that families were left to carry.

Not all nationalists had the response James C. Scott describes of a stored response for future delivery.

Responses to authoritarianism old and new could take different forms. Interestingly, it was in their direct response to such breaches that was the distinctive feature of Fenianism within Nationalism.

It was said that Fenians could be identified by their “readiness to meet the eye of the priest, landlord or policeman”.

Fenians prided themselves on their self-respect and refusal to conform to traditional deference. Fenians were anti-aristocratic democrats who had forged links with English radicalism and harboured notions of just reforms, particularly agrarian.

However, overall, any egalitarian tendency was a weak light within the general nationalist movement.

In the prosecution of the fruits of its struggle, nationalism, as is found in so many cases of formal independence, would, in the administrative procedures, imperceptibly at times, take on Empire’s assumptions replacing the previous colonial authority with a new, but similar, version, one that bore authoritarian tendencies, for example, in notions of who constituted the ‘deserving’.

While it is true that, in many settings, the cold influence of Empire’s administrative practice was indeed in decline, the absence of equality as the driving force of an alternative, would give rise to a retained emphasis on status, respectability and, in terms of religion, one that offered not a spirituality, but rather required a piety in the service of docility and a further gendered inferiority.

The pension’s application process, to which those who had made the sacrifices that achieved independence were applying, was an insensitive rejection of such people, many of whom were sinking into poverty and ill-health.

It was in terms of bureaucratic oppression, one that was deeply humiliating, with requirements that were impossible to meet being inflicted on applicants, all done in an official, Chekhovian form of communication and judgmentalism, for example, interviews in Garda barracks, for an evaluation that suggested inferiority, something that can only be counted as a callous response to poverty in most cases.

Neither policy nor practice constituted a normative behaviour that had either egalitarianism or the necessary dignity of citizenship at its centre.

The values seen as necessary for the sustenance of status, respectability, repression, docility were assumed to be ones quite likely to be beyond that attainment of the lesser propertied. Economic weakness was seen as a corollary of moral weakness.

The 1920s were the foundation for a dreadful decade of the 1930s, a decade of repression, bigotry, inculcated fear, and, for many, flight, if one could.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the vacant spaces in the emerging Ireland were moved into by the Church. By the 1930s, the New Ireland was one in which perhaps vocationalism at best might be tolerated, seen as a mild, legitimate, ‘safe’ and an alternative to any dismantling of class or property-based order that might be advocated, discussed or allowed. It was one which might fit within the authoritarianism of Bishops.

An anti-intellectualism was rampant, particularly in the Church and its institutional presence. North-South exchanges descended into being competing excesses of sectarianism, were often brutal and offensive, reinforcing divisions, toxicity, any acceptable notions of ‘the Other’.

There were winners and losers then of the Civil War. They in their differing circumstances would form the basis of the new social strata: “The losers […] found it hard to get regular work in their old trades – or indeed communion at some altar rails”, as Declan Kiberd put it today.

The professions on the other hand were being re-peopled by families that would go on to create dynasties, and in cultural terms embrace ‘modernity’ as they saw it.

There was an oppositional intelligentsia stirring. Writers such as George Russell, Seán Ó Faoláin, Séan O’Casey, Denis Johnston, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien all provided a counter-narrative.

Institutions such as the Gate Theatre became the centre for subversive writings. However, “literature”, as Declan Kiberd notes, “which had helped invent Ireland now found itself often censored by the very country it helped to create”.

The Censorship of Films Act 1923 was an early arrival. Under the Censorship of Films Act (1923), a censorship film certificate could be denied for public exhibition if it was deemed to be indecent, obscene or blasphemous, or contrary to public morality.

Under this regime, more than 2,500 films were banned, and over 11,000 films were cut by film censors between the 1920s and the 1980s.

The first Film Censor, James Montgomery, declared that he acted as a “moral sieve”, and used the Ten Commandments as his guide.

Then, too, the moral attitudes of the Committee on Evil Literature (1926) Report permeated the first Censorship of Publications Act (1929).

Sexuality, reproduction and matters relating to the corporal, all were of the greatest concern to the Irish censors, and censorship enshrined an ideology that was deeply suspicious of the uncovered body,

sight of flesh, expressions of human complexity and beauty.

Censorship, as Peter Martin has noted, had its moral entrepreneurs, who, with an energy they suggested was drawn from divine sources, went from creating moral panics to legislative victories over any expression of sensibility or, ‘Heaven save us’, something sexual:

“The first organised campaigns began in 1911 in Limerick and swiftly spread to Dublin and then around the country.

Campaigners were mostly Catholic, members of confraternities, vigilance associations and other groups of laymen and priests. They received support from the hierarchy, but their passion came from their own values which blended piety with a middle-class puritanism that would have been familiar to their British or Unionist equivalents”.

Censorship was too part of a wider exclusionary manifesto in the new State, one that focused its energies too on differentiating Irishness from Britishness.

When it was discovered, for example, that the incoming Mayo County Librarian Letitia Dunbar-Harrison was a Protestant whose alma mater was Trinity College, the controversy resulted in her position becoming untenable, a Protestant putting a book into a Catholic child’s hands!

While cinema was considered suspect, crossroads dancing, seen initially as a far healthier pastime and was promoted, yet, by 1934 it too would have to go, requiring a clerically controlled alternative.

The strict segregation of the sexes was a remarkable feature of the Irish countryside of the time, as was being noted by several visiting anthropologists and journalists.

Those who could no longer, for whatever reason, remain in the repressive environment of 1920s’ and 1930s’ Ireland emigrated, mostly to England, and were termed “lost souls” in some of the editorials of the Irish daily newspapers.

It was the legislative atmosphere of the 1920s that laid the foundations for all of the extremism of the 1930s which would become a decade of misery, exclusion and subjugation for so many.

As we reflect back on the early years of the new State, we should consider too the price we have all paid from an unethical memory.

If memory is both the recall of a historical experience and carries the accrual of layers of meaning through which the events have been repeatedly reconstructed, these layers of memory were to be left orphaned for so many decades in the newly independent Ireland, resulting in so much lost opportunity.

Thankfully, there now is a rich scholarship, but we should never forget those who had to plough what was the lonely furrow.

As we look to the future, I believe it is one in which we can muster hope for the citizens of this country. The search for, and identification of, a common ground built on a shared humanity is our best hope.

A reflection has been made, now the work is handed over. All are welcome to come forward.

The process of ethical recall, with which we have been engaged through these six seminars of Machnamh 100 over the past two years, the reflection we have made, as well as other commemorative events, can aid us all in this, our shared journey together, towards an emancipatory future, one that is marked by inclusivity, diversity, possibility, and a sharing of memory in conditions of peace – in a diverse Republic of which we can all be proud, be always open to revise, make better.

Beir beannacht.