Please do not use the contents of this blog in public presentations and media work (including in radio/television interviews, documentaries and newspaper pieces) without the prior permission of the author and without assigning credit to the author. Normal citation rules apply in academic publication. This blog is an excerpt from a longer working paper, which can be downloaded here https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/social-sciences-institute/working-papers
Citation: Linda Connolly, “Interrogating Commemoration: Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland,” Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute, Working Paper Series, no. 9 (Maynooth: Maynooth University, June, 2019).
Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland
Ireland is in the throes of a decade of commemoration. The process of commemorating the tumultuous revolutionary events that led to the establishment of the Irish State a century ago has incorporated Government sponsorship of events, public debate, cultural interventions and exciting new academic scholarship on the period of revolution. The outputs of the first stage of the government’s ‘Decade of Centenaries’ program 1912-1916 – including conferences, books, studies, concerts, documentaries, public events and drama – were most impressive. The national commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916, for instance, was notable for its sensitive and rich cultural content. In the arena of scholarship, access to new historical sources including those available free and online (such as the Bureau of Military History collection) as well as academic engagement projects (such as the ‘Women of the South’ Project in the Farmgate Café in the English Market, in Cork city) have inspired a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars to study the Irish Revolution and generated a new conception of ‘public history’. The second phase of the program, for 1917-22, is covering the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Partition of the island in the state’s formation, north and south. This stage also included a series of events to mark the hundred-year anniversary of votes for women in 2018.
Building on earlier work (such as Ward 1995), new academic scholarship on the achievement of votes for women and the critical role women played in the Irish Revolutionary period has emerged in the decade of centenaries (McDiarmid 2015, Paseta 2013). Recent research has also addressed the neglected question of the violence women experienced (such as, forced hair cutting/shearing and sexual assault) in the period covering the War of Independence and the Civil War (Connolly 2019) – including the thorny question of violence against women perpetrated by members of the national army. The violence of the revolution was not just a war between men. A more complete picture of women’s experience during and after the revolution has consolidated.
The comprehensive erosion of women’s rights that occurred in the public sphere as well as the crucial social and economic work women performed in the household, the workplace, the Church and civic organisations in the post-independence period has also been well documented and acknowledged in important texts focusing on women’s work and agency (Connolly 2003, Daly 1997). The Government’s ‘Vótail 100’ program commemorated women’s participation in institutional politics in the course of the last century in a number of events and a pop up museum that represented women’s history through ephemera was curated by Sinéad McCoole. However, some very disturbing scandals and historical abuses in women’s lives have also come to light in Ireland in the last twenty years in the midst of these initiatives. Punitive institutions that existed in the period of revolution and consolidated after independence have come to prominence through public State inquiries, investigative journalism and survivor testimony of abuse in more recent decades. In 2013, for instance, the Irish Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State to the women who were incarcerated in Magdalen laundries that existed until the late 20th century:
I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the Government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene laundry. The McAleese report shines a bright and necessary light on a dark chapter of Ireland’s history.
Historical injustices that were perpetrated in State-funded, religious-run institutions in Ireland and concealed at the time have been documented some years later in a number of State inquiries and reports (including, the Ryan Report of 2009, the McAleese Report of 2013 and the 2019 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes). O’Sullivan and O’Donnell (2012) provided an overview of the incarceration of tens of thousands of men, women and children during the first fifty years of Irish independence. Psychiatric hospitals, mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, reformatory and industrial schools, formed a network of institutions of ‘coercive confinement’ that was integral to the emerging State. In 2014, the horrific reality of Ireland’s State-funded, Church-run mother and baby homes came to light when the local historian Catherine Corless discovered a mass grave at the home located in Tuam. Approximately 35,000 women went through Ireland’s nine mother and baby homes between 1904 and 1996, where it is estimated 6,000 babies and children died.
According to Shelton (2019) “history is replete with episodes of genocide, slavery, torture, forced conversions, and mass expulsions of peoples.” As a consequence, several states and societies throughout the world are being asked to account for historic abuses and provide redress to victims. Some of these historical injustices involve events occurring a century or more ago. In Ireland, this applies to a large scale system of institutionalisation and traumatic legacies of the past that continue to exist outside of the official State commemoration program, in the present-day narrative of survivors of injustice who are reflecting back and participating in political and legal actions seeking redress and retribution.
A recasting of the version of commemoration (the action of commemorating a person or past event) that has been emphasized in the official ‘decade of centenaries’ program in Ireland. An alternative approach as also concerned with historical accountability and truthful remembering, capable of including profound injustices and abuses of power that occurred in their own time but which remain a disruptive element of the present, is proposed.
Historical accountability has been deployed to better understand how aspects of the past (such as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade) both operated at the time and created a culture that is still present. The concept can be understood in different ways, including in terms of ‘giving an account’ of oppression, violence or brutalization by conducting methodologically sound, evidence-based research and as ‘being accountable’ in scholarship to groups or individuals ignored, eclipsed and excluded from generalized accounts of society and the collective memory of nations. The analysis provided in the longer paper attached suggests that historical accountability should be a more central consideration in a program of national commemoration claiming to address difficult questions about the past.