It is my great fortune that I am able to speak regularly to some eminent historians who, to their eternal credit are very generous with their time. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I abuse this privilege, but I do probably avail of their wisdom more than a lot of people in the hope that some of their knowledge rubs off so I can leave my current career of bluffing it behind. It is thankfully extremely rare that one would hear clichés bandied about in these conversations (well in the direction to me anyway). Nevertheless, there are two somewhat contradictory gems of historical clichés one has the pleasure of hearing from time to time relating to the past and present. When explaining the differences between past and present some will tell us that ‘the past is a different country, while the second is a reminder that ‘the past is always present’, mostly in relation to the historically minded Ireland.
A place where it seems that the past is always present is the fair city of Dublin. My approach to the city on this dreary September morning is suddenly illuminated by the reflecting autumn sun on the windows of the city’s taller buildings, monuments to the now slain Celtic Tiger of Irelands recent past. The head of which is now securely mounted on the wall of the trophy room in the Parlement Bruxellois’ Merkel Suite.
However, my journey to Ireland’s capital today is less concerned with that recent era which still haunts countless men and women who never benefited from it or its vulgar entrapments. My journey is to a more distant past. I’m in town specifically on a quest for knowledge, and perhaps entertainment. Is it too much to ask for both? I’m in town to hear the celebrated historian Simon Schama speak in the lavish surroundings of Dublin Castle, which was for years the hub of the British establishment in Ireland. This is preceded by a talk on some lawyer named O’Connell that they named a street after.
Strolling through O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare there are constant reminders in the form of statues and memorials to the city’s rich and turbulent past (one in particular, the Cú Chulainn statue in the General Post Office was commissioned by the Irish Free State Government to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising, and if family lore is to be believed was sculpted by a distant relative, Oliver Sheppard. Although in the absence of the hard facts which are crucial to the profession I’m attempting to worm my way into I’m prepared to treat this as wishful thinking). Fanciful notions of family artistic grandeur aside, in the coming few years there will be much focus upon many of these monuments and the sometimes inspiring people behind them, for we are now in what Irish historians have termed ‘The Decade of Centenaries’.
The ten years from 2012-2022 contain some of the most important anniversaries in modern Irish history. The Home Rule Crisis, The 1913 Dublin Lockout, The 1916 Easter Rising, The War of Independence and the Irish Civil War will turn the attention of modern Irish historians towards Dublin. One highly important event in this period seems to take a back seat when this decade is being discussed, the campaign for and granting of female suffrage. This lack of spotlight on such an important issue is reflected in the pantheon of statues around the city, only a couple of these sometimes grandiose ornaments are dedicated to women (does the recent naming of a bridge after Dublin Lockout heroine Rosie Hackett count?)
Connolly, Larkin, O’Connell, Parnell et al all look down from their perches on the throngs of people in multi-cultural Dublin. Surely they could not have envisaged this Dublin. It is fair to say they would hardly recognise it as the same capital of country they tried to shape. Would they approve? I doubt the vast majority of those walking by really care. Politicians though, we all know they are a different kind of animal.
These commemorations will hold their focus intermittently over the next number of years and will have some of them head-scratching as to how they will publicly remember these events without offending someone or another. It has been well documented that that certain Irish people will go out of their way to be offended and indeed tend to become offended when they find out there is no offence to be had. So, for once politicians have my temporary sympathy as they try to navigate that oncoming ideological minefield.
No doubt in certain circles it will be a tense enough affair as the various shades of political patriotism try to lay claim to ownership of the past. Each trying to ‘out-green’ (or out-orange as the case may be) the other as they justify their present position by pointing to the past. During this period, the past will most certainly not be another country.
Leaving that past behind for the moment at least, I’m off to ruin my health with another coffee I don’t need.