Century Ireland and the Recovery of Complexity

Ambassador’s Message – Century Ireland 1913-1923

10 May 2013

As you will have seen from previous messages recently concerning the Irish Korean War Memorial and veterans’ revisit, the overarching theme was the recovery of hitherto lost or ignored strands of Ireland’s national narrative, in this instance the tradition of Irish service in the British Army and the armies of other nations. 

This is part of a process: this week, for example, a Bill was passed by Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament) pardoning soldiers in the Irish Army who deserted to enlist with the Allied armies and fight in World War II.  As the Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter T.D., said, “It is estimated that over 60,000 citizens of the then Free State and in the region of 100,000 who resided on this Island fought against Nazi tyranny during the Second World War. For too long in this State we failed to acknowledge their courage and their sacrifice….”

Up to the Easter Rebellion in 1916, that narrative was a very complicated one.  It embraced many versions of Irish identity spanning the range from unionism and its identification with Britain, the British monarchy and the Empire to militant republicanism devoted to using armed force to gain Irish independence and establish a uniquely Irish state.  In between, individuals and organisations grappled with where they stood on the national question.  The main nationalist party, the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, supported Home Rule as did most nationalist opinion. The Rebellion led to the eclipse of Redmond and his Party and the emergence of Sinn Féin.

You can catch a flavour of these times, their complications and the stories making the headlines in May 1913, in a great new project called “Century Ireland”.  It is a collaborative effort by Boston College, RTÉ and a host of partners, including many of Ireland’s cultural institutes.  You can find Century Ireland here: http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland

The website is wonderful: visual, informative and fascinating.  Stories include haunting cases of infanticide, the struggles of the suffragettes, and the passage of the Home Rule Bill. 

One story reports on the announcement of a new telephone cable to be laid under the Irish Sea “to give Dublin a direct connection with the English telephone system for the first time.”  The report goes on “Up to now, anyone in Dublin who wishes to talk on the phone to someone in London, has to have the call passed through a series of connections from Dublin to Belfast, from there under the Irish Sea to either Glasgow or Carlisle, and then down through the length of Britain to London.”  Times have certainly changed.

The portal was inspired by the decade of centenaries of formative Irish historical events that we celebrate and commemorate between now and 2023.

As to why the Easter Rebellion replaced complexity with simplicity, that is a long story.  In summing it up, Yeats brought all of his powers to bear on the event.  “Easter 1916” is one of his finest works, visual and lapidary, penetrating and awestruck; “all changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.”

Have a great weekend,



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