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Commemorating 1916


Our Government recently published plans for a global commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916, which will include events being organised by my colleagues at our Embassies around the world. This commemoration will be especially relevant in countries with significant populations of Irish birth and descent like Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

There are three questions that may be asked about the centenary of 1916. Why are we commemorating it? Why should there be an international commemoration of the events of Easter week 1916? And how does it relate to Britain which, after all was the country against which the Rising was conducted?

For me, the 'why commemorate' question can be easily answered. We all have an interesting, elaborate past and knowledge of our back story is, I would say, an essential aspect of our humanity. When we commemorate, we call to mind important aspects of our history which assist us in understanding where we've come from as individuals, communities and nations.

The Easter Rising was a transformative event for modern Ireland, which paved the way for our independence and thus helped to make us what we are today. The events of 1916 and their aftermath clearly warrant commemoration in Ireland, but what about the international dimension to the 1916 commemoration?

There are two reasons for having an international commemoration. First, the event itself, and the independence struggle that flowed from it, had an impact well beyond our shores. As our Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan put it recently:

‘what happened in Ireland a century ago echoed around the world and became a significant reference point for other countries seeking independence.’

The second reason for internationalising our commemoration is that the Irish are a people who have made their mark in many countries and we have a more substantial community of Irish descent around the world than most countries of our size. The Global Irish will clearly want to be involved in the commemoration of this major moment in our history.

But why commemorate in Britain? To answer this question, I need to take you back to 1998 and the dedication by the then Irish President, Mary McAleese, of the Island of Ireland peace tower at Messines. That ceremony, which was also attended by Queen Elizabeth, represented an important recognition on the part of the Irish State of the extensive Irish involvement in World War 1. Since that time, Irish people have made a considerable effort to recognise the important strand that connects our history with that of our nearest neighbour in Britain.

This overlap between Irish and British history is especially apparent during the 1914-1918 period when so many Irishmen fought and died in British uniform. In recent years, we in Ireland have stepped up our involvement in First World War commemorations. Last year, President Higgins took part in ceremonies in Belgium to mark the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914. In November, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was in Enniskillen and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, was in Belfast for the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies there. I was at the Cenotaph in London, where I was the first ever Irish Ambassador to lay a wreath there. This year, there was strong Irish involvement in marking the centenary of Gallipoli and the same will happen next year for the centenary of the Somme.

It seems to me that 2016 provides an opportunity for people here in Britain to familiarise themselves with the distinctive dynamics of Irish history. Just as involvement in the First World War had a major impact on Ireland, so too the Rising was an important event in British history and in the remaking of relations between our two islands. It was the beginning of a new era between us as neighbouring States and it is important that we take this opportunity to look back at a century of Irish independence and take stock of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.

That is why our Embassy will be organising a series of events next year to mark the centenary of 1916 and a hundred years of Irish independence. I intend that we focus also on the future direction of relations between our two countries and on the contribution Irish people have made to British life over the years, notably in the cultural field. It is my hope that this will lead to greater awareness in Britain of the intriguing complexities of Irish history. I see this as a moment of opportunity to advance further the journey of reconciliation on which our two countries have been embarked for decades now.

Proper reconciliation comes when we can grasp and appreciate each other’s perspectives. Part of the key to this lies, I would say, in an understanding of our separate but connected histories. Commemoration of events a century ago can, I believe, be an aid to that process of enhanced mutual understanding.

In thinking about the question of historical commemoration, I take my lead from our two Heads of State, from Queen Elizabeth when she spoke in Dublin about ‘the complexity of our history ... but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation, of being able to bow to the past but not be bound by it’ and from President Higgins who said recently that coming to terms with the legacy of the past ‘has the potential to transfigure (in the most positive sense) the relationships between and across the peoples of these islands, and how we relate to our sometimes shared and sometimes overlapping histories.’

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London