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President Michael D. Higgins hosts fifth Machnamh 100 seminar

Date: Thu 26th May, 2022 | 13:29

Machnamh V, the fifth in President Michael D. Higgins’ series of six Machnamh 100 seminars will be available on the RTÉ Player and the President’s YouTube channel from 7pm this evening. The series takes its name from the Irish word Machnamh, an ancient concept encompassing reflection, contemplation, meditation and thought.

The fifth seminar, entitled ‘Constitutional, Institutional and Ideological Foundations: Complexity and Contestation’, concentrates on the period following the Civil War and the sources of authority and legitimacy in the new administrations formed north and south. It includes a particular consideration of the issue of ‘institutionalising’ exclusion: the groups marginalized in different ways by the state, the notions of ‘respectability’, ‘status’ and of having ‘a stake in the country’, the importance of land possession and what groups were deemed not to have such a stake, and the issues of class, state and identity.

The principal speaker is Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania with responses from President Higgins, Professor Henry Patterson (Ulster University), Professor Lindsey Earner Byrne and Dr Theresa Reidy (both University College Cork). The event is moderated by Dr John Bowman.

In his own contribution, the President notes that the events of the period 1922 to 1926 are among the most important in modern Irish history – not only in terms of how they fell out and the consequences that flowed from them, but in what they tell us about the assumptions they carried about independence, of the balance between parliamentary possibilities and military action, of the hold of empires and the force of a mythic dream of independence.

In his address, the President states:

“One cannot avoid, I feel, reflecting on what lives might have been saved, relationships allowed to survive and develop, had the express will and vote of the vast majority of the people of the island for independence in 1918 been accepted and acted upon. 

We have our independence because it was fought for. Yet neither the war with an empire, that the majority had voted to leave, nor a later civil war on the implications of the conclusion of Treaty, was inevitable.”

The President considers in particular the plight of those who had found themselves on the losing side of the Civil War when they attempted to re-enter society and the many exclusions and humiliations which they faced, as well as the continuing importance of land and notions of ‘respectability’ in the post-independence period.

The President remarks:

“A striking feature of those interned is their marginalisation, be it in terms of their occupation, their language. They are from the edges of the property-owning clericalist society that now defines what is ‘respectable’.”

The President further states:

“Issues of land remained omnipresent. The Land Commission continued to redistribute farmland in most of Ireland, with untenanted land subject to compulsorily purchase orders, lands which were nominally to be divided out to landless families, but in the execution this was applied unevenly across the State, with an emerging movement from IRA networks claiming that they who had driven out landlords were being ignored.”

Concluding, the President notes:

“Change has come, if too slowly, too late, for many. We must welcome and sustain those cracks that have let in the light, that have led to communities beginning to see and understand the incubus for violence which these authoritarianisms constitute. We are ceasing to see the necessity for abuses to be directed at each other, the need and satisfaction that comes from narrative hospitality and decency in discourse. All of that is precious. It is what offers hope.”

The seminar was recorded in front of a live audience in the Hyde Room of Áras an Uachataráin. The audience included academics with an interest in the period, history teachers and a number of secondary school students.

The intention is that the final seminar in the Machnamh 100 series will be recorded and broadcast on the RTE player in November. Titled ‘Acts of  Commemoration: Pride, Pain and Perspective’, the session will allow for a general reflection following on from the previous seminars, and it will also explore the issue of doing Commemoration – the personal and the public; what impulses and imperatives are at play in each case; who decides what to ‘commemorate’, when and in what manner, and how it has or might be interpreted.