Remembering and Forgetting 1916: Commemoration and Conflict in Post-Peace Process Ireland, by Rebecca Graff-McRae, Irish Academic Press, 240 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-0716530688
On its own, the title of Rebecca Graff-McRae’s book might suggest that this is simply the latest in the recent surge of works dealing with political and cultural memory ‑ essay collections like History and Memory in Modern Ireland or Commemorating Ireland, for example, or Anne Dolan’s Commemorating the Irish Civil War and Guy Beiner’s Remembering the Year of the French. There is nothing on the cover of Remembering and Forgetting 1916 to suggest that its approach is outside the mainstream of writing on Irish history. According to the blurb,
This book asks how the commemoration of the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the 1798 Rebellion and the H-Block Hunger Strike have become incorporated into present politics in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
The book begins and ends with the Easter Rising. The construction of 1916 as the pivotal moment of Irish history, identity and memory has had lasting consequences for the Irish definition of political conflict and how this is defined through commemoration.
In Remembering and Forgetting 1916, it is argued that the ghosts of 1916 are in many ways the ghosts of 1998.
The way in which Richard English, in his introduction, welcomes the book makes it clear that it is ambitiously different – and implicitly acknowledges the conservatism of Irish history-writing. Whether one considers this a blessing (somewhat like Ireland’s freedom from rabies) or a mark of culpable isolation, an individual book like Graff-McRae’s ultimately stands on the perceptions or insights it offers. Though Remembering and Forgetting 1916 might be taken as representative of a particular school, it does not in fact cleave to one critical idiom from beginning to end. While its invocations of Derrida and Žižek are unusual in the context of Irish history-writing, the book also contains lengthy passages of commentary and paraphrase that could easily find a place in a more conventional work, as would many of the historians and commentators whose works are quoted in passing or who appear in epigraphs.
One question arises almost immediately. What does Graff-McRae’s postmodern language offer? A radical postmodern position would involve a denial of the possibility of ascertaining historical truth and an emphasis on the slipperiness or undecidability of language and memory. Graff-McRae averts to such matters but, between these theoretical arias, contents herself with repeated reminders of the complexity of matters like commemoration. The second paragraph of the introduction reads as follows:
Commemoration is thus: an invocation of the past in the present; a negotiated tension between remembering and forgetting; a calling-up of ghosts; a political act. The problem of commemoration is not the need to find a definition ‑ it is all of these things and yet none. Commemoration serves to raise or bury political ghosts ‑ those of unity and division, consensus and conflict, continuity and rupture, absence and presence. This appeal to memory through invocation, suppression or revision of the past inscribes and re-writes the boundaries of the political itself. Commemoration is not merely an event, a parade, a statue, a graveside oration: parades can be disrupted or re-routed; statues defaced or bombed; speeches repressed or re-written. It is not an act or a word, nor is it inaction or silence. Commemoration is itself constantly under negotiation.
This is a generally unobjectionable statement ‑ but is that unobjectionability not itself a problem? If commemoration is both one thing and another, if it is both everything and nothing, are we really going to say anything challenging or worthwhile? Will the appeal to memory really inscribe and rewrite the boundaries of the political itself or will it merely reduce the political to a verbal blur?
With reference to cases of contested memory, of resistance to hegemonic power, in Iraq and Rwanda, Graff-McRae writes: “What remains unsaid, however, is that these formulations obscure the discursive negotiations by which ‘truth’ and ‘memory’ are defined.” Does it really remain unsaid? Rather, we might suggest that, during a violent conflict, there are more urgent matters than defining discursive negotiations, while those who take part in less physically threatening wars of interpretation would generally be aware at some level of the rules of the space that they are trying to control, if only to manipulate them. And is it not those little concerned with improving, modifying or changing the world who are most likely to devote themselves to elaborate definition of discursive negotiations?
One of the characteristic moves of this kind of discourse is a statement of our dependence on opposites, the endless reiteration of these opposites, and a statement of their inadequacy:
Commemoration, therefore, was never merely an event. Commemoration is a discourse in time and space ‑ here and there, then and now, past, present and future. It is the (re)inscription of the event as such, achieved through the (partial and temporary) resolutions of these oppositions ‑ between us/them, peace/conflict, inside/outside, morality/injustice, democracy/tyranny, male/female, reconciliation/revenge ‑ which are so thoroughly incorporated into our understandings of remembering (and, of course, forgetting) as to make themselves invisible. Within these oppositions, contradictions and paradoxes lies the key to the politics of commemoration. Commemoration is both constructive and destructive, unifying and divisive, reconciliation and warfare. Moreover, the dynamics of commemoration itself are intrinsically predicated upon these oppositions, upon opposition as such. It is a paradox ‑ a question rather than an answer, and one which demands negotiation.
The replacement of the term “commemoration” here by another, with a consequent tweaking of certain later pairings, does not necessitate any real change. Thus, for example:
Cooking, therefore, was never merely an event. Cooking is a discourse in time and space ‑ here and there, then and now, past, present and future. It is the (re)inscription of the event as such, achieved through the (partial and temporary) resolution of these oppositions ‑ us/them, included/excluded, hospitality/hostility, indoors/outdoors, hot/cold, cooked/raw, hunger/satiety, male/female ‑ which are so thoroughly incorporated …
The transferability of this form of discourse, and its endless repetition over recent decades in academic essays, papers, dissertations, articles, talks and books, throws its usefulness into question in a way not intended by its adherents; it may also induce in the reader an impatience that cannot simply be ascribed to intellectual conservatism, the kind of impatience that would arise if every news programme or sports commentary had to be preceded by a fifteen-minute homily on the indefinability or impossibility of objective truth.
At the level of “negotiation”, Graff-McRae announces potentially interesting lines of enquiry:
This book engages in such a process through a complex of critical questions: What is being commemorated, and by whom forgotten? Who is excluded or marginalized and whose interests does this serve? How is commemoration used in political conflicts ‑ over sovereignty, territory, identity, equality among gender, class, ethnic, religious or ideological categories? How does this legitimate, (re)produce or contest unequal power relations and particular understandings of political dynamics? What, then, is political about memory and commemoration?
It is noteworthy that most of these questions could be ‑ and are ‑ asked without recourse to postmodern dialect. The last question might appear to be of the same type but it is given a particular twist in this context ‑ one that could be seen as drawing a stark line between the politically radical and the philosophical radicalism of deconstructionism. Graff-McRae emphasises that “the personal, private, local and marginalized have power-political interests just as the state, institutional, and dominant”. This is the author’s broader take on the matter:
Commemoration is therefore always already conflictual: it is not merely a product of unequal power relations, but crucially (re)produces them and frames the ways in which they can be understood. These dynamics rely on a particular formulation of ‘politics’ which often serves to defer or undermine the political. ‘Politics’ is the struggle to influence the distribution of power ‑ within the state or among states; the ‘political’, therefore, is about the way in which that struggle is negotiated, legitimated and contested.
Is it entirely irrelevant that this puts the deconstructionist critic in a position of superiority both to participants in political contest or struggle and to other theorists? In sporting terms, politics could be a football game between strong and weak teams, commented on by Dunphys and Gileses who, whether of the left or the right, broadly accept and operate within the rules ‑ and who must therefore be analysed in turn by meta-commentators who question the whole concept of game, player and rule. They might point to the original violence or trauma involved in imposing on an undifferentiated, infinite world of possibility sets of rules that all too soon are taken as natural. As already suggested, it would be extraordinarily tedious if every game were to be accompanied by a meta-commentator repeatedly asking what a game is or defining the conditions of gameness. This may be why, in order to remain alluring, to remain ahead of the acolytes who could too easily copy the meta-critical gesture, in order to retain position and prestige, the Lacans and Derridas have indulged in protracted acts of word-spinning, baroque decoration, elaborate concealment and constant redefinition. To be effective, this language has to be carried off with an aura of total confidence and bravura – and there are times when Graff-McRae, like many other diligent disciples, comes across as earnestly striving after that effect.
To bolster her analysis Graff-McRae draws heavily on Trauma and the Memory of Politics (2003) by Jenny Edkins and Borders of Mourning: Remembrance, Commitment and the Contexts of Irish Identity by Duncan Greenlaw. Edkins, on the basis of what we meet here, appears to propose two forms of time: linear time (the time of the standard political process or of the continuity of the nation-state) and trauma time (when narrative is disrupted and the trauma or violence underlying the creation and maintenance of the state is exposed). It is curious how a theoretical stance that asserts the almost infinite play of meaning resorts so often to such tidy polarities, even though a problematisation of polarities is central to the approach, and tends to overlook just how much drawing and redrawing of linear time there is within conventional history and history-writing, or, to put it another way, how multi-linear the linear can be. One might speculate that this tidy division, however problematised, may reflect the stable political entities and the secure social positions from which many such writers speak, even as they invoke trauma. Regarding Greenlaw, it is difficult not to wonder how fruitfully “the undecidable implications of commemoration as ‘impossible mourning’” can be brought to bear on particular moments or phenomena in history or commemoration.
As the title of the book suggests, the main focus is on the commemoration of the 1916 Rising through the lens of post-1998, post-Belfast-Agreement Ireland. This is how the author presents her task in the preface:
Remembering and Forgetting 1916 begins and ends with the Easter Rising ‑ where else, as Irish history seems to be pulled gravitationally towards this moment? This question is itself the critical starting point: the construction of 1916 as the pivotal moment of Irish history, identity and memory has had lasting consequences for the Irish definition of political conflict and the negotiation of this definition through commemoration. In Remembering and Forgetting 1916, it is argued that the ghosts of 1916 are in many ways the ghosts of 1998.
What is most striking here is that the starting point is a non-question rather than a question. “Where else?” This is a question that needs to be addressed seriously rather than treated as a rhetorical starting point. To take the importance or centrality of 1916 as a given is to leave in place a whole tissue of assumptions: that there is an agreed 1916, that we need not examine or situate 1916, that it is only the later negotiation of the agreed 1916 that need concern us. To proceed in this fashion is to dehistoricise and to essentialise 1916, to free it of its moorings and allow it to ghost its way into contemporary political debate and commemoration.
In a 1996 article called “The Unrevised Stereotype”, Pat Cooke pointed out one aspect of the unrevised 1916:
While traditionalists have been keen to defend the values in the formula [1916 as a “virtually homogeneous, Catholic, Gaelic blood-sacrifice”] , others (who have come to be described loosely as “revisionists”) have found in confirming this static version a solid platform for attacking 1916 as a myth or “cult” blocking nationalist consciousness from development (Graph, 2.2)
Cooke proceeded to show, primarily through an examination of Thomas MacDonagh, that the dissolution of the voices of Plunkett and MacDonagh into the voice of Pearse, whether in the simplifications of Catholic propagandists in the immediate aftermath of the Rising or in the writings of FSL Lyons and others half a century or more later, was a distortion of history. Cooke’s intention was to demonstrate and reactivate the multiple strands that went into the making of 1916. Despite the good work that has been done since, an entirely Pearse-centred 1916 (and often one that simplifies Pearse as well: after all, few of the saints in Pearse’s heretical religion of the nation were Catholic) continues to hold sway in public and journalistic debate.
To this internal aspect of the question might be added another: the impossibility of understanding 1916 without setting it in the context of the general drift to war in the years leading to 1914, the repeated frustration of Irish democracy by the hereditary Lords, the near-seditious opportunism of the Conservative leader Bonar Law (backed by substantial sections of the establishment of the day), official collusion in unionist gun-running, the promotion of empire and martial values by bishops as well as generals in the lead-up to war, the sacrifice of thousands of young Irish lives by Redmond in order to prove Ireland’s trustworthiness to Britain, the rapid incorporation of unionist gun-runners into the British cabinet, the accusation of cowardice to which those not joining in the war effort were exposed, and so on. While the understanding of 1916 as historical event is not Graff-McRae’s primary concern, some attempt ‑ even a very brief one ‑ to see the event in its internal complexity and in its external context, and then in its role in public life and memory over the intervening decades, must be a part of an enterprise that sets out to unlock what is remembered or forgotten in the politics of commemoration in recent times and to understand the struggle for control of public memory.
Given the rather narrowly Irish focus of the book, it would have been interesting to have a brief “spectropolitical” perspective on British history ‑ one thinks of the centuries of military culture, of the deaths suffered and inflicted, of the anonymous graves in faraway lands, of the widows and orphans, of the living empire that becomes the heroic empire of the dead in the stone of great cathedrals, of monuments and cenotaphs, of the white crosses in Flanders fields, of poppies real and artificial, of the solemn ceremonial of Remembrance Sunday ‑ if only to reassure us that under the deconstructionist vocabulary there does not lurk the notion that the Irish (irrational, past-haunted and violence-prone … ) lend themselves particularly well to this mode of analysis.
In the author’s own words, “In approaching the viscous topic of 1916, in particular, the choice of where to begin and whom to critique is also political.” The failure to outline the British/Irish, nationalist/unionist, unionist/British relationships, and the relationships of all parties to a Europe at war, risks reducing the Rising to an internal expression of the psychic ‑ or here perhaps psycho-textual -‑ world of Irish nationalism, with obvious political implications. To underline this point is not to single Graff-McRae out for criticism. In fact, the real or implicit internalisation of Irish nationalist history, its sealing off from the broader patterns of history is so common as to go almost unnoticed.
Thus, in dealing with London-governed, pre-1916 Ireland in a book called The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000, a fair-minded self-proclaimed post-revisionist like Diarmuid Ferriter (one who did us all a great service by making widely available what had been uncovered by a generation of social historians) seriously neglected British thinking and the workings of British power – a major motor in the transformation of the island. As an engine needs to be switched on at the beginning of a journey, it is not surprising that ‑ unremarked by most reviewers ‑ the pages on the Troubles were marked by a similar neglect, and by the near-erasure of unionists, their policies, actions and inaction. A static approach to a transformative moment such as 1916 may lead to, or at least make more likely, an enfeebled analysis of the present ‑ or to the unwitting reproduction of conventional interpretations. As may become clear, Remembering and Forgetting 1916 does not escape this danger.
Graff-McRae’s 1916 appears to revolve around one text, Pearse’s “Ghosts” ‑ an irresistible temptation for a deconstructionist, as it brings Derrida, Spectres tucked under his arm, rushing to the feast (or wake). There is much to say and debate about Pearse and his relation to the living and the dead, and the author embraces the task enthusiastically:
A queue of ghosts haunt this chapter as well: Pearse, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Edmund Burke and WB Yeats. What is the political significance of juxtaposing these figures? There are, of course, a hundred others in the room ‑ of particular importance to this analysis are Derrida and Marx ‑ but for the moment our conversation is centred on these men. As authors, critics, observers and active participants in the play of Irish history, these men are instrumental in the continual construction of its associated discourses.
Conor Cruise O’Brien fully belongs in this company as one of modern Ireland’s prime negotiators with its past. For Graff-McRae, unfortunately, focused as she is on ghosts and spectres, Ancestral Voices is an irresistible point of reference. To take the book as exemplifying certain uses of the past is perfectly justifiable; to use it as a source of authority on nationalism, however, is not. In her defence, it should be said that Graff-McRae’s Ancestral Voices is largely mediated through other commentators, and in taking the book seriously she can cite illustrious predecessors. O’Brien himself is no longer with us; his finest essays and studies continue to impress and provoke; his importance in shaping debate on nationalism in Ireland is unquestioned; the wars, both real and ideological, that led some leading intellectuals to form a protective wall around him in later life have died down; and States of Ireland remains a fascinating and vivid exploration of Irish nationalism (though not of the unionist and British ideologies and histories with which it is entwined and without which it cannot be understood). Is it not time to acknowledge Ancestral Voices for what it is: a grotesquely unbalanced, historically and structurally incoherent, poorly argued effusion, littered with inaccuracies and solecisms? (See “Jump Cuts”, Graph 2.1, 1996) The eminence of those who lost, suspended or concealed their critical faculties with regard to the book ‑ whether swayed by esteem for O’Brien’s past achievements, by cultish devotion to a great warrior or by the international prestige he had attained in earlier decades ‑ should not now be a factor. It may be possible to pull a few plums from this poorly concocted pie, as Graff-McRae does, but not without mentioning the slop in which they sat.
The pie-less plum, the decontextualised quotation, is a little too common in Remembering and Forgetting 1916. The epigraph to the first chapter is taken from an Irish Times article by Lord Laird: it takes the form, almost inevitably, of a quotation from Pearse’s “Ghosts” followed by these words:
Am I alone in finding [Pearse’s] views alarming? My view is that people who hear such voices should be dealt with compassionately but be confined in a high-security mental establishment. Such a [sic] people should not be held up to the young as appropriate role models.
Is this intended as a light-hearted prelude to more serious matters? No information is offered on Laird’s record as a politician or on the nature of his opinions. Some contextualisation would help readers to find their way amid the numerous sources and authorities encountered in the book. Thus, if a newspaper like the Belfast Telegraph is to be quoted repeatedly, its broad editorial line should be mentioned. It might also have been noted that Edna Longley has a long record of participation in the culture wars; that alongside some sharp and quotable passages, Colm Toibin’s articles on Ireland for the LRB in the mid-90s contained historical solecisms and absurdly broad generalisations, not to mention inaccurate and either naive or flattering appreciations of British diplomatic language and of the British literary world’s attitude to violence; that Paul Bew has been not just a commentator but, after a winding ideological journey, also an adviser to David Trimble; that FAIR’s description of itself as a victims’ group is hugely problematic; that David Adams and Roy Garland have had a more interesting past than is indicated; and that the Fintan O’Toole who told Irish Times readers in July 2006 that, “in order to use the Somme as a marker of Protestant character”, it was necessary to forget “the presence of Catholic Nationalist divisions”, had himself erased precisely that presence in making a glib contrast between a Catholic Easter 1916 and a Protestant Somme in the Independent on Sunday in April 1996.
The deconstructionist tendency to exaggerate the stability or continuity of the structure to be deconstructed occasionally allows critical formulae to override contextual detail of another kind. Thus, for example, we find the following: “In his (in)famous poem, ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats plays out a complex negotiation with the ghosts of the past, and the relationship between the state, the nation and the commemoration of the conflict.” This rather clouds the fact that the poem was written in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, that Yeats was already wondering how the recently dead would be remembered, that at the time of writing the operational state was the British state, and that at the time of first publication there was armed conflict between the declared but not yet recognised Irish state and the British state. Later in the same paragraph, there is a reference to Yeats as expressing uncertainty and ambivalence when it comes to “the seemingly straightforward task of commemorating the dead, celebrating the event” ‑ in contrast to “traditional nationalism” which “writes the Rising as a feat of martyrs”. Would there ever be a time when the task of commemorating the dead was straightforward? Róisín Higgins (author of Transforming 1916: meaning, memory and the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising) has reminded us, for example, of how much critical comment the 1966 commemorations aroused at the time, while Anne Dolan’s Commemorating the Irish Civil War demonstrates just how fraught the whole area of commemoration has been ever since the foundation of the Free State (though it is to be regretted that this gifted historian has developed a style and stance that implicitly set her far above the squalid motives and unsatisfactory behaviour of ordinary Irish people in a manner a little too reminiscent of certain nineteenth century denizens of Trinity College).
The contrast between Yeats and “traditional nationalism” is in any case facile: Yeats’s poem was the most artistically accomplished expression of the confusion and questioning that beset everyone touched by the Rising in its immediate aftermath: all were trying to manage, on the one hand, personal emotions such as grief, anger, surprise, shock and envy, and, on the other, the need to tear up and rewrite what had seemed to be the story of the nation. The attempt to force a simplified commemorative shape on the Rising would quickly get under way but it was not yet in position ‑ or in tidy opposition to Yeats. It is in any case rather too easy to contrast the simplified narrative propounded by direct participants in the struggle for political power with the richer, multivalent language of a poet reflecting on the world. The pages on Yeats suffer from the lack of a guiding voice as critic after critic is quoted and paraphrased. In addition, Yeats’s social elitism, his shifting ideological positions and his ‑ effectively political ‑ skill in harnessing others to his own ends are somewhat underplayed.
What Rebecca Graff-McRae most usefully achieves is to set out and comment on a wide array of material on her chosen topics. The manoeuvrings of the representatives of various political parties as they attempt to turn the past to their own present ends can be fascinating ‑ particularly as politicians go from the relative freedom of opposition to the more presssurised and exposed world of government. In the Republic, both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have to negotiate the difficulty (and potential embarrassment) involved in claiming inheritance from 1916 while clearly demarcating themselves from Sinn Féin and republican violence during the Troubles; the language of post-Agreement bridge-building and reconciliation has to deal with the fact that violent convulsions do not lend themselves easily to that purpose. The throwing together, as it were, of politicians, journalists, historians, literary theorists, philosophers and poets can induce a degree of defamiliarisation that encourages the reader to look afresh at the issues. A frustrating aspect of the book is that, as with the anti-climactic dead wall that greets one at the top of the grand stairs in the new wing of the National Gallery, the extensive passages of analysis do not lead anywhere new: definitive answers are impossible, and we are led again and again to the not very exciting notion that the world of oppositions (unionist/nationalist, self/other, Rising/Somme) by which we operate reproduces the conditions and conflicts which we claim to want to overcome. A stronger grasp of political dynamics would have enabled a better balance between this kind of analysis and the need to account for the fact that political change does actually occur ‑ as in the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP are more or less cooperating in working the present institutions in Northern Ireland (though these, it must be said, institutionalise communitarian difference) or that Peter Robinson can now be a relatively relaxed visitor to (selected) commemorative events in the Republic.
There is a recurring difficulty for the reader in that the author’s commentary falls from sometimes sharp textual criticism into outbreaks of old-fashioned tut-tutting ‑ or simple mis-interpretation. Declan Kiberd is accused of perpetuating an “oppositional, dichotomized formula” immediately after a paragraph in which he has called for the dissolution of precisely such a formulaic presentation of 1916. The excursus on De Valera’s Irishness is most peculiar. Whatever one thinks of Sinn Féin’s twists and turns over the last twenty or thirty years as it worked its way towards political settlement, Graff-McRae is perhaps a little over-heated and unFoucauldian (or perhaps a little Canadian) in her response to Alex Maskey’s first steps towards recognition of the dead at the Somme:
… what he means is not nationalist and unionist standing together at the Cenotaph, heads bowed in sombre reflection and hands held in friendship, but rather a willingness to merely occupy the same place but at different times, for different times.
And given that Ireland was as yet unpartitioned in 1916, that Northern Ireland did not exist, that many Belfast nationalists who joined the British army during the Great War would have done so in the belief or hope that they were helping to bring about an autonomous, unpartitioned Ireland with Dublin as its capital, and that it is politically logical for Sinn Féin to disregard the Border wherever possible, it is difficult to make sense of the following passage:
…by relocating the centre of commemoration to Dublin the party claims a place for itself and its history within those borders. It suggests that even (Catholic, nationalist) soldiers from Northern Ireland who fought in the British Army should be remembered in the Republic. As such, the borders of ‘the Republic’ must also move to accommodate the inclusion of northern nationalist remembrances. [italics are the author’s]
It is unfortunate that Graff-McRae mirrors much political and historical commentary in both Ireland and Britain by failing to analyse unionist political culture with any rigour. There is nothing to compare with the lengthy examination of the language of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and President McAleese in the first chapter. It is hard to discern any logic behind the stray scraps of material that feature in those sections of the book that deal with unionism. The absence of a coherent overview of the formation and maintenance of the unionist myth of the Somme, or of an analysis of its invocation in contemporary unionist and loyalist politics and culture, seriously damages the second chapter. The chapter on the 1798 bicentenary (which quite properly puts the Republic’s language of commemoration to the test) likewise does not deal with the general failure of mainstream unionist political culture to debate or revise its historical memory, forgetting and evasions on that occasion. The book thus effectively collaborates in the defusing of the troubling questions posed by large-scale Presbyterian involvement in 1798 and the changes in Presbyterian culture since then ‑ questions for which Catholic/nationalist pressure cannot be a permanent alibi.
Far from radical with regard to unionism, Graff-McRae mirrors a long-standing feature of politics and of political and media commentary on both sides of the Border and in Britain: the almost systematic failure to ask for much beyond localised reactive comments (expressions of outrage or ritualised anger at particular events) from unionist politicians and spokespeople ‑ as seen in the extreme paucity of interviews or articles in which unionist politicians were challenged on questionable details of their story or asked to offer a coherent articulation of their politics and history during the Troubles. It may eventually be seen just how condescending and unconstructive this form of conscious or unconscious intellectual protectionism has been.
Some of the discursive contortions enacted in Graff-McRae’s prose could have been avoided by a clear-eyed recognition of the difference between the necessarily unsettled and frequently inconsistent language of an only partly realised state, or of an aspirational politics, and the more comfortable language of a securely established state or political culture. It is curious how that comfort reproduces and transmits itself ‑ and how many with experience of more unsettled states do not bring their questions with them when they enter the comfort zone. Did it occur to John Bruton, for example, during his years as the EU’s representative to ask that the United States should ponder whether the violence of its founding was justified or whether those unfortunate loyalists who died then or had to flee to what is now Canada are properly commemorated on the Fourth of July? A comparison between the broad consensus around Remembrance Sunday in British politics and society (a consensus that silently sacralises all kinds of military horrors and adventures as well as the more admirable achievements of British arms) and the ever-complicated issue of commemoration in Ireland, North and South, would have allowed greater separation between issues that arise because of particular circumstances and theoretical perspectives that have (or aspire to) general application.
That in Remembering and Forgetting 1916 Britain is scarcely mentioned as a shaping force in Irish history and political discourse is not without consequence: it obscures the way in which Northern Ireland, when it registers at all, troubles the security and borders of British political language; it obscures the tension between Britishness as articulated in Northern Ireland and Britishness as articulated in Britain, and the silences surrounding that tension; and by thus simplifying the forces at work in Ireland, it facilitates the polar lanaguage (nationalist/unionist, North/South, the Rising/the Somme, etc) that, in theory, the book is attempting to problematise.
In the diversity of its sources, in the relative novelty of its language, in its rearrangement of familiar elements Rebecca Graff-McRae’s Remembering and Forgetting 1916 can be a stimulus to reflection. Graff-McRae has been presented here as more conventional in her attitudes than her theoretical language might at first suggest, but it should be remembered that this is her first venture onto the territory and that she may yet have a lot more to tell us. If these reflections on remembering and forgetting 1916, and the Somme, and 1798, have wandered a little too far or communicated a little too much heat, a more distant perspective on the subjects that stir so much debate in Ireland may help to lower the temperature and induce a certain cold realism. In Hew Strachan’s thought-provoking book The First World War (2003), the Rising and Ireland’s entire participation in the wider conflict feature precisely thus:
German efforts to use revolution as a tool for the conduct of the war had not so far been particularly successful. The means they had used had been inadequate to the ends they had sought. Gun-running to Ireland had resulted in rebellion in 1916, and covert funding of pacifists and socialists had sown dissension in France in 1917. But in neither case had there been a popular response: the revolutionaries were themselves minor players.
Thus remembered, thus forgotten.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland).