What’s the next centenary in the decade of centenaries?

Posted By: November 14, 2018

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, November 2018

WELL, that’s the First World War over now. Four years of sentimental claptrap and unhistorical speeches by politicians, especially Irish politicians, shamelessly trying to control the narrative of commemorations, be it the Somme or the significance of the armistice.

Irish politicians in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, whose parties spent decades repudiating the horrible mistake John Redmond made trying to outbid Carson sacrificing the UVF by sacrificing the Irish Volunteers to slaughter in the war.

Finally, we had the Taoiseach wearing the absurd confection of the ‘shamrock poppy,’ designed by the Limerick branch of the British Legion, a forelock tugging, cap-doffing obeisance to the imperial poppy the British invented in the 1920s.

Now, however, it commemorates British soldiers killed in a host of post-colonial wars and illegal murderous interventions in other peoples’ countries. This obeisance from the leader of a party founded by men who fought and killed members of the British army 1919-21: bizarre.

Most of the last four years of commemoration have had nothing to do with remembering the past but more about justifying Britain’s engagement in the First World War and by extension in subsequent wars, an attempt – largely successful it must be said – to control the historical narrative. That’s over with armistice day, so the small percentage of poppy-wearing people outside BBC and Sky can throw their poppies away until next year.

Now it gets interesting in Ireland. What’s the next centenary in the decade of centenaries? This is a question which has exercised the minds of Irish politicians since 1929. It’s going to be great fun. Is it the centenary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919 or the attack by the IRA 3rd Tipperary brigade at Soloheadbeg on 21 January 1919 which killed two RIC men? Or both?

Or by any chance will it be the Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil on 21 January 1919? No, you can rule that out: too left wing, too, shall it be said, democratic; containing phrases like, ‘we affirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.’ You couldn’t be commemorating that sort of talk. Well, not this Fine Gael government anyway, or any Fine Gael government.

The two civil war parties have engaged in a century-long tussle about what to commemorate. Fine Gael preferred to commemorate the Treaty and 1921 as the establishment of the state whereas of course Fianna Fáil, when they came to office, opted for the first Dáil. Seamus Robinson, Seán Treacy, Seán Hogan, Dan Breen and the rest of the Soloheadbeg squad tended to be side-lined.

The most interesting conundrum was the fiftieth anniversary in 1969. Jack Lynch put, you’ll never guess, Charlie Haughey, Minster of Finance (what else?) in charge.

Haughey, honest to a fault as you know, stated it was a political matter, and therefore, quite correctly he didn’t want a historian about the place. The reason he was so determined to make a big deal of the first Dáil was that otherwise, any military action 1919-21 by still-living Fianna Fáil members would have been in defense of a non-existent government. Besides, failure to nail down January 1919 as the origin of the state would mean Fine Gael demanding the full panoply in 1971. Lynch’s government would have to commemorate partition, the Treaty and the opening shots in the civil war.

Now for the centenary, the question remains. What, if anything, will Varadkar & Co. commemorate in January? We’ve ruled out the Democratic Programme already. You can’t see Varadkar standing by the monument at Soloheadbeg making a speech commemorating the first shots fired in the War of Independence. So, the first Dáil then? Or nothing? Will Micheál Martin be silent on all this? Surely, as the man keeping Varadkar’s head above water, Martin will have an input into deciding what the government will commemorate? Surely Sinn Féin must ask for Soloheadbeg to be commemorated?

This set of circumstances in 1919 is only the beginning. If you thought the 1914-18 British commemorations were unhistorical and an attempt to tailor events to modern political requirements, wait until you see the maneuvers over the next couple of years in Ireland.