By Gareth Lyle |
History is not simply past events, but an ongoing tradition, and within any society there are those who despite adopt historical narratives for political reasons have no desire for engagement or discussion the past;
I refer to two groups in modern Ireland and two specific events, both of which celebrate their 100th anniversaries next year. The Irish Republicans and the Easter Rising (24-29 April 1916), and Ulster Loyalists and the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916).
During the Easter Rising, armed Irish Volunteers proclaimed an Irish Republic, occupying various buildings in Dublin City Centre. Street fighting with the British Army ensued, and the rebellion was crushed after a few days. Later that year, the 36th (Ulster) Division, formed partly from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a unionist militia who formed in 1912 in opposition to Home Rule, saw action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, sustaining over 6,000 casualties that day alone. Both the Somme and the Rising are seen by their respective participants as sacrifices made for the greater good, a “terrible beauty” and a “blood sacrifice” made in order to achieve a homeland for the chosen people.
Although the Easter Rising and the Somme were short lived events, both influenced the formation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, and are vital to the national identity of both countries. By the 50th anniversary in 1966 the ideals of 1916 had become integral to both state’s national history. Ulster Unionists emphasised the participation of Protestant troops in World War One, commemorating the 36th Ulster division, to the exclusion of Irish Catholic troops who also fought on the Somme. The 50th anniversary of the Rising on the other hand, was a patriotic celebration of Irishness, officially commemorated by pageants and mass military parades. Likewise to the exclusion of those who fought during World War One in the belief that this would secure Ireland Home Rule.
As time passed, the events of 1916 receded and lost their potency, but in 1969 violence re-emerged in Northern Ireland. Republicans sought to unite Ireland again; whereas Loyalists wished to maintain the union with Britain. During the Troubles, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) waged a ferocious campaign to pursue their political aims. The PIRA drew on the historical narrative believing the “Armed Struggle” was a continuation of the Easter Rebel’s attempt to expel the British and unite Ireland. Whereas the UVF saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Somme, soldiers who were prepared to fight and die for Ulster. The ideals of 1916 were used by both to justify their own actions.
Some Irish historians, known as Revisionists, have asked the uncomfortable question: Did the continued propagation of these past events lend legitimacy to the armed campaigns being waged in the North? Paramilitary violence was not only confined to the North, it had a destabilising influence on the Republic of Ireland. The memory of the Rising and the Somme transcended the past and acquired multiple meanings- utilised as propaganda, deployed to justify actions in the present. The Easter Rising may have been a fundamental episode in the creation of the Irish Free State, but PIRA believed they were the true inheritors of Pearse and Connolly. The Somme was still hailed as the Ulster Divisions finest hour by unionists, but more and more it came to be associated with the UVF. The deaths of 1 July were used to bolster a particularly bloody sectarian campaign. The realisation of the danger posed by these narratives led to their re-evaluation. The Irish Government’s plans for the 100th anniversary of the Rising are considerably more muted than the 50th Anniversary. In 2014, former Taoiseach John Bruton advocated a revisionist view of Easter 1916, believing that the old approach “justified [the] PIRA”. In Northern Ireland today, the state no longer plays a role in the commemoration of the Somme; the anniversary parades and events are organised primarily by the Loyal Orders and the UVF.
Within academia, history is referred to in terms of discourse and engagement, but in Northern Ireland, the Rising and the Somme illustrate how history is utilised by non-academics and married to paramilitary ideologies. Paramilitaries do not require the cooperation of academics to interpret history as Loyalist and Republicans have engaged directly with the past and constructed their own narratives.
Contrary to L.P Hartley’s argument the past is not a foreign country where things are done differently, but is still with us today.
 Easter,1916, W.B Yeats 1921
 “Blood Sacrifice” is a term used by Loyalists to describe Ulster’s losses on The Somme. (K Jeffrey in The Oxford Companion to Irish History ed. SJ Connolly (Oxford 2011) p.205)
 “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
Gareth Lyle is a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh researching Belfast during the Great War.
(Image 1: http://wellcomeimages.org/)