Address at the presentation of the 1916 Rising Oral History Collection to the National Library

Thu 21st Jan, 2016 | 11:30
location: National Library of Ireland

National Library of Ireland

Thursday, 21st January, 2016

Speech at the Presentation of the 1916 Rising Oral History Collection to the National Library

National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, 21 January, 2016

Tá céad bliain tar éis dul thart ó mhí Aibreán 1916 agus caithfimid smaoineamh siar ar an am sin ar bhealach atá uileghabhálach, agus scéalta gach saoránach a bhí páirteach, ina mbealaigh éagsúla, san am cinniúnach sin in ár stair a insint.


Chair of the National Library,

Director of the National Library,

Agus a aíonna éagsúla,

Tá fíorchaoin áthas orm bheith anseo libh agus muid ag ceiliúradh an bronnadh tabhachtach seo ar Leabharlann Náisiúnta na hÉireann.

[I am delighted to be here with you today as we celebrate this important presentation to the National Library of Ireland.]

May I say immediately that it is very appropriate that I pay tribute to Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe. It is a pleasure to be here and I want to thank you for what you do for history, not only on this occasion making a significant gift to the National Library but also for your other recording of voices from the different settings that make up our country and contemporary Irish history.

And I am very pleased as well to hear that we have over a hundred people that are directly connected to those who were involved in 1916 in different ways.

The names of the leaders of the 1916 Rising come easily to our lips. They have been immortalised in some of our streets and buildings, in statues in public spaces, and in well loved films, songs and drama. There can be no doubt that those brave revolutionaries, who fought and in many cases gave of their lives so that we could become a free nation and an independent Republic, have earned their places in the history books of Ireland.

However, now in addition to what we may have been taught we have now, 100 years on, a set of informed historiographies which contest each others’ assumptions but which all add to our understanding of a foundational and complex decade in our history. We also have new information, and the benefit of accounts that the distance of time released to us.

Last weekend I spent time looking at just four of the new books on 1916 because over the coming year I will be giving a number of different speeches on the topic. But I very welcome the fullness that is emerging in these different accounts.

Tá céad bliain tar éis dul thart ó mhí Aibreán 1916 agus caithfimid smaoineamh siar ar an am sin ar bhealach atá uileghabhálach, agus scéalta gach saoránach a bhí páirteach, ina mbealaigh éagsúla, san am cinniúnach sin in ár stair a insint. 

[One hundred years now separate us from April 1916 and we must recall that time in a way that is inclusive of the narratives of all citizens who became involved, in their different ways, in that profound foundational moment of our history.]

It is important that, during this year of significant commemoration, we remember the context of 1916 and its decade as a complex and multifaceted one, influenced by an atmosphere of deep change including the context of Empires in decline, a chapter that comprises many different stories. They are, in our better-informed and recovered experience of 1916, stories of unsung heroes, of forgotten victims, and of ordinary lives touched by the extraordinary, and it is through the bringing together of these separate but rich strands, all necessary if we are to respect complexity,  that we can engage with the reality of our shared past. To compete with each other in limited or tendentious judgments would be to lose the opportunity ethical remembering offers us.

Today, as this Oral History Collection is presented to our National Library, we have the opportunity to remember so many individual stories, many from below, those of both the sung and unsung heroes of that time, all of which are critical elements of the whole, and all equally important in enabling us to engage with history and commemoration in a way that is inclusive, ethical and honest, and when our 2016 commemoration is over the chapter of the making of history and recall must not be slammed shut. New generations are entitled to both new information and new and subtle historical study, research and conclusions.

That is why the imperative of such collections is not only to preserve, but to provide access. I am delighted that this collection will be housed here, in our National Library which has as its stated mission  “To collect, preserve, promote and make accessible the documentary and intellectual record of the life of Ireland”.  I was also pleased to learn that audio clips from the collection will shortly be distributed to designated websites, including those of libraries around the country.

When I was Minister with responsibility for the National Archives, over 20 years ago, the means of facilitating the public to access archives were considerably different from what pertains today.  While many thousands of people still visit this beautiful library every year for research purposes it is important that it, like all repositories of important public information, is resourced in a way that will enable it to avail of technological advances and that will allow critical material to be accessed online.

Because this is our story. It is never just a product to be consumed. It is something to be absorbed and reworked and the more people who do it from different perspectives, the richer it will be.

The 1916 Rising Oral Collection leads us deeply into the story of 1916; including into its back streets and covert corners and into the quiet heroism of those whose names, despite not being widely known perhaps to later generations, are as permanently stitched into the fabric of the Irish Republic as the names of James Connolly, Padraig Pearse, Cathal Brugha or Michael Collins.

It allows us a long view, stretching back from the seismic events at the GPO to the tenement buildings and cottages of Dublin City, and outwards to the suburbs of Finglas and Swords and Dollymount and to the rural villages and towns beyond, where so many lives became interconnected as they took their place in the march towards the creation of an independent state.

That we are now hearing of the role of women in terms of participation and opinion is so welcome, building as it does on new historical work. And there are lovely nuances on that, as I saw the reference, for example, to the Mallin family and Michael Mallin. I always remember seeing that note where Eva Gore-Booth visits her sister in gaol and her sister, Constance Markievicz, says ‘you should visit Mrs. Mallin, she has a family and she will need money,’ and so forth. And then Eva Gore-Booth - who I am glad to see is coming back into the story - who made such a very significant contribution not just here but also in England. These are just examples, but in contemporary time, these accounts are very important, building as it does on new historical work. We now have some very fine new pieces of work on the contribution of women, both in terms of participation and in terms of writing.

It is important too that, as we listen to those accounts, that we realise the class differences of the accounts. If, in contemporary time, we have a weakness for celebrity; in the history of this period I note a tendency to regard the female members of the tenements - more than 86,000 occupants, - as a category, while the middle and upper middle class participants are easily and more usually identified as persons and, to their detriment, some as personalities, which doesn’t always serve the account well and often ignores their complex belief systems or their values.

I have spoken before of the important distinction between “common memory” and “shared memory”, a distinction established by Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, in his book The Ethics of Memory. [1]  In Margalit’s definition, “common memory” is an aggregate notion that combines the memories of all those people who remember a certain episode which each of them experienced individually.

“Shared memory”, on the other hand is an indirect memory – a memory of memory – which requires communication and seeks to integrate into one version the different perspectives of those who might have directly remembered a given episode. This is never a finished task. Rather it is a process requiring constant return, the taking account of new evidence, new perspectives.  If we are to set about constructing a shared memory, collections built on the memories of individuals are important.

They allow, if left open for addition, for a wider participation in the production of history, and a further gathering of memories in the future that bring new perspectives to events of the past into being.  For example, in the future remembering the efforts at memory construction, and its manipulation too, will be important. How will 2016 be compared to 1966 or how will it be compared to 1941? For example what did we say? What did we do? While we are doing this as an independent people, we must always remember we are recalling events that led to the establishment of our independent state. We are able to do so, and have the freedom to do so, because of the independence that was forged for us. How we use that independence is for another day and it remains a moral and ethical challenge.

Today we are reminded that we are all custodians of history, recipients of stories, anecdotes and accounts of the past, handed on to us by previous generations. While they may be stories unique to individual families they are also, in so many cases, a critical part of Ireland’s shared social history.  It is only by being open to and gaining a wide and balanced view of our shared past, through the exploration of the different but interconnecting experiences and individual voices that comprise that past, that we can engage in a genuine search for the truth and a real understanding of the journey that has brought us to the contemporary moment.

And already we have some very fine new work, such as for example that on the children who lost their lives during that week. It is important even as we do that, that we remember not only the child who may have been gathering material from a shop that has its window broken, but that we also the child that was shot from the Helga as his mother sent him for bread.

That is why we owe a great debt of gratitude to the sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and other relatives here today who have so generously shared their family stories, allowing them to be united in this great oral collection. That generosity has ensured that irreplaceable and historically important memories can now be preserved and archived and made available to all. And no-one else could have done it but yourselves.

The late Tony Judt, the great historian and political commentator has spoken of the importance, in any given society, of supplying ‘the dimension of knowledge and narrative without which we cannot be a civic whole’. It enables us, all of us, to come together in a very important way and collections such as this one which we celebrate today play a vital role in enabling and protecting a clear and more inclusive story of our nation; one which allows us to view our past in a way that is, yes celebratory, but also one that attempts to be inclusive and honest; and which prevents us from idealising versions of that past that might obstruct our capacity to learn from our complex history as we seek to craft our shared future.

Ghlac dhá chéad is a tríocha duine páirt i dtaifeadadh an chlos-ábhar seo. Is méid mór sa bhreis ar an t-ábhar a bhí ar fáil dúinn faoi Éirí Amach 1916 é seo, agus tabhairfidh sé tuiscint níos doimhne agus níos leithne dúinn ar eachtraí agus ar dhearcthaí na linne sin.

As I speak in Irish, I am very conscious of how important the language was to those people who participated. And that is why, during 2016, I am encouraging those who are speaking about this decade, to speak in the language and to draw on the materials that were available, not just in 1916, but in the long two or three decades before it and which were part of the Irish Revival.

As I have just said in Irish, two hundred and thirty individuals have taken part in the recording of this audio material. That is a greatly significant addition to the material already available to us on the 1916 Rising, and will allow for a deeper and wider understanding of the events and perspectives of that time.

And it is so important to come to know, before you rush to judge, and it is very important as well to be able to accommodate all of the material from the different perspectives, if we are to do this work of collective memory in a truly human way.   

May I conclude by thanking again each and every individual who has contributed to the 1916 Rising Oral History Collection.  May I wish the National Library well and may I hope as well that it will be resourced as all libraries should be, to enable us to celebrate the significance of a gift like this. 

I also thank and commend Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe, who have compiled this remarkable collection, which is a great gift to Irish society and a great exercise in citizenship.

I have no doubt that this Oral History Collection will add a significant dimension to the knowledge of many generations of future Irish citizens, a legacy of which you can all be very proud indeed.

Guím gach rath agus beannacht ar an leabharlann, agus arís tréaslaím leo sin a ghlac páirt sa tógra seo agus níl aon abhras orm ach gur áis íontach a bheidh ann dóibh siúd a bheidh ag dul i ngleic leis an stair atá againn in Éirinn sa todhchaí.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.




[1] Margalit, A. 2002. The Ethics of Memory. Harvard University Press.