Things in Irish history are rarely as they seem. But a groundbreaking series of lectures seeks to change all that, says Eamon Phoenix

Eamon Phoenix
Belfast Telegraph
14 March 2012

In the next decade, this divided society, which has only recently emerged from 30 years of conflict, will be challenged by the unrolling of a litany of historical anniversaries connected with the Irish revolution of 1912-22.

These include the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill in April 1912 the emergence of Partition (1912-16), the rise of the UVF and Irish Volunteers/Irish Republican Army (1913), the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Anglo-Irish War/War of Independence (1919-21), the Belfast disturbances of 1920-22, the 1920 Partition Act and the 1921 Treaty and subsequent Irish Civil War.

The same decade witnessed the struggle of women for the vote in Ireland, as in Britain, and the first stirring of the Irish Labour movement.

It seems clear that there is little cross-community consensus on these events and the iconic personalities behind them.

The polarisation of opinion over commemoration was demonstrated on the 50th anniversary of these events. The 1962 commemoration of the Covenant appealed only to unionists, while the 1966 celebration of the 1916 Rising was very much a republican affair, marked by military or paramilitary-style parades in Dublin and Belfast.

Ulster ’71, launched by the last unionist government of Brian Faulkner to celebrate the birth of the Northern Ireland state, was a disaster, coming against a background of mounting violence and nationalist alienation over internment.

Happily, the Troubles have ceased and this society has reached a consensus on institutions which reflect our allegiances and traditions.

However, for those of us wish to consolidate the peace process, the ‘Decade of Anniversaries’ provides an opportunity as well as a challenge.

The eminent Derry-born historian FSL Lyons once observed: “To understand the past is to cease to live in it.” This month, a landmark series of public talks begins in the Ulster Museum. Presented by some of Ireland’s leading historians, the series will attempt to cut away the layers of myth and misunderstanding around the past and promote a more informed view of the forces, events and personalities which have shaped modern Ireland.

The motivations of Carson, ‘the lawyer with the Dublin accent’, Redmond, ‘the Home Rule imperialist’, Craig, ‘the pragmatic Ulsterman’ and De Valera, ‘the personification of 1916’, will be explored over 10 evenings.

The complex tapestry of events will be scrutinised to assess such issues as the impact of ‘Carson’s Army’ on Irish nationalism, the impact of the Great War on both traditions, the complex causes of the Rising, the impact of the executions, the emergence of partition and the experience of northern nationalists and southern unionists after 1921.

The series will also explore the unexpected: the fact that there were two opposing covenants signed in 1912 – one anti-Home Rule and one in favour; that the term ‘Sinn Fein’ was coined by Carson’s Gaelic-speaking cousin; and that one of the most graphic accounts of the Rising was penned by a UVF man from east Belfast who had a ringside seat on Dublin’s Sackville Street.

This series is set to challenge, inform and stimulate dialogue about the formative events in the shaping of Ireland today. These talks are a significant development. In dealing with these critical centenaries, we must take care ‘to remember the future’ as well as the past.