Audio transcript now available. listen online here!
The Easter Rising was a pivotal event of the 1910s, the turbulent decade that saw empires founder and revolutionary fervour convulse many European societies. The reverberations for Ireland set up by this short-lived episode were immense, and it galvanised anti-imperialist rebels and insurgents throughout the continent – Trotsky and Lenin were among those who vaunted it in their writings.
In Ireland, the centenary has been feverishly anticipated for the best part of the past decade as the ultimate commemoration. But as it approaches, the ambivalence that has long attended discussions of the Rising is making itself felt. Ex-Taoiseach John Bruton may have been reverting to Blueshirt political type when in June he claimed the Rising had ‘damaged the Irish psyche’, but it’s a frequently-rehearsed argument. Even the Rising’s champions manage to sound an anodyne note when they invoke it: for then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the ninetieth anniversary in 2006 was an occasion to remember ‘the values we hold and cherish’.
With some arguing that the celebrations should also remember those Irishmen who fought and died in the Somme, it can seem as though the anti-imperialist moment of the Easter Rising is in danger of being lost in the shuffle. As well as neutralising its significance as a unique event, this has the effect of recasting a nationalist insurrection as no different from a wasteful and bloody instance of vainglorious imperialism, not to mention characterising it merely by its tragic military failures and loss of life.
Is it possible to rescue the meaning of the Easter Rising from this one-size-fits-all commemorative sentimentality? What does this desire to flatten the contours of history tell us about how revolution and social change are now viewed? In short, as the title of a new book by James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney has it, Who’s Afraid of the Easter Rising?
This is a Satellite event of the Battle of Ideas, two full days of debate and free-spirited inquiry at the Barbican in London on 17 & 18 October.