How we’ll commemorate 1916: Professor Gerald Dawe

As part of a series, Trinity News hears from four of the people taking part in College’s official programme of commemoration.


Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys TD recently launched Trinity’s 2016 programme of events, ‘Trinity and the Rising.’ The programme includes lectures, tours, a relaunch of the free and online MOOC run by the Department of History, the Changed Utterly blog hosted by Trinity Library, a debate hosted by the Historical Society, and a public reading of the 1916 Proclamation on the steps of the Dining Hall on March 15.

Trinity News invited a selection of the individuals taking part in these events to respond to the question of how they think 1916 might best be commemorated, and what responsibility Trinity has to Ireland’s histories. The final installment of this series comes from Professor Gerald Dawe.

Professor Gerald Dawe

As it happens I have on my desk four brochures received this week each announcing a programme of events to mark and/or market the centenary of 1916 that will be with us all shortly. Commemoration is fast becoming a way of life. History is much less studied and analysed for what we can learn from it and more often ‘celebrated’ as a political form of recognition of cultural distinction. So when one thinks about how 1916 might best be commemorated I think two things come to mind.

There is the acknowledgement of Irish nationalism’s role in establishing the Irish republic and the intellectual, strategic and political energies which went into that seminal moment in Easter 1916. But running alongside that justifiable moment of civic pride there has to be an impartial assessment of what became of the ideology in all its various roots and expressions which underpinned the declaration of an independent Irish republic. The fall-out of the Treaty negotiations, the war of independence and the civil war are not self-insulating ‘events’ sealed in their own archive. Commemorating an event can’t be allowed to blind us to what was claimed to be justified in its name much later on such as the disaster of the Northern ‘Troubles’. Would Thomas MacDonagh or James Connolly or Padraic Pearse – to take three of the signatories at random – allowed for, or supported, a campaign of bombing cafes, pubs, shops, school buses? For these were the civilian targets of IRA volunteers, fifty-five years later, who saw themselves exclusively as the inheritors of the 1916 Rising.

It makes for disquieting perspectives when the past is seen through the prism of future events and the misleading justifications of those set in their fundamentalist killing ways. So maybe we need to bring the future into critical alignment when commemorating violence of any kind receives societal justification. Where’s the politics in all this too? What really could Easter 1916 succeed in doing changing the ultimate path of a substantial part of the country’s population from being British subjects to Irish citizens? It’s an emotional sound bite but doesn’t it leave much reality out of the equation? Maybe the coming commemoration will honestly address such basic questions?

And as for the question about the responsibility of Irish universities to Ireland’s histories, it seems clear that we need to see this country’s connections and ties, its own intensely local and yet complex past as part of wider transnational political shifts and struggles. It’s all too easy to comfort ourselves as being alone on an island on the far shores of Europe which an understandable sentimental modern narrative underpins with emigration and dislocation. The history of various Irelands of the mind, political landscapes and possibilities need an equivalent amount of attention as the past. I think universities are the primary cultural engine for such critical drive and re-imagining.

Gerald Dawe is a Professor in the School of English, and the Director of the M.Phil in Creative Writing. He will discuss his latest book, Of War and War’s Alarms, on 16 February 2016. The lecture is part of the School of English Evening Lecture Series: Literature and Revolution.