President gives a keynote address at closing ceremony of 2018 Dublin Festival of History

Sun 7th Oct, 2018 | 19:00
location: Printworks Conference Centre, Dublin Castle

Speech at the 2018 Dublin Festival of History

Printworks, Dublin Castle, Sunday 7 October 2018

A Ardmhéara,
A cháirde,

May I thank you, Brendan, for your most warm and generous introduction today. It is a great pleasure for me to conclude this, the sixth Dublin Festival of History. Since 2013, this celebration of history and historiography has been an annual demonstration of the hunger of our people to explore the past, not only of our own country, but of other nations and other peoples. It also provides all of us with an opportunity to participate in the very important work of historians, custodians of records, librarians, and educators.

The success of the Festival is a testament to the dedication and hard work of all the staff at Dublin City Council, particularly those based in the Public Libraries, Information and Cultural Services Division. It is a fine example of public service at its best so may I take a moment to thank them for assembling a magnificent programme of events and lectures over the past two weeks. It is a splendid example of the vital contribution of our local authorities, and particularly our public libraries, to making our public sphere more vibrant and more democratic.

The Festival has been nearly coterminous with the commemoration of the formative events that took place on our island a century ago – the Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, the First World War, the achievement of Women’s Suffrage.

Those events are now no longer in the realm of personal memory and experience but have become a matter of historical imagination and exploration, and what we might term the ‘collective memory’ of the nation – itself a contested concept - that collection of beliefs about the past that shape the national consciousness and image of Ireland.

Our ‘Decade of Centenaries’ has provided us with an opportunity to reflect, not only on those foundational events, or indeed on the ideals, thoughts and struggles of our ancestors, but upon the Ireland that our forebears, by their deeds and actions, brought into existence. Our task has not been one of simply memorialising the past, but of engaging in ‘ethical remembering’, of confronting the complex and sometimes difficult legacies of our collective history with understanding and generosity of spirit, while recognising that we can and will differ, and we must attempt to demonstrate what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur has termed a disposition of ‘narrative hospitality’, one open to the perspectives, stories and pain of the stranger.

In preparing my own speeches and contributions over the past seven years, I have been acutely conscious of the heavy responsibility of ‘ethical remembering’, and in particular of recognising those voices that were, in our past, too often marginalised or disenfranchised, excluded as proper subjects of public history on the grounds of economic status, family background, or even their gender.

During the past six years we have, collectively, gone some way to recognising the historical contribution of Irish women, not only in the battle for national independence, but in the struggle for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for emancipation and for equality, redressing what was a narrow, sometimes chauvinistic public historiography. There is now a renewed awareness that the women of revolutionary generation ventured everything – their lives, their ‘respectability’, their fortunes - to win many of the rights that we hold dear today.

Four months ago, I joined the Lord Mayor’s predecessor outside this hall to unveil a plaque to commemorate the courageous act of civic disobedience and resistance carried out by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her fellow suffragettes one hundred and six years ago, when they smashed the windows of Dublin Castle, then the de jure seat, if not the de facto source, of political authority in Ireland. Our nation has a duty to honour those who struggled to create the republic we know today, as a reminder that rights are never granted but only won through long and difficult campaigns, and as an example to us as we seek to win new rights and keep safe existing rights in our own time.

I hope that the plaque, and other initiatives such as the recent restoration of the grave of one of our most unsung and unheralded national heroes, Anna Parnell, will mark the restoration of women to the very heart of our civic and public memory, as a public acknowledgement of the very central role women played in the suffrage movement, the national movement, and the labour movement.

The ‘Decade of Centenaries’ has provided an opportunity for many families to rediscover, and perhaps uncover for the first time, the devotion, courage and energy of their own maternal ancestors, whether as members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, the Irish Women Workers’ Union, Inghinidhe na hÉireann or Cumann na mBan.

We have also begun to address more comprehensively those whose experiences were perhaps side-lined in the collective memory here in the South, and in the collective understanding of the formation of an independent Irish State. As many as two hundred thousand men and women, from all parts of our island and from all communities, were drawn into the catastrophe and horror of that collision of empires, the First World War. It stands with the American Civil War as the single largest conflict outside our shores in which Irish born-people were engaged.

While a number of veterans of the Union cause returned to Ireland to spread the democratic gospel as Fenians, far more veterans returned to Ireland after the First World War, bearing all the scars and troubles of war. Some joined for adventure, some in defence of the United Kingdom, some in solidarity with Belgium, and many others, struggling in the aftermath of the 1913 Lockout, out of economic necessity. Public institutions such as the National Library of Ireland and public archives have made possible a more intense excavation of the past, bringing a new insight into the lives and motivation of those who returned and those who died, and a renewed appreciation of the promise and potential of so many young people destroyed by the War.

None of this has prohibited or restrained the still long and deeply held political perspectives on the nature of the First World War or on our long and unremitting struggle for national independence. It is no secret that my own political career has been spent on the left – indeed, I hope it does not come as a surprise to any of you here today! – as part of a tradition that has long held that the First World War was a tragedy, measured not only in the lives lost but in the collapse in solidarity between peoples, a collapse symbolised by the dissolution of the Socialist International – the forum of European socialist and labour parties - in 1916.

That is one tradition, and it is one perspective. We cannot, nor should we, demand that another adhere to our own interpretation of our past. We can, however, and we must, require of ourselves and others, a transparency of purpose and honesty of intent, a serious engagement with historical scholarship and, above all, respect for the sincerely-held beliefs and ideas of others, including those who went before.

The ‘Decade of Centenaries ’ has witnessed a renewed appreciation, not only of the idealism, but of the diversity of ideas of the revolutionary generation, a generation that came of age in fin de siècle Ireland, influenced by all of the great ideals and movements of the age - nationalism, socialism, feminism, internationalism, modernism, imperialism and anti-imperialism.

That generation, to use the term rather loosely and generously, encompassed Irish men and women of such diverse backgrounds as Tom Kettle, a brilliant lawyer and economist and, due not only to his oratorical skills but his generosity of spirit, the most promising member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and James Connolly, the leading Marxist thinker in our history, later described by Joe Lee as ‘probably the most remarkable thinker produced in 20th century Ireland ’.

They both expressed an economic and social vision for a future Ireland – one socialist and one liberal - and we have duty to take their lives and their ideas seriously, a duty that was, I believe, fulfilled over the past seven years. The name Tom Kettle was not widely known amongst the public, despite the public memorial in Stephen’s Green. There is now a greater awareness of his life and legacy, not only as a brave and courageous man of principle, but as a representative of a generation who were preparing to govern a Home Rule Ireland that they thought would emerge after the war.

The name of James Connolly has, ever since his execution, been known and celebrated throughout Ireland, and further afield. As a giant of socialist thought and action, his example and his writings have and will continue to illuminate and guide the trade union and labour movement in Ireland. The Decade of Centenaries, occurring contemporaneously with a severe economic crisis, not only revived an interest in Connolly’s life, but in his theory and analysis.

I have cited the examples of Connolly and Kettle, not only as they are exemplary of the very best of their generation – not least in their respective commitments to the advancement of women’s rights – but because we will shortly begin to commemorate a period in which the political forces they represented – socialism and the cause of Home Rule – were either usurped by or sublimated into the struggle for an independent Irish Republic.

We will now enter the most difficult part of our ‘Decade of Centenaries’, for we shall shortly commemorate the very crucible of our Revolution, our War of Independence and our Civil War. In December, we shall recall the general election of 1918 in which the plurality of Irish people voted for a political movement dedicated, in the words of the 1918 Sinn Féin manifesto, to ‘establishing a constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by the Irish constituencies as the supreme national authority to speak and act in the name of the Irish people’. That election was held under the new suffrage introduction by the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the franchise to working-class men and some women – itself the culmination of a long struggle by the women and working-class people.

The First Dáil Éireann - An Chéad Dáil­ ­– the democratic assembly of our revolutionary Irish republic, held its first meeting at the Mansion House on the 21st of January 1919. Though many of its members were interned or detained for their part in resisting conscription during the preceding year, that first meeting adopted four documents: the Constitution of Dáil Éireann; Declaration of Independence; Message to the Free Nations of the World; and the Democratic Programme.

The Dáil Constitution was a short efficient act, designed as an instrument to enable the formation of an executive and to designate the Dáil as the sole legislator. The Declaration of Independence ratified the Proclamation of the Republic issued from the steps of the GPO by Patrick Pearse and confirmed that lawful authority in Ireland resided with the Irish people, not with the Crown.

The concepts invoked by those foundational documents – national self-determination, the sovereignty of the people, democracy as the foundation of popular government – were not the output of any single national movement but were part of global movement for national liberation. The first Dáil met only months before the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, in which the people of Egypt sought to vindicate the very same rights proclaimed by the Deputies present in that first meeting in the Mansion House.

In asserting the right to Irish self-determination the first Dáil was taking its place in the new world promised by President Wilson and his 14 points, and by, lest we forget, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the new USSR. It was a commitment that both leaders, and both countries, would later resile from.

The ‘Message to the Free Nations of the World’ was unambiguously a plea for entry into this new world, it stated that Ireland:

‘believes in freedom and justice as the fundamental principles of international law, because she believes in a frank co-operation between the peoples for equal rights against the vested privileges of ancient tyrannies, because the permanent peace of Europe can never be secured by perpetuating military dominion for the profit of empire but only by establishing the control of government in every land upon the basis of the free will of a free people’.

A great deal of hope was invested in the Paris Peace Conference, meeting to formally end the ceasefire declared by the Armistice of 1918 – and in the capacity of Irish-America to influence President Wilson - as the means to peaceably achieve an independent republic. The Irish delegation led by Seán T. O’Kelly were not the only imperial subjects seeking entry into the Conference.

A young Vietnamese nationalist, using the nom de plume Nguyên Aìi Quôc was also present, expressing his hope for, in his words, ‘the prospect of an era of right and justice’. Like the Irish delegation, he too was dismissed, and would re-emerge as Ho Chi Minh, the leader of his own country’s independence struggle.

This engagement is a reminder of the new international field upon which our War of Independence and Civil War took place, in a world in which the old dynastic multi-ethnic empires and kingdoms of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey had collapsed, whilst the victorious allies, Britain and France, sought to sustain their own global empires, bound far more by commerce than geography. Let us recall, even as we commemorate the Armistice of 1918 this November, that though it signalled a ceasefire on the Western Front, it did not result in an end to war, but to new conflicts throughout the world, born of revolution, territorial disputes, and great power intrigue.

To the imperial gaze, Ireland was but one conflict in a zone of contestation stretching across the globe, from south-east Asia to India to Africa and what is referred to as the Middle East. As we scrutinise the actions of the British Government in this period, we should not underestimate that it was a state that had learned to think in imperial terms, one that had gradually became composed of, in the words of the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, ‘a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they have done very well out of the war’.

The final, and in my mind the most important, document promulgated by the First Dáil was the Democratic Programme, which outlined the social and economic principles upon which the new republic was to be based. It was drafted with the assistance of Tom Johnson, the leader of the Labour Party, who had agreed with Sinn Féin not to contest the 1918 General Election, an indication of the complex alliances within the Revolution.

Despite the contemporary cynicism directed towards it by some members of the First Dáil it remains a revolutionary document, and its words, like those of the Proclamation of the Republic, still ring down the years towards us today.

The Programme commences by evoking Patrick Pearse. Not only is the distinctive robust lyricism of the author of Ghosts and the Sovereign People echoed in its vindication of a wider sovereignty, but so too is the democratic, emancipatory language of the Fenian Proclamation of 1867. To quote but a portion of the Programme:

‘We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.

We affirm the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service to the Commonwealth, and declare it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation's labour.

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.’

It is not enough to say simply that the Deputies in the First Dáil meant none of it – though conservative elements viewed it with apprehension, disdain, and even fear. Many of those who risked their lives in the War of Independence believed in the promise and potential of the Programme. For they drew on a great and noble tradition – that of Tone, of Fintan Lalor, of the Fenians of ’67, of Connolly – seeking independence not simply to substitute flags or personnel, but to create a more equal and a more just distribution of wealth, power and opportunity in Ireland. Just as we engaged with the social and economic visions of Tom Kettle and James Connolly, so too must we engage seriously, with the visions which animated those who fought and died between 1919 and 1923.

In speaking of the importance of political ideals, I was struck by a recent paper delivered by Professor Richard Bourke, one of our most distinguished historians of intellectual history, entitled Reflections on The Political Thought of The Irish Revolution, which sketched a genealogy of the ideas which informed our Revolution, and which emphasised the importance of taking them seriously on their own terms. Professor Bourke pointed out that given the ideas were published in newspapers, rather than books, there has been a tendency to perhaps underplay them.

Of course, publishing and publicising sometimes complex theories and concepts in newspapers itself has a long history in Irish nationalism – we only need think of the pages of the Nation, the great journal of Young Ireland, which still makes for rewarding reading, inspired as it was by ideas as diverse as the romanticism of Johann Herder, the philosophy of the Greeks, and the political ideals of republican France.

I am confident that historians and, indeed, citizens over the coming years will take up Professor Bourke’s challenge, and seek to understand more fully the ideals of our revolutionary forebears.

It was, of course, the First Dáil that would organise and sanction the War of Independence, and establish the Irish Republican Army to prosecute that war. Though the war was fought to vindicate and defend the very existence of the revolutionary Republic as the expression of popular will, let us recognise that, like all struggles for national liberation, it carried with it certain features of a civil war.

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police who, even in 1917, could look forward to themselves serving in a Home Rule Ireland were now forced to choose between the authority of the First Dáil or that of Dublin Castle. Many RIC men simply wanted to serve their own community as police officers and guardians of the peace. But as an armed gendarmerie, dispersed in barracks throughout Ireland, the RIC represented the most tangible symbols of British rule in Ireland, and the battle for the hearts and minds of DMP and RIC personnel was key to both British and Republican ambitions.

If the general election of 1918 represented the eclipse of the Irish Parliamentary Party, it also displayed the consolidation of the Irish Unionist Party, whose official position was the maintenance of the island of Ireland within the United Kingdom. The majority of those who voted for the Unionist Party, concentrated in the North-East of Ulster, had no intention of recognising the authority of the First Dáil.

After all, it was the North who began, issuing a Proclamation of a Provisional Government for Ulster in September 1913, to be ratified on the commencement of the provisions of any Home Rule Act. The War of Independence carried terrible consequences in the North, with the sectarian riots of July 1920 leading to deaths of hundreds and the exclusion from employment of thousands of Nationalists.

The efforts of the IRA, and later, of the National Army of the Free State and IRB officers under the direction of Michael Collins would only heighten the fears of the unionist community in the North-east, whose leaders established what was, at its heart, a sectarian state in Northern Ireland. Perhaps one of the most remarkable, and unremarked, aspects of that state was its relative novelty, for it did not inherit the structure of British authority in Ireland, which resided here, in Dublin Castle, but was forced to begin anew, symbolised by the construction of the vast complex at Stormont, now, of course, the home of the, unfortunately dormant, Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Yet we must recognise that for many southern Unionists the partition of Ireland was a bitter disappointment. Indeed, the somewhat quixotic Edward Carson, a Dublin barrister, found himself alienated from the movement he had so passionately led, and, to the anger of his colleague James Craig, opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and partition.

In recent years, there has been particular controversy regarding attacks by certain, or certain members of, IRA Brigades on members of the Protestant community in West Cork, the county that saw the greatest number of casualties during the War of Independence.

It is important to first observe that no simple line can be drawn between unionism and Protestantism, nor between Catholicism and nationalism – divisions of class, intellectual formation, and sentiments of nationality were often more important, as Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, Charles Stewart Parnell and Bulmer Hobson could all attest. And of course, it was the Presbyterian Belfast in the 1790s – the Belfast of Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man and of the United Irishmen - which first fanned the sparks of republicanism in this country. We must not be afraid, in the coming years, to confront the often-complex regional permutations within the War of Independence, and to openly discuss the nature of any atrocities committed. For the nature of the War of Independence, conducted by flying columns in the countryside and through ambushes in the cities, placed a premium on information and intelligence, so that suspected informers and spies were sometimes killed.

One of the most important additions to the historiography of the Revolution has been the innovation of regional studies, beginning with David Fitzpatrick’s 1977 work Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921, which studied my own county of Clare. In taking one county or region, it is possible to examine more closely the very many local social, economic and environmental factors which influenced the course of the Revolution, whether in the history of land reform and land agitation, in the distribution and type of farmland, in the strength of the local church, whether the area broke for Parnell, whether there was a strong Fenian influence, or a strong local trade union, the degree of integration into the national or global economy, and of course the myriad divisions and ties of class, gender and religion.

The magnificent Atlas of the Irish Revolution, for example, has added enormously to our understanding of these questions, and I hope that the commemorations of the coming years will encourage even more such endeavours.

The War of Independence was brought formally to close by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. I do not intend now to give what remains a very complex and contested negotiation an extended treatment today – and not only because of the present circumstances – only to say that, as we know so well, many of those elected to the Second Dáil refused to abide by the terms of a Treaty they claimed was signed under duress, the now infamous threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’. The Treaty Debates are still compelling and sometimes disturbing reading – for the contemporary reader knows that some of those who participated in those debates would soon die by the hand or orders of their comrades.

A minority of members of the Second Dáil refused to accede to maintenance of the Crown as the head of State, and for those with an internationalist outlook, such as Liam Mellows, to continued membership of a British Empire which still continued to deny the aspirations of so many peoples across the world, from Egypt to India.

Six months after the Treaty Debates of 1922, both pro and anti-Treaty members of Sinn Féin sought to present a united front in the general election of 1922, but the divisions that had emerged after the signing of the Treaty deepened further, creating a cleavage in society and in families that would be destructive for generations. The Civil War that followed was more terrible and devastating in its prosecution and in its consequences than the War of Independence that preceded it. In the coming years, we shall be forced to reckon with, and acknowledge, the brutality of the Civil War, and the barbaric acts perpetrated by both sides during the conflict.

The divisions that emerged were complex, hinging not only on a practical evaluation of the feasibility of continuing a struggle against the most powerful empire in the world, but on differing ideals and ambitions, and upon the very meaning of the Irish Revolution. These were divisions which cut across both Free State and Republican forces, and were never simple, nor should we ever attempt to cast them as simple for the purpose of creating what would be an overly simplistic narrative of Irish history.

My father, John, and my uncle, Peter, both served in the same company and battalion of the East Clare Brigade during the War of Independence based around their native townland of Ballycar. My father later served in the 2nd Cork Brigade, based out of Charleville.

Over 50,000 men joined the National Army of the Free State after its establishment in January 1922, many of whom had direct experience of the War of Independence and the First World War. My uncle, who reared me, was among them. Nearly 13,000 men were interned during the course of the Civil War. My father, who remained with the 2nd Cork Brigade of the IRA after January 1922, was among them.

The Civil War cast a terrible shadow over generations that followed, a shadow that would diminish the republican idealism that had propelled our Revolution. As the poignant memoirs of anti-Treaty soldiers such as Ernie O’Malley attest, many of those who opposed the Treaty emigrated to the United States. Those who remained, such as my father, struggled to find a place in those early years of the Free State, and many of those interned in the Curragh endured years of bad health.


A cháirde,

These are difficult truths. But let us not look with trepidation at the commemorations of the coming years, lest we turn away and ignore the sometimes-difficult questions that they will raise for all of us. Let us instead recall again the idealism of a generation who confronted the profound challenge of founding a new nation, with all the economic, political and social changes that such an endeavour requires. Let us take their ideas and their ideals, their thoughts and their actions, seriously, and in doing so, let us look at the new world of nations which they sought to join.

Above all, let us do so with respect for one another, and for others, and let us approach the next years of Decade of Centenaries with open hearts and open minds.