The Republic of Ireland is unique among the nation states which emerged after the first World War in that it has no independence day.
The Irish State is 100 years old today yet there is no bank holiday, no bunting, no indoor gatherings and no celebrations of any description. Most people will go about their day oblivious to its significance.
By coincidence, December 6th, the date in which is the Free State came into being, is also the day of the year that Finland declared independence. In Ireland’s case it was 1922; in Finland 1917.
December 6th is an annual holiday in Finland every year. The 100th anniversary in 2017 was celebrated with a year-long festival called Together. Public buildings around the world were lit up, including Dublin’s Mansion House.
There will be no public buildings lit up for the Irish State’s centenary in Ireland or elsewhere. There has always been an ambiguity about December 6th which marks both the anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and the coming into being of the Irish Free State a year later on December 6th, 1922.
This is reflected in the absence of any State ceremony on Tuesday. Giving the opening address to a UCD conference on the centenary of the State on Friday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin outlined two key reasons why December 6th has never been a “focus for national celebration”.
One of the first acts of the Free State government was to execute four republican prisoners in retaliation for the murder of pro-Treaty TD Sean Hales. Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joseph McKelvey were summarily shot without even the pretence of a trial on the morning of December 8th, 1922. This shocking act caused the Labour leader Tom Johnson, who was also the leader of the opposition, to tell the government that it had almost “killed the State at its birth”.
The Civil War led to a substantial section of the population not recognising the State when it was established, though Fianna Fáil would eventually de facto recognise it by participating in the Dáil from 1927, albeit under duress.
Nevertheless, Finland too had a bloody civil war, in their case in 1918 which killed 30,000 people, and yet they have managed to overcome their differences to coalesce around a national day.
The other reason for the lack of euphoria was the reality of partition. Nationalist Ireland assumed the 26 country State was a temporary entity and that unity would eventually happen. “While partition had been imposed in 1920, the new State was founded on the premise that it was unlikely to continue. It is completely unfair to the leaders of the time to claim that they were not concerned with Northern Ireland,” Mr Martin explained.
Author Mark Henry, whose book In Fact, An Optimists Guide to Ireland at 100 chronicles the many successes of the Republic in its first century, thinks Irish people are brought up to believe that “self-praise is no praise” and that extends to the nation State too. “That’s a strength on one side, but it stops us celebrating what needs to be celebrated, hence my book,” he states.
Fine Gael, whose descendants were the pro-Treaty government that formed Cumann na nGaedheal, will hold an event on Tuesday evening which will be addressed by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar among other speakers. Backbench TD John Paul Phelan, who will chair the event, said he wished more could have been done to celebrate the centenary of the State coming into being, but it is in keeping with the low-key nature of the original event which happened during the Civil War.
Members of the party were recently briefed by historian Prof Michael Laffan on the importance of the centenary to mark the coming into being of the State and also the ratification of the Treaty by the Dáil in January 1922.
Even Fine Gael is ambiguous about certain aspects of the State’s creations. Not only is the centenary of the State not being officially marked, but there has been no commemoration to honour the 750 National Army soldiers who died defending that State at its inception.
The absence of a Defence Forces’ flag party at a national commemoration for the National Army dead in Glasnevin Cemetery was raised by Mr Phelan at the recent Fine Gael parliamentary party. The Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said he received no invitation to the event, and that the National Army will be remembered next year which will be the centenary year for the Irish Army.
The Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations recommended that the centenary of the State be marked by an academic conference, and that advice was acted upon with more than 50 speakers at the event in UCD on Friday and Saturday.
Chairman Maurice Manning said the group has advised that an event marking the State’s independence should be held, but next year and not this year. The relevant centenary is the Irish Free State’s admission into the League of Nations which occurred in September 1923.
The advisory group believed that the centenary of the State should not be mixed in with the commemorations to mark the Civil War. “The League of Nations is the high point of Ireland taking its place among the nations of the world, to quote Robert Emmet. We thought from the beginning it was the appropriate end date for the Decade of Centenaries.”