When we mark significant anniversaries there can be a tendency to strain the facts to find relevance to the politics of today. In Ireland we are particularly bad at often failing to see the contemporary context of words and events – using history as a means of confirming narratives rather than to challenge them.
However there are anniversaries which actually have a much greater relevance to today than we appreciate – and by any measure the centenary of 1918 and the events which it saw being set in motion is one of these moments.
One hundred years ago marked a pivotal moment in national and international history which continues to have social, economic and political implications. In fact, there are signs that its importance is actually increasing in a number of disquieting ways.
As John Horne discussed this morning, the end of the ‘War to end all wars’ was anything but clean. 1918 marked the beginning of a new phase – which for much of Europe brought new nightmares and a cycle of conflict and division which could be said to be still underway in some parts of the continent.
I think we should all be very proud of the work which Professor Horne in TCD and Robert Gerwarth and his team in UCD have led in dramatically improving our knowledge of the processes of state-formation, violence and grievance in the years after November 1918. This is one of the first times that scholars in our universities have led an international effort in a major topic of modern history and it is already having an extremely positive impact on the breadth and depth of historical research.
In Ireland our focus has generally been on 1918 as the year when separatism won an overwhelming victory in a general election.
To be honest our appreciation of what lay behind that victory and the general tumult of the time has been very one-dimensional and woven into the superficial idea of a ‘seamless narrative’.
1918 was a radicalising year – and sustained radicalisation always draws on much, much more than one or two events. Equally, it leads to innovations which no one could have anticipated.
This much deeper understanding is what underpins the four papers which will be delivered this afternoon.
Eunan O’Halpin, already firmly established as one of our most challenging thinkers about the Irish Revolution, will examine events of 1918 through the perspective of the behaviour of the British government – and in particular the catalogue of errors which defined its behaviour in that year.
One thing which we have often failed to appreciate is that following the arrival of significant American troops and the failure of Germany’s Michael Offensive, London’s primary focus was on the idea of how to manipulate the post-war situation to enhance its imperial and world-power status. It was already obvious that Wilson’s promise of self-determination applied only to the nationalities of defeated powers.
As a result, Ireland played the role of not only an irritant, but one which was challenging the core self-understanding of the British elite.
This was surely not an environment in which brave and modest decisions were likely to be made – and the look of fury and incomprehension directed towards the King’s ungrateful Irish subjects only escalated.
There has been quite an amount of recognition of 1918 as a defining year for women due to the partial extension of suffrage. What is less understood is the wider role of the suffrage movement in inspiring and underpinning the radical culture of the time.
The sustained and brave activism of women was undeniable in creating an environment where people chose to question and then challenge the status quo. The promise of equal rights and the repetition of “Irishmen and Irishwomen” in the Proclamation is inconceivable without the suffrage movement.
This is why Louise Ryan’s contribution this afternoon is so welcome.
One of the factors which I believe increasingly distinguished the Irish democratic republican mainstream from nationalist movements in other countries is how it has worked to be more inclusive, and to widen its historical narrative beyond the narrow and sectional.
I think we should be proud that we honour those who founded this state as well as those who fell in the service of a monarch who we rejected.
During his time in the National Museum Lar Joye played an important role in this development, particularly with the exhibition which he curated on Irish Soldiers home and abroad through modern history. The exhibition was a testament to a modern nation recognising the complexity of its history and acknowledging that true history isn’t written to glorify the victors but to engage and challenge. So too have been the exhibitions linked to the centenary of 1916 which were unafraid to also tell the stories of Irishmen dying on the Western Front.
I very much look forward to his contribution concerning the War of Independence.
Perhaps the single greatest bias in history is to see it through the lens of bloody battles and great men arguing over conference tables. The Spanish Flu of 1918/19 should be a reminder to us all how other factors can have profound impacts.
We rarely acknowledge just how devastating the flu was then in terms not just of the immense numbers who died but also its contribution to the creation of a climate of fear, distrust and despair. An atmosphere such as this simply had to have had a deep political impact, but it is one which we have largely ignored.
In Ireland, the most common assessment is that at least 20,000 died in a very short period – a figure up to ten times larger than the total casualties from our civil war. Ida Milne has shown that the idea of the victims being mainly the weak is not true – with adults aged 25-34 being particularly badly hit and a serious psychological impact was experienced when athletic young men died.
If you combine the sense of helplessness, with a government perceived to be failing in its duty of care and a broader radicalisation concerning British attitudes towards Ireland – then the Spanish Flu deserves to be seen as a major part of the story of our revolution.
Ida Milne has done an immense service in her remarkable research on this topic and her contribution this afternoon is very welcome.
I believe that when we take together the many perspectives on 1918 and the period which it began there are two major points which face us – and both have very serious contemporary relevance.
The first is that we have to look up and see the broader context into which day to day events fit. There is a breadth and depth to what we must understand which demands that we take a perspective which sees both the diversity of what was happening and implications of missing the wider challenge.
The case of seeing our revolution as part of a much wider stream of events in Europe is simply unanswerable. We miss a lot when we look at Irish history through an exceptionalist approach – and we cannot appreciate what is truly unique without a wider European perspective.
Fundamentally 1918 was a decisive moment in European history. Europe faced the challenge of replacing a failed system of competing powers with no strong collective institutions and few limits on their actions. It failed this challenge and emerged with a system of competing nations which also had no strong collective institutions and few limits on their actions.
The 19th century definition of state sovereignty was a catastrophic disaster for Europe in the first half of the last century. It should daily remind us of the need to fight the defensive, isolationist nationalism which prevailed in far too many places.
And in the failures of a hundred years ago there is an exception which is just as powerful in making the same point.
The management of international public health emergencies has never returned to the terrible days of the Spanish Flu and this is a core reason why many threatened pandemics have been prevented.
Today officials and researchers work across borders, accept common rules and are unafraid to call-out bad behaviour by any government. There is an enormous lesson in this for us.
The other major point which I think has contemporary relevance when we consider 1918 is how we need to embrace a more diverse historical narrative whish fights against the abuse and falsification of history.
One of the major problems of the history of those times is that in many countries it remains an active part of the political discourse.
To give one obvious example, the increasingly illiberal and anti-democratic behaviour of Viktor Orban is fundamentally based on his aggressive promotion of a cult of grievance about the post-First World War settlement.
In the Treaty of Trianon the imperial Hungarian state was dismantled and part of this involved ethnic Hungarians being within the borders of states dominated by other nationalisities. Some of this was justified, some of it was clearly not. However, Orban has used it as a means of promoting the idea of an injured state which should challenge boundaries and whose failings are clearly found in history rather than contemporary politics.
Last year he said “Since Trianon we have never been so close to bringing our nation back to self-confidence and vitality as we are now”.
He has created a national holiday on June 4th – the day Trianon was signed – and called it the Day of National Unity.
I do not see how it is possible for a country to tackle the needs of today when it defines progress in terms of a past when it had an aristocratic suffrage, dominated many millions of other nationalities through political and social repression and sought to keep out the modern world.
The need for a more complex understanding of history also includes the need to see the disproportionate impact which the catastrophe of the First World War had on different countries. Belligerent countries lost, on average, 1% of their populations during the war. In Serbia that figure was an incredible 16% and in Romania 9%. So we need to understand how in some countries, the scars can be as deep as were ours from the Famine – and also how the failure of history to understand this can be alienating.
And of course the threat of historical falsification in Ireland is very real.
To give one example, when the Dáil agreed to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 election with a meeting in the Mansion House it was unable to do so because a party founded in 1970 had booked it first and claimed to own the historical legacy of the 1918 victory.
The Taoiseach has been at more than a bit of his own messing with history recently, but the ongoing efforts to manipulate and politicise the Irish Revolution is now a central tactic of the Provisional Sinn Fein. It reaches into nearly everything. For example their new leader informed the Dáil recently that hers is the party of Constance Markievicz – a genuinely bizarre claim given that Markievicz actually chaired the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil.
They managed to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the original Sinn Fein without mentioning De Valera, the only leader of any party with that name who ever won a general election.
And of course they continue to feed the corrosive and dangerous myth of the ‘unbroken chain’.
Particularly since the 1916 parade was reintroduced by Bertie Ahern in 2006, we have as a nation showed how a modern, diverse and forward-looking society can also be immensely proud of its history and make sure that that history is a source of unity not division.
We must never forget this lesson, and politicians have a duty this year and in the years ahead to remember that attempting to use anniversaries for partisan advantage is never associated with a positive outcome.