2019 will be centenary central as Ireland remembers turbulent past

Government advised it should largely leave War of Independence centenaries to local communities

Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries has reached its midpoint with the end of the centenary of the first World War and the 1918 British general election. The decade actually lasts 11 years. It began in 2012 with the centenary of the first Home Rule Bill and will end in September 2023 when the Irish Free State joined the League of Nations.

Ahead lie the most difficult commemorations. The War of Independence, the Civil War and partition remain contested history in Ireland. They all have the potential to resurrect old enmities for a new generation.

Before Brexit, relations between Britain and Ireland had never been better. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland in 2011 with her wonderfully couched euphemism that "with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all" seemed to presage a new era of mutual reconciliation.

Yet the next phase of the decade of centenaries is happening against a background of growing distrust between the Irish and British governments and mounting incredulity in Ireland at the fathomless ignorance of British politicians and commentators when it comes to Irish history. There is also the absence of a Stormont government and no hope of a common narrative emerging in the North over the coming years.


If a hard border emerges in the coming years, the British will be blamed for it at a time when the centenary of various atrocities carried out by the Black and Tans are being commemorated.

President Michael D Higgins, in an interview with this newspaper before the presidential election, warned against turning the collective memory into "hatred's forge – rekindling old conflicts rather than healing them".

The next phase of the decade of centenaries will begin in earnest on January 21st next year when the twin centenaries of the ambush at Soloheadbeg, the event that started the War of Independence, and the first Dáil will be marked.

A joint sitting of the houses of the Oireachtas will take place in the Round Room of the Mansion House, the place where the first Dáil met on January 21st 1919. It will be a celebration unlike so many other events in the decade of centenaries which will be commemorations where people lost their lives. The durability of Irish democracy is something which will be celebrated unequivocally.

This will be a State event; Soloheadbeg will be organised locally.

Paid agents

The Soloheadbeg ambush is a microcosm of the type of commemorations that are likely to take place to mark the War of Independence. These were usually small-scale engagements and the dead on both sides were predominantly Irish.

At Soloheadbeg, Royal Irish Constabulary constables James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell were killed while escorting a consignment of gelignite to a local quarry. The former was a fluent Irish speaker and a widower with six children.

They were both paid agents of the British state in the eyes of republicans and largely written out of the narrative afterwards.

The Soloheadbeg committee has agreed to invite the relatives on both sides to the commemoration which will take place on Sunday, January 20th so as not to clash with the centenary of the first Dáil.

"That was quite important for us," said Tim Hanly, PRO for the Soloheadbeg centenary committee. "We have made contact with the McDonnell and O'Connell families. We want to be inclusive and reflective that this was a painful history. We don't want a glorification of war," he said.

Some 550 RIC men were killed in the War of Independence. They found themselves on the wrong side of Irish history. The Harp Society, which remembers all the former Irish policemen who died in various conflicts, is determined not to allow the War of Independence centenary pass without ensuring that the men who died in police uniforms are properly commemorated.

The first World War was part of the shared history of Britain and Ireland, and something in which nationalists and unionists had an equal stake. That cannot be said about the next phase of the decade of centenaries.

In its 2017 British general election manifesto, the DUP spoke of an Expo 100, a public holiday, new public art and a legacy project to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in June 1921.

Sinn Féin says it will take no part in any centenary celebrations to celebrate 100 years of the “little statelet” as Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald put it.

Sinn Féin has also set out its stall as to how it intends to commemorate the Civil War. A series of parliamentary questions was put down by Cork TD Pat Buckley earlier this month to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan who has responsibility for commemorations.

Authentic approach

Will the Government be apologising to the families of those who were executed by the State in the Civil War? he asked. There were 77 in total. Will they be apologising for Ballyseedy? This refers to the notorious incident when National Army soldiers tied eight anti-Treaty republicans to a mine in Ballyseedy, Co Kerry, and blew them up in March 1923.

The minister did not address the question directly except to say that commemorating all those who lost their lives will be based on the “respectful, sensitive, appropriate and authentic approach that has become the hallmark of the decade of centenaries commemorative programme”.

There will be many such demands in the coming year. There will be demands for the British to apologise for the activities of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, and for the partition of Ireland. The Irish Government will be asked to apologise for the atrocities of the Civil War – for which there are usually counter-atrocities by those on the anti-Treaty side.

UCD Professor of History Diarmaid Ferriter says the State has "nothing to apologise for how it came into being", but suggests that the British do have explaining to do for its refusal to recognise Dáil Éireann in 1918 and for its subsequent policies of coercion in Ireland.

“They have to take responsibility for that refusal and the things that flowed from it,” he maintains, but adds that the approach by the British to the Irish War of Independence centenary may depend on which government is in power at the time.

Navigating the decade of centenaries has been entrusted to the expert advisory group comprising of the country's finest historians and chaired by Dr Maurice Manning. It is independent of the Government.

It has recommended that aside from a number of showpiece centenary events, the Government should leave the War of Independence centenaries to local communities. A successful template was set in this regard with the decision to fund local authorities in 2016 and communities responded accordingly with thousands of events to mark the Easter Rising.

The advisory group has told the Government that "consideration should be given to the organisation of specific initiatives to commemorate the RIC and the Dublin Metropolitan Police and to acknowledge their place in history".

The group is silent on whether or not there should be a commemoration for the Crown forces killed in the War of Independence as there was for British soldiers who died in the Easter Rising.

Neutral stance

However, it does state that there should be a formal commemoration for all those who died in the War of Independence which should take place on July 11th, 2021, the centenary of the Truce or the most suitable date closest to that centenary.

The group has recommended one major event to remember the Civil War with the possibility of a memorial to those who died. Interestingly it recommends that the State should adopt a neutral stance in relation to who was right and who was wrong 100 years ago.

It states: “The State’s task is to encourage a reflective and a reconciliatory tone that recognises that neither side has the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue and that this was true of words as well as actions.”

This in itself is a contentious comment, as many in Fine Gael believe the Cumann na nGaedhael government implemented the democratically expressed will of the people in enforcing the Treaty and that Michael Collins was subsequently vindicated when he suggested the Treaty provided the "freedom to achieve freedom".

There was considerable alarm among historians when the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested earlier this year that the Decade of Centenaries should not end on a "downbeat" note with commemorations to mark the Civil War.

Instead, he proposed that marking the 75th anniversary of the Republic in 2024 would end it on an “upbeat and optimistic note”.

Unsurprisingly, the advisory committee has not taken his suggestion on board. Instead it has posited that an end to the decade of centenaries should happen in September 2023 with Ireland’s entry into the League of Nations.