Civic Lecture to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland by John Green, former Chair of Glasnevin Trust.

Glasnevin: Commemorating the past to reconcile the present, healing the future? A view from the middle ground

Glasnevin: Commemorating the past to reconcile the present, healing the future? A view from the middle ground

Civic Lecture to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland by John Green, former Chair of Glasnevin Trust.

Glasnevin Cemetery, from its foundation, has been a centre for reconciliation. O’Connell envisioned it “where a perfect freedom of religious rites” existed. From the start Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter were buried there, from merchant princes to paupers.

All treated equally, buried as they wished. Above ground maybe there was inequality, the size and location of the grave etc, but below ground and in the records they were equal. We summarise it as “all religions and none”, but O’Connell expanded on his vision saying just as Catholics wanted to live with their brethren of other persuasions, they also wished to journey with them “on their last passage from this world to another”.

The first 100 years of Glasnevin’s existence were both halcyon and harrowing days. Harrowing because of the Cholera epidemics, 1832, 1861 and 1866/7 and the awful years of the Great Famine, exacerbated by various epidemics of Typhus, Smallpox and the deadly Asian Cholera.

This stretched the Cemetery resources to the limit with, on occasions, gravediggers working from dawn to dusk. Halcyon days, because most of the “great” funerals of Ireland, from O’Connell on, took place in Glasnevin. Parnell, O’Donovan Rossa, Griffith, Collins, de Valera and, as well as great national funerals, there were hundreds and hundreds of great sectional funerals where the cemetery was packed. Financially successful.

Why then, by the turn of the 20th century into the 21st century, was it seen as Republican Valhalla or the “Forgotten” cemetery? There are several reasons: practically Mount Jerome Cemetery was set up in the 1830s as a “Protestant” cemetery and hundreds of Catholic Churches were built as result of the Catholic Emancipation Act, leading to local graveyards where Catholics could be buried.

However, politically the “inclusive” story of Glasnevin did not suit either the “violent” Irish Republican movement nor the post Treaty Free State Dublin Governments led by Cosgrave and de Valera. The history syllabus of the Free State wrote of the armed struggle for freedom to the exclusion of the political parliamentary struggle.

Apart from the obvious positives of ignoring the Civil War, it meant that many, if not the vast majority, had a sketchy and perhaps partisan view of the seminal decade in the founding of the Free State and Northern Ireland. The fact that the Civil War was in the main about the Oath of Allegiance, and not partition, was and is to this day lost on many.

Glasnevin re-established itself as a place for all the people of Ireland by staying in the middle ground.

Many would say with Catholic, Protestant & Dissenter buried there, with Young Irelanders and Irish Parliamentary Party members buried there, with Fusiliers and Volunteers buried there, with Pro Treaty and Anti Treaty and, of course, Collins and de Valera buried there, what else would you do?

Using the principles of O’Connell, and simply telling the story, Glasnevin Cemetery became the neutral venue, hosting both the State’s official commemoration of the start of WW1, the first event of the 1916 centenary programme and a myriad of other “commemorations”.

Yes, Glasnevin was in the middle ground, but it is not an easy place to be. Guy Beiner writes of the collective memory in society which leads to social memory and social forgetting (collective amnesia). In other words, public silence and private expressions of support, disagreement etc.

That is so true of the way we view not only our history but also the present plight of our Island. Public right and wrong become less clear, supposedly for the greater good but in fact for short term gains. People and groups are labelled, the imperfections of humanity are ignored. To be in the middle ground requires society to view the past through the human prism of forgiveness. Only then will trust and respect thrive in our community.

The Island of Ireland 2021. Has the commemoration of the foundation of Northern Ireland been successful?

Will the commemoration of the War of Independence and the Civil war be healing or divisive?

Undoubtedly the Decade of Centenaries, and the Commemorations of WW1, were far more successful than anticipated.  But strains were apparent in 2018, and since then the goodwill created by the commemorations has been evaporating, exacerbated by Brexit and the Pandemic.

It is hard to evaluate the events marking the foundation of Northern Ireland because of the Pandemic, but there has not been the same level of cross community cooperation, and politically there are signs of sheer antagonism.

We are near the end of the commemorations for the War of Independence, and many would view the muted nature of the commemorations as a silver lining to the Pandemic.

The strategy of a few National commemorations, and a large number of community commemorations, has the potential to be a healing and uniting process, but it is hard to see that working cross border.

In the brief for my lecture was a request for hope. Truthfully it is harder to write in/of hope now, a year on from the initial discussions about this talk, although even then the signs were less than encouraging.

But there is always hope and there is plenty to be hopeful about in Northern Ireland. The numbers attending 3rd level institutions are at an all-time high and integrated education is growing.

Foreign Direct Investment has increased in NI compared to the rest of the UK significantly. For the period 2018 /2020 FDI projects were up 14% compared to 4% for rest of UK and jobs up 59% compared to 3% decrease in the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland has an underlying strong and attractive economy often hidden or ignored as it is characterised by the “UK subvention”.  For the next 10 years NI is well placed to become an economic powerhouse, especially if the “protocol” is made workable. However, I am not an economist.

I know I have criticised the Parties for rushing to their edges at election time, protecting their flanks but now the leaders of the five main parties are all are looking for solutions, for a way forward for all the people of NI.

In their own words there is hope!

Doug Beattie: We must connect, but loyalism must connect also by reaching out to offer meetings and distance itself from illegal organisations.

But if the vision of a union of people, which I genuinely have, is focused purely on loyalists and unionists then immediately I have failed.

Jeffrey Donaldson: I want us to build a better Northern Ireland, not just for those who share our unionism, but for all our people.

It means we must learn to respect each other’s cultural differences and traditions and that must be a two-way process.

Naomi Long: My aspirations and that of Alliance are to build that progressive, liberal, open and welcoming society – a community of many voices, but one vision.

Colum Eastwood: “In this moment, we have an opportunity to set aside the enmity and distrust of our past. This is a moment to begin a new conversation about our shared future. A conversation about how we address the oppression of poverty in our communities, how we provide high quality housing for everyone who needs it, how we reorganise our health services for a changing population.

Michelle O Neill: "I hope my attendance here demonstrates my commitment to the principles of equality and parity of esteem for all identities and traditions on this island.”

Perhaps all we have to do is make them keep their word!


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