Review note: Irish Easter Rising commemoration has lessons for Australia

‘Review note: Irish Easter Rising commemoration has lessons for Australia’, Honest History, 23 June 2016

I am just one-eighth Irish and by no means an expert in being Irish or in Irish history. But Honest History’s recent collecting of material on the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 has made me more aware of Irish-Australian links and comparisons, particularly when they are presented or hinted at by such a good writer as David Hayes in Inside Story. What follows is essentially a concordance to Hayes’s long essay last week on ‘Ireland’s evolutionary past’. Hayes’s words are in italics with the comments following. (At the end of the post is information about a couple of relevant events.)

1916_plot_and_memorialMemorial to executed leaders of Easter Rising, Arbour Hill Prison (Wikimedia Commons)

Commemoration is as much about the present as the past

Every big national anniversary is about now as much as then, a renegotiation between past and present on the latter’s terms. Ireland, for all its lived experience of coming to terms with unquiet history, had little practical guidance in how to bring this one off. (Hayes)

The first sentence sounds about right for Australia: during the Anzac centenary we have reached back into our past for the bits that put us in a good light, the stories about how well we fought, how we looked after our mates under appalling conditions. We have been less keen to pull out and burnish the bits that reflect less well, particularly the bits where we were brutal to each other (the battles over conscription, industrial unrest, surveillance under the War Precautions Act, including of Irish-Australians and German-Australians).

We have a tradition of this sort of thing: Con Sciacca, who was minister in charge of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, didn’t want us to remember ‘the bad parts of what happened’; Bruce Scates, leader of the Great War 100 Stories project, tells of how Anzac centenary bureaucrats insisted on projects that gave off ‘a warm and fuzzy feeling’. As we pass ‘Peak Anzac’, there are bureaucrats of that ilk gearing up for the 75th anniversary of 1945. Unlike the Irish, we have loads of ‘practical guidance’ in how to make these occasions slide down as painlessly as possible, while bringing a sentimental tear to the eye.

Let’s hear it for the people

Another indicator of the negotiations between past and present has been the detailed attention paid to the experiences of “ordinary” people a hundred years ago: as participants in the rising, for example, but also as diarists and letter writers, affected bystanders and children. (Hayes)

We in Australia in the era of Anzac100 have not done much of this at the official level. Prime ministerial commemorative speeches often include a vignette or two about relatives who fought (Turnbull) or individual soldiers (Gillard, Howard) but it is the big numbers (casualties, deaths, deaths as proportion of those who enlisted, enlistments as proportion of males) and the object lessons for us all that still get more airplay, most notably from Abbott and Rudd.

Generalised speeches are easier for prime ministers or their spinmeisters to write, of course, just as standard Anzac stories roll easily onto the screens of journalists. The surprisingly similar successive speeches of War Memorial Director Nelson (one example suffices) nevertheless do include individual stories – albeit often the same ones – and the Memorial’s research facilities complement and local historical societies in bringing out family war history. Ordinary Aussie Diggers do emerge from the sepia.

We have noticed, however, that it is a lot easier to obtain from official displays (the War Memorial itself and its travelling show, the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience) an impression of grainy pictures and war memorabilia rather than of the thoughts and words of those who fought and died. Perhaps many of us lack the time to read crabbed script or densely packed transcription and it is easier to connect emotionally to a boot with a bullet hole in it or a watch stopped forever at the moment a boat scraped ashore at Ari Burnu.

Three ticks out of four

A confluence of four trends foreshadowed the entry of these new actors and experiences into the commemorative landscape. The first is a burgeoning interest in family history, aided by access to online databases and networks, which can facilitate a more personal encounter with the past and its precious lack of fit with backdated orthodoxy. (Hayes)

  • Australia: tick; see above.

Second is the greater availability of digitised archives … (Hayes)

Third is a favourable political climate between Ireland and Britain … (Hayes)

  • Australia: tick, but substitute ‘Australia and Turkey’ as the former enemies, now friends.

And fourth is a new body of well-researched and acutely judged works underlining the complexity of the period, often including its international connections. (Hayes)

  • Australia: umm, not so much. With some notable exceptions, like Beaumont’s Broken Nation and Connor, Stanley and Yule’s The War at Home, Australia’s collected oeuvre is heavily about simple stories of blokes in khaki trying and dying. Apart from books like the two mentioned and Douglas Newton’s Hell-Bent it is also heavily Australo-centric.

800px-Anzac_Day_2011_game_displayAnzac Day AFL game, Melbourne, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

Do we yearn for ‘sites of memory’?

Dublin’s “sites of memory” – including the Garden of Remembrance, which honours those who fell in the cause of Irish freedom, the GPO itself, and the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol where the executions were carried out – formed the centrepiece [of commemoration of the Rising]. (Hayes)

‘Australian reactions to death [wrote Bart Ziino] were defined by distance, a circumstance that impelled mourners towards communal responses to their loss.’ The lack of local sites of memory has forever defined Australian remembrance of overseas wars; it is a crucial difference between our commemoration of Anzac and Ireland’s of the Easter Rising. Perhaps we have always gone in harder on commemoration at home because the battlefields and the cemeteries are half a world away. Most of us never seem to have considered compensating for this by making more of local sites of memory like Coniston, Convincing Ground and Myall Creek. Instead, we go to football matches on Anzac Day and observe a minute’s silence in memory of earlier ‘teams’ who played well.

‘Honest and large-minded exploration …’

[There were disputes in the planning stage of Easter Rising commemoration and some historians advising government became incensed, particularly over a promotional video.]

This reductive soup, with history squeezed out by heritage, concentrated minds. Ronan Fanning appropriately warned of the “danger of commemoration”: that “it will propagate a bland, bloodless and bowdlerised hybrid of history” and become a “threat to intellectual honesty.” A rethink upheld the value of historical knowledge, encouraged imaginative and Irish-language projects, and promoted citizenship understood as a bond between past and future. (Hayes)

This sounds familiar to those who have heard stories of the disputes between bureaucrats and historians in the early stages of the planning of the Anzac centenary. ‘Reductive soup’ is good; probably roughly what was in the mind of the bureaucrat quoted above who punted for ‘warm and fuzzy’. Each of those adjectives starting with ‘b’ also ring a bell with Australian experience. ‘Sentimental’ and ‘jingoistic’ probably do not work as well for Ireland – where Irishmen were shooting each other, with some help from the British on one side, rather than shooting Germans and Ottomans disturbing the King’s Peace – but we have used these adjectives regularly about Australia’s Anzac-fest which, thankfully seems, in the middle of 2016, to be rather running out of steam.

Amid current uncertainties, Ireland’s honest and large-minded exploration of events a century ago is on track to change the country for good. The commemorative decade might also offer a unique opportunity to turn amity into lasting progress, should the imagination and leadership be found. (Hayes)

Armored vehicles with the Australian Army drive down the street during the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day Parade April 25 in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. ANZAC Day commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli peninsula April 25, 1915. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the landing. Marines with the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin participated in the ceremonies by lying a wreath on the cenotaph and marching in parades. MRF-D is an excellent opportunity to improve our knowledge of one another’s customs and traditions which ultimately strengthen our military interoperability. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by SSgt. Jose O. Nava/Released)

Australian Army armored vehicles, Darwin, Anzac Day 2015 (Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps photo by SSgt. Jose O. Nava/Released)

The reference to ‘uncertainties’ is about difficulties in forming a government in Ireland, against a backdrop of worries about Brexit, muscle-flexing by Sinn Fein, and the hangover of centuries of Irish history. Perhaps Australia, too, will face some uncertainties after 2 July. Whether commemoration here will change us for good, however, really depends on how widely we let it range. Groups like Honest History have tried to use the Anzac centenary as an occasion to focus broadly on our history, past, present and future. (As we have said a thousand times, Australian history is not just about heroic deeds and noble deaths by blokes in khaki.) Others could do the same. Ireland could be showing us the way.

The Irish Rising: A Terrible Beauty is Born: The State Library of Victoria has an exhibition on till the end of July.

Australia and the 1916 Rising in Ireland: The Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS), part of UNSW Canberra, and Canberra Friends of Ireland has a one day conference at the National Library on 1 August.

David Stephens

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