“Of Centenaries and the Hospitality Necessary in Reflecting on Memory, History and Forgiveness” - Centenary Commemorations Address by President Michael D. Higgins
4 December 2020
The decades through which we are living have been referred to as ‘decades of centenaries’. It is inevitable that some centenaries be emphasised more than others, thus creating a challenge of understanding as to how memory, history and symbolism have been used or invoked to suggest difference, distance from ‘the Other’, as it were.
The act of ‘commemoration’, I believe, need not, indeed should not, add to that distance from ‘the Other’. Indeed, I believe that, approached with a sophistication as to the uses of memory and recall, and a willingness to share the discipline of evidence-based historiography, it is possible to transcend such distance as was engendered, amplified, and is being sustained between communities on this island and with our nearest neighbour of whose empire we were a part just over a century ago.
We are in new times and in a shared context of struggling to defeat a virus that has taken the lives of citizens without discrimination as to any boundaries between us. I want to suggest that we should take the opportunity of transacting, that is to say, confronting and working through, that which establishes the distance between us in terms of different narratives of violences recalled, the absolutisms that drove those impulses to violence, the careless and dangerous assumptions of ‘the Other’ which may have driven such violence.
In previous considerations of public memory, I have suggested that amnesia as to painful events of the past is not an option. I was drawing, inter alia, on the work of Hannah Arendt, Paul Ricoeur, and Richard Kearney to indicate the necessity of coming to terms with recalled outrage, the essential ethical foundations of the appropriateness of memory, and the practical use of such procedures as would enable, to use Kearney’s phrase – “a hospitality of narratives”, that it to say, an openness to different narratives of the historical experience.
It may be difficult to personally experience the recall of the different forms that the sources of violence took, but there is a real gain in reflecting on, and confronting, the assumptions as to how and why there was recourse to violence, the further development and infliction of new forms of violence, what purpose was sought or served by these sources, proximate or ancient.
What is at stake in making the reflection, I suggest, is not the offering of a set of competing rationalisations of opposing violences, but rather a recovery of contexts that need to be understood, whatever purposes may have been served by such rationalisations.
Such recovered contexts must include in addition to a consideration of violence, adequate recognition of the efforts of those who sought peace in the face of emerging conflicts. They include the trade union movement North and South, pacifists, feminists, individual clerics such as Archbishop Clune of Perth. Their presence in the historiography tends to be understated. Violence, and recall of it, dominate.
Yet peace matters. It is possible, for example, to see 1920 as a year of the lost opportunity for a peaceful transition, a loss that emerged from a series of opportunities not taken in the immediate years preceding. It is necessary, too, however uncomfortable, to hear the views of those who believe that, even with all the tragedy that emerged, perhaps a greater loss of life was avoided by the making of compromises and new accommodations, later to be the subject of contestation, even rejection.
Even more important is the need to recognise that what was perceived by some, for example, as a loss to empire was for others, such as nationalists, a moment of emancipation, of a freedom long-delayed, and based, too, on remembered, deeply layered humiliation, loss of respect; an indomitable search for independence, the pursuit of which was a value inherited and an aspiration for freedom recovered from past failures, and the expression of a diverse but indomitable people. That aspiration, of course, accommodated within it different versions of freedom.
The result of excluded narratives or perspectives led for too long to the domination of a sealed, as opposed to an open, version of history. An evasive forgetting was as important as remembering in this selective approach, for both remembering and forgetting are utilised in the case of collective memories that generate exclusive narratives of ‘the Other’.
Paul Ricoeur refers to this in his suggestion of the tendency of such an abuse of memory to be justified as loyalty, or faithfulness, an approach from which history in the pursuit of fact has to distance itself. This indeed might suggest that there may be an unavoidable tension between history and memory.
History is important as an evidence-based framework for what public remembering we choose to do. We are fortunate on this island, I believe, in having sharply relevant new contributions from historians drawing on newly available sources, new considerations of context, scholars who are addressing neglected themes, others revising or deepening previous scholarship.
Undertaking responsibility for the building of a capacity for achieving a hospitality of narratives is a task for us all. I particularly want to commend the work in this regard here in Ireland of Johnston McMaster and his colleague Cathy Higgins, and others, who are giving such a lead in developing cross-community courses in ethical remembering which run a timeline of historical events as a background to the contested contexts of differing public memories. I believe great results can flow from such engagement. If I may quote from a recent paper of Johnston McMaster on this topic,
“History requires ethical analysis which in turn requires appropriate attention to contexts. […] Attention to context means that we cannot read history uncritically from the contemporary standpoint or current ethical perspectives. The perceived wisdom of the time needs to be engaged.”
As we set about the task of ethical remembering, it may be useful to ask why do we commemorate, for whom do we commemorate, and why has it become such an important ritual over the centuries? Heather Jones, in her contribution to the superb Atlas of the Irish Revolution, asserts:
“there have been complex historiographical debates about the nature of collective memory and war remembrance, but the term ‘commemoration’ has been less clearly analysed.”
John Horne argues that the practices of commemoration “have their own history, which is that of traces left behind by the episodes that caused them and the changing awareness over time of their importance.”
In his book Commemoration, historian Seth C. Bruggeman calls commemoration “the lingua franca of public memory”, encompassing the various ways we have imagined—in monuments, ceremonies, festivals, pageants, fairs, museums, re-enactments—to register deep regard for the past by those in the present.
Unlike history, which is concerned primarily with circumstance, commemoration dwells predominately in feeling. It could be argued, as Bruggeman does, that the diversity of rituals, objects and customs that we associate with commemoration are all intended to give public feeling to what are otherwise often private memories.
Commemoration therefore offers the opportunity to reflect, to look deeply at change over time, to provide an understanding of where things have been, where they are today, and why.
The idea of commemoration is always, correctly, rooted in agency and the intent to accord importance to an aspect of the past. It is therefore an active concept, encompassing social and cultural functions, and serving, for example, as a bonding tool for enhanced social capital, employed for pedagogical purposes to spread awareness of historical events and, for some, acting as a form of retributive justice to honour those perceived to have been the victims.
Commemoration brings to the fore a consideration of how the study of the past and our collective memory may be valuable to individuals, communities, and a wider society. Through commemoration, history helps create and nurture active, engaged citizens.
I want to suggest that we should use the present context of the shared experience of struggles with the COVID-19 virus to be radical in our acknowledgement of what we have excluded and that there is value in seeking to work towards an ethical task together, one of inclusion and respect, one that brings us beyond – relieves us of the burden of – sectarian tendencies past and present.
Ethics of Memory
In this decade of significant commemoration, we continue to be challenged to engage with our shared past in a way that is honest, authentic and pluralistic. The complex events we recall and commemorate during this decade are integral to the story that has shaped our nation in all its diversity at home and abroad. They are, however, events to be remembered that will be retold from many different standpoints, and it is through respecting these differing perspectives in all their complexity that we can facilitate a more authentic construction, not only of our intersecting shared history, but of our post-sectarian possibilities for the future.
While memory can be both constructive and re-constructive – that is to say, it is developed over time, built upon by age-old acquisition of the distant senses, imagination and thought – yet central to the concept of ethical remembering must be the notion of authenticity. This in turn is nuanced by what Professor Ciarán Benson describes as,
“the ever-present warning that remembering, whether individual or collective, is always shadowed by uncertainty and, from a responsible, moral perspective, ought to be accompanied by a knowledge of that possibility.”
The act of remembering invites of course risk of an emotional kind, even if executed in private. If executed publicly, as commemorations, it has a wider impact. If the commemoration is to be hospitable to multiple narratives, to a plurality of interpretations, ground has to be given, from earlier, even comforting, foundational myths upon which one’s own personality and communal shared beliefs have relied.
It seems to me useful to reflect on the purpose of the act of remembering as one prepares to issue an invitation to what is an increasingly diverse public to engage in the more public act of commemoration. Issues of the fullness of context, in its being taken into account, or being excluded, cannot morally be avoided. For example, when during our memorial services for the dead in the two wars of the twentieth century we state ‘we shall remember them from the break of day to the setting of the sun’, are we celebrating their lived and lost lives together in the conditions of war as fellow vulnerable human beings, or are we allowed also to see them as the human carnage of conflict, of a clash of imperial aspirations? What is the intention guiding our invocation?
“To fail to remember”, is to “kill the victims twice”, Paul Ricoeur has written. Yes, it is undeniable that in the intimacy of trenches, under terrible bombardment, some of the greatest extensions of human courage, compassion and bravery have been delivered, but at a terrible cost. Acknowledging the context of what we recognise as the heroic should not be a problem.
Who could not be moved by the inscription on a tombstone? But then, if we are to have an authentic act of public memory, should we not be moved in an ever deeper way at what a field of graves tells us of the failure that the slaughter of war has represented, not only in the twentieth century, but in all centuries?
An ‘ethical act of memory’ has to be a critical act of memory, I suggest. There should be an engagement with the issues of context before the act of public memory is transformed to commemoration in any narrow sense. Commemoration is not only a public invitation, it is an act predicated on selection.
The act of selection is challenging, and poses choices, as to what is appropriate as even a temporary excursion into collective memory. Such choices can never be neutral nor is there any way they can be claimed to be objective. Thus, assumptions that guided inclusion and exclusion are best stated.
What can be achieved, I believe, is a transparency of purpose, an honesty of endeavour in keeping open the possibility of plural interpretations and future revision based on new facts or original analysis.
This is put very well in relation to 1916 in Ethics and the Easter Rising again by Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins, where they write,
“Remembering ethically is not just about remembering inclusively, honouring all the dead in the mystery of their humanness, it is about taking responsibility ourselves for the present and the future. We cannot afford to be controlled or dictated to from the grave, but as human beings, take responsibility ourselves for our own distinctive time, place and world.”
Thus, the challenge is, for example, to take the peace that we have put on paper in the Agreement we achieved over two decades ago, and use it to achieve peace in communities, a peace that will make dividing walls redundant, allow our children to share schools, read history with respect for difference and, moving through such a shared respect, achieve the ability for a shared fulfilment together in the future, encountering on the way such understanding as is necessary, and such forgiveness as is made possible.
Trading of Atrocities
Commemoration itself can therefore be an important aspect of ethical remembering. However, discretion is required with regard to how we mark important historical events, particularly those that may be exploited for narrow political or partisan purposes. Indeed, some historians have rightly warned us against the perils posed to historical truth by any backward imputation of motives, any uncritical transfer of contemporary emotions onto the past. Time and again, we have seen how history can be used and abused for insidious, morally dubious, purposes. As historian Roisín Higgins puts it,
“[The] fractious nature of the revolutionary period has created many possibilities for commemorative events, as well as a great deal of potential for division.”
That it not to say that we should censor memory of painful events. To do so would be, at best, amoral, I suggest. For example, during the War of Independence the acts of aggression unleashed by Crown forces and administered by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in particular were often in the form of exemplary collective punishments and reprisals. Such horrors would be contrary to the modern-day Geneva Conventions and would be considered illegal under international law.
Being as they were, an escalation of state-approved violence, these acts became the mark of a policy and strategy of holding control. They were aimed at subjugation, installation of fear in a public that had in its midst those that sought and were fighting for independence.
There is little doubt that the infliction of economic damage by both the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans was not merely a spontaneous series of acts by the uncontrolled, or the drunken. Rather it was a key strategic tool, a response of empire, employed in an attempt to quash support for any separatism that constituted a threat to that empire.
The move by the British forces towards attacks on business and co-operatives, including rural creameries – which were major employers and sources of essential foodstuffs – marked an escalation in both the wider socio-economic impacts and the sophistication of reprisal tactics, harming local economies and livelihoods by punishing the civilian population through the destruction of a cherished public utility or key employer.
Reprisals and collective punishments were a key aspect of empire rule by the different forms of empire that were increasingly coming under opposition from below. Empire was challenged, along with its imposition of colonial power, laws, attributes and ideologies. Such violent tactics were already an established strategic tool of imperialist military strategy by the time they occurred in Ireland during the War of Independence. Such acts, and anticipation of them, drew a violent response in turn from a repertoire of responses, be it in relation to land, language or poverty, responses and innovations, too, that were available to Irish nationalists motivated by both new and recalled humiliations of which there was no shortage.
The changed nature of the RIC, it having been augmented by a newly arrived force, some inexperienced in terms of discipline, and recently discharged, perhaps unemployed, soldiers, others officers ideologically driven, meant that its Irish-born members were now at risk of being constituted as part of the enemy forces. Those, and there were many, who may have joined for security of job and pension, or for housing or educational opportunities for their children, who were embedded in a community in previous times, were now in changed circumstances, targets, and the killing of them was often the instigation of forays from barracks by the new forces, burnings, exemplary collective punishments, and further tragic loss of life.
Of course, the British forces were not alone when it came to reprisals and atrocities. Violence breeds violence. Cruelty is learned and, indeed, the history of Irish Republicanism is one in which the callous disregard for human life has been displayed on too many occasions, with civilians often constituting the target, in what is often termed “The Irish Struggle”.
War is always ugly, and posthumous glorification is neither desirable nor morally sound. We must, therefore, I believe, seek to enable all of our citizens to engage with history and commemoration in a way that is inclusive, ethical, pluralist and honest, allowing for the evaluation of motives and of actions on all sides with fairness.
In terms of inclusivity, we have at times fallen short in our duty of public remembering in some significant areas of our shared history – for example, in Ireland, the State’s channelling of grief for those who died during World War I or those who died and suffered in the succeeding conflicts of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Indeed, on occasion, in the later 1920s for example, the State could be accused of being partisan and exclusive and thus divisive.
Such an approach to official remembering, in which the State was often absent or selective, resulted in additional grief for many relatives of those who died in the struggle for Irish independence, owing to the sense that they had not received due recognition for their loss. This adds weight to the argument for State commemoration for all of those who lost their lives in the fight for Irish independence, even as a palliative measure that might aid personal grief.
Recalling frailty, error or weakness is more difficult, it seems, for much of historiography. Speaking of strength in the pursuit of hegemony of narrative seems easier. Yet to achieve a capacity for peace or fulfilment, we need a recognition of weakness as well as strength, of error and failure, as well as of certainties vindicated.
Arriving at such a “narrative hospitality”, to quote Paul Ricoeur, such as I suggest, requires generous effort, and reaching an accommodation with conflicting versions of the past is merely a stage in the journey, via understanding, to what might be the destination that is forgiveness for past hurt, neglect or omission; a destination which, in so many areas of conflict, at home and abroad, past and present, many participants may never reach.
It should be understood that we are concerned here with a very tentative horizon of completion, of a critical historical knowledge aware of its limitations, built on such a reconciliation of narratives as avoids binary opposites:
“Between history’s project of truth and memory’s aim of faithfulness is that small miracle of recognition [that] has no equivalent in history.”
Ricoeur is suggesting, recognising, as we must, that what must come to be shared is beyond any narrow limitation, be it of history or memory.
In order to move beyond the hospitality of narrative, a parity of esteem in the discourse of dealing with past events is necessary. It is an approach, however, that may in time create the possibility of a necessary forgiving.
Remembering those voices who have been forgotten, excluded from public memory, either wilfully or perhaps unwittingly, is so very important if we are serious about nurturing a comprehensive ethical public memory. We must remember, too, as Ricoeur expounded so well, that there is a reciprocal relationship between remembering and forgetting which affects both the perception of shared, historical experience and the production of historical narratives.
Approaching anew the tasks of remembering and forgetting in an ethical way is transformative. As philosopher Hannah Arendt has written, forgiveness is the only way to undo “the irreversible flow of history”:
“Forgiveness is the necessary corrective for the inevitable damages that result from action. […] Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of consequence forever.”
Thus, it is only through such an ethical remembering, as we now have an opportunity to attempt to undertake, that we can avoid revisiting the blinding categories of censure or denunciation, or indeed revenge and bitterness.
Remembering Those Excluded
Memory of Ireland’s War of Independence is complicated by the fact that it was followed so closely by the Civil War, resulting as it did in certain events and figures from the War of Independence often receiving less attention than the subsequent Civil War.
Ethical remembering requires us to include those who may hitherto have been excluded from official, formal accounts of history, and to shine a light on overlooked figures and actions in an attempt to have a more comprehensive and balanced perspective on the independence struggle. For example, the different social class background from which Volunteers came is important, as is the level at which they had the possibility to participate. Those who participated in the struggle for Irish independence constitute a long spectrum that stretches from academics of emancipatory disposition, through insecure smallholders, agricultural labourers with little rights, to shop boys and the trades. They each sought independence, I suggest, through the prism of their social class experiences.
A central dimension of ethical remembering is a refusal of any kind of conscious or unconscious amnesia, not only of persons but events. Indeed, to reject important, if painful, events of the past is to deny those affected by them recognition of their losses or the right to have memories of those losses. I repeat that I believe that to do this would be counterproductive and potentially amoral.
Moral Vacuum and Gender Violence
Ethical remembering entails, too, the inclusion of the voices of the marginalised and the disenfranchised in our recollections of the past. It must show a willingness to do justice, for example, to the essential roles played by women in this period that we now commemorate.
Sinead McCoole has written that women were the “eyes and ears” of the conflict, providing safe houses, procuring arms, visiting prisons, spying and relaying vital intelligence and messages. While we have details of this in their pension applications in the 1920s, and in other decades, too, their work in the struggle for independence was, for too long, neither recognised, nor treated with any parity, in terms of respect, with male counterparts.
Ethical recall should also include an examination of under-researched or avoided areas, such as the violence against women that occurred during this period. The examples of sexual violence that occurred during the War of Independence and later the Civil War can be viewed, as Professor Linda Connolly of Maynooth University has argued, “[as] a dark secret of the period’s historiography”. Commemorations should not ignore horrific acts, such as head-shorning and sexual violence including the raping of women.
It is important, too, to recognise the complexity that arises in seeking to differentiate between what were strategic acts of a military campaign and what were, in particular situations, acts carried out from a mixture of motivations, acts of cruelty, old hatreds, envy or greed.
It is imperative that the Irish Revolution is not perceived as a war solely about or achieved by men. The civilian impact, where women come decisively into play, is so often neglected in the historical narratives of the period. The experience of women must be considered comprehensively, together with an examination of social class, if the commemoration of the War of Independence is to address seriously the most difficult questions of the past.
Gender-based violence occurred and was inflicted with cruelty. It is an aspect of the revolutionary period that has been hidden, suppressed and denied for too long. It deserves a proper contextual examination. The assumptions as to what was to be the role of women in Irish society was of course to become a slow-burning issue that would reveal so much of what was bad and exclusionary rather than what might be good and inclusive right into our own times.
We must face the exclusionary nature of the State that emerged a century ago. We must muster the courage to face the role played by institutions, including religious institutions, in providing the fuel and the exclusionary language for what became confessionalisms that fostered division, not cooperation.
The ethics of commemoration entails inclusivity being placed centre-stage, an openness to dissonant voices and stories of ‘the Other’, the stranger, the enemy of yesterday.
We must also, through commemoration of the Irish centenary, face up to, acknowledge, and come to a form of reconciliation with some of the thorniest aspects of the struggle for independence, and the later practice of that independence, including the lingering sources of violence – be they land-based, local disputes, gender-based, treatment of prisoners – and particularly those based on stereotypes of ‘the Other’ from both sides.
I have written elsewhere as to how, in the British case, the stereotypes that related to the Irish and other colonised peoples involved the ‘othering’ of people, cultures and ideologies, their being regarded as inferior. Stereotypes were employed as instruments that rejected or ignored the humanity and dignity of those being colonised. I have also written of what a powerful moment it would constitute if a number of European societies made a public recognition of this, particularly in relation to Africa.
By way of response, in the Irish case, there was no scarcity of figures responsible for past horrific acts of abuse, humiliation and indifference to poverty that could be drawn on as figures to describe and depict present opponents.
‘Othering’ was rooted in ideological assumptions, of superiority and inferiority in terms of race, culture or capacity, in the notion of the collective as a disloyal, hopeless or threatening version of the ‘Other’. The ‘othering’ of particular cultures, particular nationalities, particular attributes and particular ideologies served, for example, as an insidious rationalisation of, and distorted logic behind, British Crown Forces’ acts of violence, such as the collective punishments and reprisals to which I referred earlier. We must also be cognisant of stereotypical depictions of ‘the Other’ by some of those on the nationalist side as a process of generating a form of Anglophobia which has been utilised and exists in some quarters to this day, and is perhaps being fuelled by the worst aspects, and feared consequences, of Brexit.
Hibernophobia, as it is sometimes called, was a deep current in late-19th and early-20th century Britain. But prejudice against the Irish, particularly as a migrant people, or as members of particular religious denominations, was not just confined to Victorian Britain, but was also evident in the United States, centred on the stereotyping of the Irish as inherently violent, alcoholic and unintelligent. It was a depiction that continued into, and throughout, the twentieth century. The response to it helped fuel actions that were horrific and were delivered against a civilian British public, with whom they should have been able to see a common culture. Thus, one form of hate reinforced another.
There existed, it has to be recognised, a supportive intellectual tradition of pejorative attitudes towards the Irish by sections of British scholarship, which had been well-formed by this period. It includes, for example, Scottish philosopher David Hume who, having made a distinguished contribution to philosophy and its methods, that, as an intellectual of influence, could have made a significant contribution to upending such stereotypes. However, he was to write regressively in his History of England:
“The Irish from the beginning of time had been buried in the most profound barbarianism [sic] and ignorance; and as they were never conquered, even, indeed, by the Romans from whom all the Western world derives its culture, they continued still in the most rude state of society and were distinguished by those vices to which human nature, not tamed by education, nor restrained by laws, is for ever subject”.
Indeed, two centuries later, Winston Churchill, claiming a distance from Irishness based on an assumed superiority, would write,
“We have always found the Irish to be a bit odd. They refuse to be English.”
The ‘othering’ of Irish people and their culture was undeniably ingrained at significant levels of British society during the revolutionary era, and in Ireland this drew in turn a deep, hostile and comprehensive ‘othering’ of what might be considered English or British or alien. Clearly, the challenge we face all comes down in our present use of commemoration to the necessity of us making a new journey together based on better principles in terms of recalling history and memories.
Such a task was well-described by His Royal Highness Prince Charles on the occasion of his speech at a central remembrance ceremony in Berlin. He ended his remarks with the words:
“As our countries begin this new chapter in our long history, let us reaffirm our bond for the years ahead. Let us reflect on all that we have been through together, and all that we have learned. Let us remember all victims of war, tyranny and persecution; those who laid down their lives for the freedoms we cherish, and those who struggle for these freedoms to this day. They inspire us to strive for a better tomorrow – let us make this our common cause.”
Not Merely Celebrating the Actions of the Victors
For too long our understanding of the decade 1912-1922 and the surrounding period was hindered by an assumption that we can more easily make sense of events, and indeed our own sense of individual and national identity, if we keep historical narratives brief, simple and homogenous. We must challenge the urge to over-simplify as we commemorate. Embracing complexity is important. Complex events demand a scholarship that respects complexity, that seeks to unravel perceived contradictions rather than invest in, or rely on, simplistic reiterations that lead away from any deep knowledge and that may go on to assist in accommodating ideological manipulation.
We must recognise, too, that, in the context of commemorating, understanding and even empathising is not the same as endorsing or valorising. It is not about celebrating merely the actions of those who won. In seeking to gain a fuller picture of the events occurring during the decade leading to independence itself, we have to recall not only the participants of war and rebellion, but also to recognise all of those who suffered in its midst and in its wake. As Declan Kiberd has written, “the stories of the past had celebrated the wrong people: the smiters of the world rather than the smitten.”
Reconciliation and Forgiveness
If I may, in summary then, return to the tools we might use in our new journey together, I have referred in other speeches to the work of Richard Kearney in this area of ethical remembering, and to his astute observation that engagement with the plurality and diversity of various narratives could, over time, contribute to a culture of forgiveness. Forgiveness, reconciliation and healing must remain important and necessary objectives. They constitute our best, realistic hope of coming to terms with the past.
Forgiveness is difficult but not impossible. The purpose of forgiving, as Hannah Arendt saw it, was to diminish a past event’s capacity to deprive one of the realistic possibilities of the present or the imaginative possibilities of the future. Forgiveness is not an abstract act, summoned up by an individual to address a particular wrong. It is a conscious, even painful, act and it can be the genesis of a new relationship forged between the forgiven and the forgiver.
Engaging with the past is often not easy. On the contrary, it involves a complex negotiation of the manifold stories, memories, hurts, legacies and emotions, for example, of all who recall the revolutionary period leading up to independence, or were or are affected by what is too lightly called ‘the Troubles’.
Finding a fair and comprehensive way of dealing with the past, one that will win the confidence and support of all, is a daunting challenge – however, it is a challenge that on moral grounds cannot be, should not be, I believe, shirked. It is the basis for us all not only of hope, but for the achievement of a new version of a life, one of fulfilment for all on our island and for all in our neighbourhood. For the sake of the future, we must break loose from the snares of the past.
Looking to the Future
In facing up to that challenge, let us ensure then that our approach is characterised by a desire to remember ethically, to view forgiveness as a true release from the past, and to move forward to a new chapter unburdened by any bitter memory of that past, free to make of our imagining an emancipatory, inclusive achievement in laying out conditions for an enduring peace.
In that process of re-engagement, we on this island of Ireland we share can, across a distance of a century, understand the events of a century ago as being about so much more than military or political actions. They also of course represented an act of imagination, a part of a social as well as a national revolution, whose leaders were inspired by the idea of creating a very different, much-improved Ireland founded on the old republican values of equality and liberty.
All of this was done in the context of a turbulent time in empire history in which global challenges were being mounted to relations between those who ruled and those who were being ruled. It was a time of a mass destruction, of a pandemic, the wrongly named Spanish Flu of which people were afraid, too numbed, too busy in conflict, to speak. It was the aftermath of World War I, empires were being re-forged, and across the world an urge for self-determination, including across the colonised world, was stirring. In Ireland, too, popular mandates, power realities, economic and social forces, choices, actors and passions all became key contextual components of our struggle for independence.
Opportunities for peaceful transitions were forfeited. Cold military measures were invoked rather than the making of any sophisticated or informed, meaningful, diplomatic or institutional responses to the stated will of the people, as had been expressed through the ballot box.
While in the best of its rhetoric, and in the hearts of its most selfless participants, it was an Ireland of equality and social justice that was sought, an Ireland of democratic citizenship and of collective participation, succeeding institutions would contradict rather than deliver such outcomes.
As we re-engage with the ideals that lay behind this period in history, we are also invited to revisit our conceptions of what constitutes a real Republic – a Republic that would have solidarity, community and the public world at its heart; a Republic fit for a shared island of diverse tradition, hopes and loyalties, a Republic that would acknowledge the State not only as benign, but as active, as a shared responsibility, and recognise, too, its vital role in actively improving the common welfare of all citizens.
This conception of a shared island, of the State and the Republic is so much richer than any narrow, individualistic definition of citizenship – and it is also, I suggest, closer to what the more idealistic leaders of this period of a hundred years ago had in mind. They in their generation included advanced thinkers, selfless women and men, who took all the risks to ensure that the children of Ireland would, in the future, live in freedom and be fulfilled with their fair share of Ireland’s cultural, social and economic advancements.
The passage of one hundred years allows us to see the past afresh, free from some of the narrow, partisan interpretations that might have restricted our view in earlier periods. We have a duty to honour and respect that past, and retrieve the heroic idealism that was at its heart. We have an even greater duty to imagine and to forge a future illuminated by the unfulfilled promises of our past.
This requires reviving the best of the idealism of this period so that coming generations might experience freedom in the full sense of the term: freedom from poverty, freedom from violence and insecurity, and freedom from fear.
May I conclude by suggesting that the time has come for such an ethics of narrative hospitality as might replace our past entrenchments on this island; that we make possible all the best of our futures together. We have in the past experienced lost opportunities in the context of reconciliation from our violent struggle for independence and what followed it, but we now have an opportunity, as we mark the commemorative centenary, to seek true, lasting reconciliation on this island and build a bright, emancipatory future for all of us with our diverse histories and memories respectfully taken into account.
As we continue to mark these pivotal moments in our nation’s history, let us together cultivate memory as an instrument for the living so that we may realise a collective memory at peace, unburdened, reconciled; an ethical remembering with its special energy and capacity to replace our past entrenchments, as well as offering an openness to others. Let us together strive to nurture memory and remembrance as a strong foundation of a shared, agreed future.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir is beir beannacht do’n tógra sin.