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Ethical and Respectful Remembering

12 December 2020

This speech was first published as an article in the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph, on 12 December 2020


‘Machnamh’ is an Irish word that encapsulates meditation, reflection, consideration and thought. Machnamh 100 is my invitation to residents of this island, and to all those with an interest in our shared past and our futures together, to reflect on that tumultuous period of 100 years ago and what it means for us today. In particular, Machnamh 100 is a forum for reflection on the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Partition of Ireland.

Last Friday I hosted the first of a series of Machnamh 100 reflections at Áras an Uachtaráin that considered the nature of commemoration itself, why we do it, what we choose to commemorate, and what we may have chosen to omit from our commemorations. Four distinguished scholars presented fascinating but challenging papers which, along with my own contribution, I hope, set the scene for our work ahead. The proceedings are available for everyone to view on the RTÉ Player and the President of Ireland website.

I suggested that we are all challenged to engage with our shared past in a manner that is honest, authentic and inclusive, and that if commemoration is understood in this way that it might assist in healing the wounds of conflicts, recognise different narratives as to their causes, and their repercussions, that cannot, and should not, be forgotten. The complex events we recall from a century ago are integral to the story that has shaped our peoples in all their diversity, and how they are recalled and understood will continue to shape us and the decisions we make into the future.

Amnesia will not help us. I believe that we, and those who are part of the discourse with us, must remember in full, taking all of the diverse perspectives and experiences of what happened into account, with a willingness to hear the stories that might prove less comfortable, and give space to the perspectives that might challenge each other.

Ethical remembering will require us to shine a light on overlooked figures and events as all of us with intersecting stories attempt to achieve a deeper, more balanced and inclusive perspective. A central dimension of this is a refusal of conscious or unconscious amnesia, not only of persons but also of events and of the assumptions and actions that drove them.

I suggested at what was our inaugural seminar in the series that it requires us to consider the marginalised voices, the disenfranchised, and voices ignored or overlooked in our recollections of the past. It must, for example, give adequate recognition to the essential part played by women and their experiences. The driving influences of class, power, violence and restraint must all be laid bare and, in doing so, perhaps allow us to find our own individual and collective openness to perspectives of the stranger, the ‘other’, including the enemy of yesterday.

To this end, I am inviting scholars for a number of seminars from a variety of backgrounds to share their thoughts, to challenge us, and to challenge each other, in our dissection of the past and its implications for us today and also for tomorrow. History and access to it, drawing on good scholarship is so important for all of us.

My hope is that Machnamh 100, through being a forum for reflection, will aid us in transacting our shared history in an ethical way and with a respect for complexity as we move forward together on a journey to the future.

This approach to ethical remembering does not lend itself to simplification, or neatness, or a forced or inappropriate brevity in our contemplation of the past. Commemoration should not be restricted merely to celebrating the actions of the victors. Understanding and even empathising is not the same as endorsing or valorising. In seeking to gain a fuller picture of the events occurring during the decade leading to the establishment of separate jurisdictions on this island, we must recall not only the participants of war and rebellion, but also recognise all of those who suffered in its midst and in its wake.

The second Machnamh 100 seminar, scheduled for February 2021, will focus on the theme of ‘Empire: instincts, interests, power and resistance’. Among the topics to be considered will be the fall and re-forging of empires, the particular status and perceived power of the British empire circa1920, resistance to empire and to nationalism within Ireland, and the position of Ulster and of Ulster Unionism in the debate on identities and power, with the establishment of the independent Irish State and Northern Ireland being the outcomes of this debate.

A third reflection in May will examine gender and how social class influenced the differing aspirations for the future that existed. Later next year I hope to convene some sessions focused on the Civil War and Partition.

As we proceed through our own tumultuous events of today, and as we look back on the last 100 years, may I suggest that we should 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.

We share a rich history together, but our past is sometimes painful, and it can, should we allow it, obscure the possibilities before us. We cannot and should not forget, but we must, I suggest, find a way to free ourselves from the snares of the past. The time has come for us to listen. I believe that an ethics of narrative hospitality, as philosopher Richard Kearney has put it, has the capacity to replace our past entrenchments, offering an openness to each other. In doing so, we may nurture memory and remembrance as a strong foundation of a shared, agreed future of fulfilment for all.


Michael D. Higgins is Uachtarán na hÉireann, President of Ireland