‘Machnamh 100’ - Opening Words by President Michael D. Higgins Machnamh 100 Seminar II: Empire: Instincts, Interests, Power & Resistance
25th February 2021
We are currently engaged in a Decade of Commemorations which has allowed us, as a nation, to revisit and re-engage with those seminal events of a century ago, that were to have such profound effects on the societies and jurisdictions that emerged on this island, and on our relationships with each other and with our neighbours.
Our commemorative journey to date has allowed us to re-familiarise ourselves with, and think afresh about, key historic moments such as the 1913 Lockout, the First World War, the ‘Spanish Flu’ Pandemic, the 1918 election, and the first Dáil. New scholarship, and perhaps further reflection with the passage of time, has given us an opportunity to hear the history of those who may have been excluded from previous tellings, providing us perhaps with a fuller, more informed, more empathetic understanding.
Machnamh 100 is an initiative I have undertaken as Uachtarán na hÉireann to build on this previous work and specifically to allow for reflections on the wider context of, for example, the War of Independence, Civil War and Partition. I have invited leading scholars with diverse perspectives to share their insights on the context and events of that formative period of a century ago and on the nature of the act of commemoration itself.
My motivation in convening Machnamh 100 is not for us to arrive at a singular unifying narrative of the past to which we might all subscribe, but rather to acknowledge that differing, informed perspectives on the past do and can coexist. Machnamh 100 can be, I hope, a welcoming, inclusive forum for listening, for learning and for reflecting.
My hope is that Machnamh 100 will contribute to an inclusive commemoration, one that allows for uncomfortable truths to be acknowledged, one that might free us from the traps of remembered grievances and bitterness, and one that, through the sharing of a deeper understanding, might assist us in our reconciliation with the past and with each other.
May I thank Dr. John Bowman, historian and broadcaster, for agreeing to chair these seminars. I could think of no one more suited to the task.
Our inaugural seminar was held in December 2020 and examined the nature of commemoration itself in the contexts of today and of the national and global events of a century ago. Speakers included Professors Ciarán Benson, Anne Dolan, Michael Laffan and Joep Leerssen, and together with them we set out our stall of what we are hoping for from this series.
We have arrived at a point in our commemorative programme now where we are obliged to confront, acknowledge, and come to terms with some of the most contested aspects of the independence struggle, including a consideration of the forms and sources of violence that emerged. This is not an easy task, nor is it a simple story.
Our task requires an open-minded and inclusive reflection if we are to derive an understanding of how and why the multiple divisions within Ireland emerged in the way that they did, how they manifested themselves, and the strategies that were used to further their objectives. It requires, furthermore, an understanding of context, acknowledging the growing insecurity about the future of the British Empire in 1920, which resulted in an increasingly hostile, aggressive and violent response to civil unrest in Ireland as well as other colonised nations
Today we shall hear a number of considered papers from a range of eminent scholars in the field of Irish history, commencing with Professor John Horne of Trinity College Dublin who will provide an overview of the international order, and consideration of the fall of European empires and, in particular, the status and power of the British Empire circa 1920.
There will then follow four further reflections. Dr. Niamh Gallagher from the University of Cambridge will give particular attention to the impact of World War I and its after-effects on Irish and British society, paying regard to changed attitudes to death, violence, trauma, authority, and health. She will also consider the Irish abroad and minorities in both the North and South of Ireland in relation to partition.
Professor Eunan O’Halpin of Trinity College Dublin will examine ‘the crisis of empire’, exploring the roots of the paradox that, throughout the twentieth century, Irish independence has always been seen, not as an existential threat, but merely a tiresome second-order problem for Britain in international affairs.
Professor Alvin Jackson from the University of Edinburgh will give particular attention to the position of Ulster and of Ulster Unionism in the debate on empire, identities and power, with the establishment of Northern Ireland as an outcome of such debate.
Dr. Marie Coleman from Queen’s University Belfast will examine how the War played out in the lives of individuals affected by the conflict and its aftermath, the motivation of those who took arms, the experience of the Protestant minority in the south, and the resonance of partition and the border.
Finally, I will offer some thoughts on the relationship between empire and violence, including how versions of the ‘Other’ may have served as sources of violence.
I hope you find today’s seminar interesting, thought-provoking and even inspiring.
Fáilte Romhaibh Uilig.
Thank you for being with us at Machnamh.