Look at the bigger picture as we mark our history

In this era of so many centenaries here in Ireland, it also pays to look further afield, at the clamouring for independence in other states in 1917, says Gabriel Doherty of UCC’s School of History
Look at the bigger picture as we mark our history
President of Ireland Michael D Higgins lays a wreath during a 1916 commemoration ceremony at the GPO on O' Connell Street, Dublin, 2017.Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

THE enormous success of last year’s centenary commemoration of the Easter Rising has indicated the extent of public interest in this formative era in Ireland’s history.

The interest has continued to be manifested (on a less extensive scale) in the commemoration of intervening events from that period, notably the major battles of World War I in which Irish soldiers fought, and America’s entry into the war, and, domestically, the successive by-elections of 1917, the calling of the Irish Convention, and, last month, the death of Thomas Ashe.

For the remainder of this ‘decade of centenaries’ (roughly 2018-23) the focal point of the commemoration moves south, with particular (though not exclusive) attention directed towards the development of the republic separatist campaign (in both its political and military aspects) in Munster.

The School of History in UCC will, on foot of local consultations with interested parties, continue to organise a variety of events to mark these centenaries, which will include, to take just Cork city and county in 1920, the deaths of Lords Mayors MacCurtain and McSwiney, the burning of the city and the Battle of Kilmichael, amongst many other events. Before we reach that point, however, it is important to recall that revolutionary tumult in Ireland was just one part (albeit an important one) of a broader pattern, encompassing the continent and many other parts of the world, where a radical re-structuring of the pre-war status order was being mounted.

Some parts of this fervour, especially the demands for the creation of independent states across the continent, can be traced to the specific circumstances created by the Great War itself, others were intensifications of developments already in train before August 1914.

Gabriel Doherty, UCC historian
Gabriel Doherty, UCC historian

Two of these can be highlighted — demands that women be enfranchised alongside men (a demand partially conceded in Britain and Ireland in 1918, a centenary UCC’s School of History will also mark), and a debate about the role of labour.

This debate encompassed a broad spectrum of ideas, ranging from calls for moderate improvements to pay and conditions through to outright social reconstruction. The most radical manifestation of this latter tendency arose as a result of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in November, 1917. The causes, course and consequence of this momentous event are being considered as part of a free, public conference, to be held in UCC on Friday, November 3, the subject of which is this international dimension to the ‘revolutionary decade’.

Speakers from UCC, UCD and the University of Cardiff will address various aspects of the topic, including Irish, Russian, Polish and American themes, with question and answer sessions following each paper.

To take but one of these points: the demand that emerged in 1917 for Ireland’s case for independence to be presented to the post-war peace conference, alongside those of the other ‘small nations’. It is important to bear in mind the ramifications of this proposal, for it offered the prospect (at least in theory) of a path to independence free from the violence that enveloped the country during the War of Independence, and the subsequent Civil War.

A number of other nations were pressing similar cases at this time — a time, remember, when it appeared to many either that there would be no outright victor in the Great War, or that Britain might end up on the losing side.

The outstanding example of a national cause championed by belligerents on both sides of the conflict was that of Poland. This ‘Polish question’ was a central issue in wartime diplomacy, given that her territory was partitioned between three states — Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side of the war, imperial Russia on the other — and was the site of a number of crucial battles in the conflict.

Even while the fighting was ongoing, proposals for the re-establishment of an independent Polish state were being accepted in principle — by the three partitioning powers themselves, by Britain and France, and, crucially, by President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, who, even before America became a belligerent, saw Poland as a test case for his demand that national self-determination be the basis for post-war reconstruction in Europe. And, of course, Polish independence did indeed come to pass in November, 1918, the centenary of which event will no doubt be marked with due ceremony next year in Warsaw.

Irish nationalists were keen students of this game of diplomatic chess, both on account of their historic sympathy for Poland, and because they saw no good reason why a similar process should not come into play when it came to the treatment of Ireland’s own demand for independence. We know now of course that this did not take place (simply put, because Britain refused and her allies at the Versailles conference in 1919 did not pursue the matter) but in the run up to the centenary of the War of Independence, it is important to recall that, at least for a brief period, a peaceful path to Irish independence appeared to open up.

These and other matters will be discussed at the UCC conference, which is free of charge, and open to all members of the public who may wish to attend. It is being held in room GO5 in the Brookfield Health Sciences Complex on College Road, between 9.20am and about 3.40pm. More details from Gabriel Doherty in UCC, g.doherty@ucc.ie, 021 4902783.

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