This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. A schoolteacher (also sometime poet and short-story writer) in improvised military uniform stands on the steps of Dublin’s GPO and reads aloud a single-page document. Addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”, the document proclaims the:
Irish republic as a sovereign independent state.
The proclamation’s audacious present tense claims its authority from a deep past:
In the name of God and the dead generations.
Betrayed rebels of the past would be vindicated. Ireland’s potential would be realised – finally.
The teacher, Patrick Pearse, then steps inside the post office accompanied by other leaders of what comes to be known as the Easter Rising. Together with about 1,200 nationalists and republican trade unionists they barricade the doors and wait for the outbreak of the future.
By mid-May the seven men who had signed the proclamation are dead, executed along with eight other rebel leaders. Also among the dead are 132 police and soldiers, 64 insurgents and about 230 ordinary citizens of Dublin.
The future that unfolded was more violence, extending to the various betrayals that followed in the war of independence and the subsequent civil war.
A new Ireland?
In this centenary year, the Irish government is presented with a difficult task of commemoration: blending pride in the modern nation-state with uneasy feelings about the legacy of foundational violence and political hope.
The government claims:
The commemoration will be measured and reflective, and will be informed by a full acknowledgement of the complexity of historical events and their legacy, of the multiple readings of history, and of the multiple identities and traditions that are part of the Irish historical experience.
This even-handed and pluralistic tone reflects the liberal-minded modern Ireland that endorsed same-sex marriage by plebiscite. It is a language that also accommodates Ireland’s own history wars of the 1990s, in which the legacy of nationalism was critically re-evaluated by public intellectuals such as Fintan O’Toole and “revisionist” historians such as Roy Foster.
This critique was not merely the concern of Irish Times journalists or Oxford dons. It was part of a popular change running through Irish culture. Remember The Cranberries song from 1994 that transposed Pearse’s “dead generations” to “zombies”? It spoke of “the same old theme since 1916”.
Betrayal and guilt called out
Often it has been Ireland’s writers and artists who have called out the hopes and failures of national politics, holding the polity to account in the culture.
The critique of nationalism gained particular momentum in the 1990s, largely in response to the seemingly intractable violence in Northern Ireland. But the cultural response directly after 1916 started a process of reappraisal even at the point of origin.
Mythologising the revolution was always accompanied by a vigorous de-mythologising. Through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, writers like Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor and Francis Stuart kept a critical eye on 1916’s legacy.
O’Connor, who fought in the Irish war of independence, presents the terrible ambivalence of national identity, hospitality and violence in his 1931 short story Guests of the Nation. The story provides such a rich exploration of betrayal that it was able to be reinterpreted to include questions of sexual secrecy and gender identity in Neil Jordan’s film adaptation, The Crying Game.
The motif of betrayal that runs between the writers of the early 20th century and those of the 1990s continues into the present. Gerry Smyth argues that by the second decade of the 21st century:
… the words ‘Irish’ and ‘betrayal’ had become closely linked – one never too far from the other when questions of identity, meaning or value were at issue.
Smyth follows the Irish cultural traces of betrayal in the works of key novelists from James Joyce to Anne Enright. The manifestations of betrayal shift through political and personal duplicities, arriving at Enright’s presentation of child abuse in her 2007 novel The Gathering.
The state, the Catholic Church and the postcolonial national ideal are all indicted in the betrayal Enright narrates. As Smyth concludes:
The abused child […] stands as the archetypical figure for a society in which past, present and future are entered in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of betrayal and guilt.
Since 2008, Irish betrayal and guilt have also resided in the financial and state institutions that precipitated the economic crisis, which continues to mar life in Ireland. Paul Murray has, with dark humour, chronicled the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger in his novels Skippy Dies and The Mark and the Void.
The latter, set in post-crisis Dublin, contains a Joycean page-long list of descriptors for “the Irish”:
… their books, saints, tickets to Australia, their building-site countryside, their radioactive sea, their crisps, bars, Lucozade, their tattoos, their overpriced wine and mediocre restaurants, their dreams, their children, their mistakes, their punching-bag history, their bankrupt state and their inveterate difference.
After the promise of a couple of decades of prosperity at the end of the 20th century, the disappointment of a return to austerity and emigration casts Ireland’s current betrayal as a weary historical repetition.
So, the 1916 commemorations are attempting to reconcile an assortment of historical betrayals and contemporary disappointments, alongside the state-sponsored celebration of national achievements. The national memory is being manoeuvred around the current sense that both church and state betrayed the Irish people.
Likewise, the Republic’s violent birth is difficult to square with a liberal 21st-century Ireland, bemused by the fervour of early-20th-century ideology and afraid that the violence, after 100 years, is even now not quite locked safely in the past.
These old and recent betrayals combine in the commemorations of 1916, inevitably pointing to so many unrealised futures. On the post-office steps in 1916, Pearse proclaimed the Republic’s resolve to:
… pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation […] cherishing all the children of the nation equally.
As Ireland’s writers continue to show, Ireland in 2016 is not yet in the future Pearse thought had arrived a century ago.