Remembering and forgetting in Ireland.

Where does tradition meet collective memory?

In considering this question it is important to clarify the terms “tradition” and “collective memory”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tradition as ‘A belief, statement, custom, etc., handed down by non-written means (esp. word of mouth, or practice) from generation to generation; such beliefs, etc., considered collectively.’ The key here is that beliefs are subjective, not objective, and as such are open to interpretation. Furthermore, a canon or a collection of beliefs is dependent on the person or people considering their inclusion or deletion – hence stories are promoted or relegated due to a person’s or on a party’s bias (conscious or subconscious).

When linking “tradition” to “collective memory” it is important to note that the latter term infers less formality, ie. memory is not singular and unambiguous, but rather it is plural in two senses – it is the memories of more than one event by more than one person. When discussing memory Jordan Peterson states ‘Memory is vulnerable, easily distorted to fit beliefs and modes of action that are more expedient than accurate’ which highlights the point that collective memories, by selective reference to traditions, could be regarded by some as a means of manipulation of the masses.

The change in the commemoration of the Easter Rising happened almost immediately after and during first part of 20th Century but key dates include 1921, 1937 and 1966 (the Golden Jubilee). The War of Independence (1919-21) was mainly a guerilla war fought by the Irish Republican Army and the occupying British forces. Propaganda was very important to instil sympathy in the Southern Irish population and portrayal of this conflict as armed struggle for freedom on the backs of the “martyrs” of the Easter Rising was a powerful message. The outcome of the war was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1921, and the commencement of the evacuation of British forces from Southern Ireland in 1922 and the establishment of and Irish Free State. But the change of culture should not be underestimated either, in so much as an estimated 275 “Big Houses” were destroyed during the War of Independence by the Irish Republican Army and this number rose to more than 300 during the ensuing few years. This served two purposes – a removal of the English landowners and the associated symbolism therein, and also the redistribution of land to Irish rural land-workers and farmers.

The 1930’s saw a movement towards depicting the Rising as a national military struggle against English oppression, and in 1935 Easter Sunday was marked by the Government of Ireland with pageantry usually reserved for wars, with military parades attended by veterans of the struggles and wreath-laying (which is associated in the UK with the endings of successful military campaigns). In 1937 the Constitution of Ireland came in to being, replacing the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. President De Valera supervised the drafting of the document and the importance of the constitution cannot be underestimated. The constitution determined national sovereignty and gave the Irish people the right to self-determination . It also changed the nation’s name to “Éire” (the Irish word for Ireland), and adopted the tricolour of green, white and orange as the national flag. More importantly for cultural identity was the adoption of Irish as the national language (English relegated to the second official language). But significantly for cultural appropriation – legislation was enacted so the Irish language and Irish history was taught in school (and this included “modern” history such as the Easter Rising). The most important clauses as regards to the aims of the Easter Rising were Articles two and three which called for a unified Ireland on the premise that the whole of the island of Ireland be one national territory.

The change in legislation does not necessarily change the hearts and minds of the people. Symbolism and iconism play a key role, so stamps, coins, and banknotes were given Irish imagery, and the two Houses of Parliament given Irish names. And the state commemorated those people who were involved in the uprising renaming streets and later railway stations in their honour.

The most significant change to collective memories of the Easter Rising came on the lead up, during, and immediately after the Golden Jubilee remembrance celebrations in 1966. The Irish government wished to project an image of a modern, successful and independent Ireland; and did this by staging a series of plays, pageants, lectures, church services, and exhibitions. Included in the celebrations were 1916 tours of the scenes of the Easter Rising, together with lectures and accounts intending to portray the leaders of uprising as national heroes. The Rising was to be seen as a positive turning point in road to nationalism and self government. Popular music from groups such as The Dubliners sang songs commemorating the Rising such as “The Foggy Dew”. Indeed The Dubliners achieved UK chart success in 1966 with the song “Nelson’s Farewell” celebrating the blowing up and removal of Nelson’s Column in Dublin that year by the Irish Republican Army. Also at this time Irish President Éamon de Valera opened the Garden of Remembrance in 1966, a memorial set out in a cross to commemorate all those who had lost their lives in the struggle for an independent Ireland.

So why have collective memories changed during this period? National identity and beliefs shared by national communities are often called collective memories. These can include national costume, stories, fables, songs, life-stories and memoirs of rural people. Maurice Halbachs in the 1920s asserted that personal memories are coloured by the people around us. And people in power, people with influence, or political parties will often see the need to shape collective memories into a homogenous record. The Easter Rising was at a time of significant social and political change right across Europe and boundaries and Empires were being redrawn with great rapidity, so there was therefore a need for national identity to be established. Pierre Nora wrote extensively about how national memory is established and crafted through mediums such as dictionaries, monuments, historic figures, museums, sporting events.

From today’s perspective of racial tensions in the United Kingdom parallels can be drawn with the desire to rewrite or reinterpret British history too, with the recent boarding up in London of the statue of Winston Churchill, an important British National figure taught about in UK schools, but to some from the immigrant population, Churchill’s statue is a figure of a colonial and racist past which should not be on display.

Cultural nationalism can be defined as a nation in which its people identify with shared culture or heritage (real or stylised) as opposed to nationalism purely on racial, ethnic or institutional lines. Examples of this can be seen throughout the British Isles. In England, for example, the focus on the reformation in art or Gothic architecture, or pageantry such as the Trooping if the Colour which only dates back 260 years. In Scotland the romanticism of the highland dress and games (which was a 19th Century invention). For Ireland the cultural nationalism is a promotion of the Celtic origins, Gaelic language, literature, dance, music, and sports. And the invention of a culture comes with heroes and legends such as the patron Saint Patrick and the expulsion of snakes from the Island, and the adoption of Shamrock as the national plant (a representation of the catholic holy trinity). With the promotion of independence comes the demotion of the past chains of English occupation – a move away from industrialisation and urbanisation, to a time before protestant reformation. By creating an idealised version of the past, it was intended to create an idealised vision of the future, with an Irish Free State leading to a united Ireland. From it’s inception, the Free State Government sought to unify a deeply divided country, with the common mantra being a unified hatred of the English.

Beliefs and interpretations of stories can be re-used. Like old songs recorded on vinyl, stories can be re-engineered, re-edited and re-released as modern covers for the mp3 era. Thus by re-telling events like the Easter Rising with political spin, it is possible (and some would say desirable) to use the past to foster a sense of Irish pride of selected culture and promoted heritage. Political activists can use collective memories and tradition to foster a move towards an independent Irish state, and loyalty to a hitherto disconnected cause. It is not only powerful, but also productive, to use the past to present the future, whilst at the same time engendering a sense of belonging and national moral servitude. Heroes are more easily identified by black and white photographs and Irish family names, by stories of valour against the odds, and by place names in the streets where you live, than by ancient romanticised Saints from the distant past. This is perhaps why the collective memories of the Easter Rising were, and still are, such a powerful force in the call for a united Ireland.

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