Richard S. Grayson, Fearghal McGarry, eds. Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 280 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-50927-2.
Reviewed by Kevin Braam (US Army)
Published on H-War (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Honoring the sacrifice of revolutionaries and soldiers is done with much contention in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Political traditions and beliefs guide the conduct of ceremonies, commemorations, and scholarship. In Remembering 1916, Richard Grayson and Fearghal McGarry have assembled a collection of essays examining how Irish communities commemorate two major events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. Organized into four separate sections, the essays describe the influence of local and state governments as well as religious and cultural organizations on the types of ceremonies held. The work of several authors shows how the historical narrative has changed and the disparity between commemorations in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic of Ireland. Cultural impacts are examined, including the work of the Abbey Theater and the contributions of its actors to the Easter Rising and its memory. For the reader with little background knowledge of the Irish struggle for independence, additional research will clarify unfamiliar events and people described by each author. Additionally, Grayson and McGarry make up for the lack of a historical narrative by presenting in the first section a theoretical discussion of memory and the different ways people remember as it pertains Irish history.
In the first essay, entitled “Making Sense of Memory,” Guy Beiner describes different forms of memory and the advantages each offers in understanding the events of 1916. Collective memory is the way a state or organization chooses to celebrate and remember an event. Actions by leadership or experts in a field seek to drive the collective consciousness. In the early 1970s, political leadership in Ireland sought to make St. Patrick’s Day a day of national commemoration. All separate celebrations for the period of 1916-22 were consolidated to “stop the drip feed of annual commemorations of the militant strain of Irish Nationalism” (p. 218). The declaration was made on St. Patricks’ Day 1974 by then president Erskine Childers. The idea did not stick and received very little support from the public. The failure of this attempt, described by Margaret O’Callaghan in her essay “Reframing 1916 after 1969,” highlights one of several failed attempts by Irish states at manipulating the collective memory. As argued by Beiner, “the notion of ‘collective’ misleadingly suggests a homogeneity, which is rarely, if ever, the case in practice” (p. 17). A different type of memory has impacted commemoration of the Easter Rising and the Somme in a much more lasting way.
Pre-memory is defined by Beiner as the “the expectations of those who are committed to predetermine how history will be remembered” (p. 21). While the definition is a little imprecise, Grayson and McGarry relate it well to the “instant history” described by Daniel Fitzpatrick in the book’s fourth essay. Fitzpatrick explains that the scripted nature of events on Ulster Day and Easter Week was intended to create a lasting effect on the remembrance of each event as well as on observers. Ulster Day was organized to protest against Home Rule, a concept introduced several times in British Parliament which was aimed at exerting greater British and Catholic Church influence over Ireland. The pledges and scripts read and signed on Ulster Day remained closely hold by the organizers until shortly before execution. This ensured that the organizers controlled many participants and mitigated any political uneasiness that may have developed. While collective memory approaches tot commemorating events were unwelcome in the 1970s, Ulster Day celebrations were smoothly integrated with commemorating the sacrifice of the Ulster Division at the Somme.
At the outbreak of the First World War, many volunteers from the counties of Ulster joined the 36th (Ulster) Division. In the town of Carrickfergus, public shows of support for this unit became a shared event with the Ulster Day celebration from 1912. Fitzpatrick explains, “Irish history is littered with instant histories which misfired” while others took hold (p. 85). Loyalists and those belonging to the Loyal Orange Institution had an easier time connecting the actions of the 36th Division at the Somme on July 1, 1916, to the political traditions exhibited on Ulster Day. Many Irish men volunteered and served in units other than the 36th; however, the connection was difficult to make and the thus their actions are not commemorated in the same manner. Grayson further develops this fact in his literary contribution to the book.
Many of the soldiers in the 36th (Ulster) Division aligned with the Loyalist political tradition and were also members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). A majority of the division's casualties occurred on the opening days of the Battle of the Somme. Grayson explains that because of these facts and the impact they had on the community, the actions of the 36th at the Somme “are still given greater prominence in remembrance” (p. 119) than other units’ contributions to the war effort (p. 119). While much attention in the book is devoted to remembrance of the Somme, equal scholarship is provided concerning commemoration of the Easter Rising.
On Easter Monday, 1916, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders during the Easter Rising, read the proclamation of an Irish Republic outside the Dublin General Post Office. The problem for many Dublin residents was that they were not present for it and only learned of the declaration through propaganda posters or reports in the press. Roisin Higgins explains in her essay that the “significance of the rising lies more in it symbolic capital than in the literal interpretation of events” (p. 51). It is clear that the preparation and anticipation of future commemorative events detract from the actual memory or the factual account of the Easter Rising. Higgins provides insight into the way political traditions and beliefs contributed significantly to the differences in commemoration between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The influence of the Easter Rising and how it is remembered took a much different direction in the United States.
David Brundage focuses his essay on the impact the Easter Rising had on African American communitie. While Irish immigrants struggled to commemorate the Easter Rising in America, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), found a connection to the sacrifice made by participants in the Easter Rising. In August of 1919, Garvey gave a speech at the new UNIA headquarters building in Harlem calling on African Americans to stand up for their cause as the Irish had. The new building was appropriately named Liberty Hall after the headquarters of James Connolly’s Citizen Army (p. 144). The essay by Brundage is a great contribution to the scholarship on “remembering 1916.”
Grayson and McGarry have provided a collection of work that is insightful and filled with new scholarship. In the final essay, Jonathan Evershed states, “commemorating the Somme is a form of symbolic negotiation” (p. 258). While political tensions contributing to the changing narrative of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme have lessened since the ninetieth anniversary, there remains division along political and state lines that is perpetuated by the act itself of commemoration.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Kevin Braam. Review of Grayson, Richard S.; McGarry, Fearghal, eds., Remembering 1916: The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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