The low-key centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush

About ten years ago, a friend of mine working in a ministerial department told me about the concern the government had about the “decade of centenaries” marking the anniversaries of the events leading up to Irish (partial) independence. There was a concern to commemorate these properly, so that extreme elements couldn’t hijack them, without alienating Unionism. Thus the lavish 1916 centenary, and associated events in the years before (and since)

A few months ago I wondered what official commemoration would mark the 100th anniversary of the Soloheadbeg ambush, which marked the outset of the War of Independence.  The ambush took place on 21st January 1919, and on 20th January (ie tomorrow) there will be ceremonies to mark the anniversary.

I mean no disrespect to Minister Josepha Madigan by suggesting her presence as the government representative is a little less high profile than that accorded to other events.

I remember as a child visiting Kilmainham Jail, which sold a booklet which went into great detail about the various Fenians and 1916 leaders who had been imprisoned and executed there, and a brief page on the War of Independence. There’s always been an ambivalence about the War of Independence, largely due  to the Civil War which followed, and the ambiguity about the outcome with partition of Ireland. Also, one surmises, while 1916 was a military failure and is therefore something of a blank slate (the commemorations of both 1966 and 2016 reflected contemporary concerns and attitudes as much as anything else), the War of Independence did lead to an Irish state and involved almost all of the main political protagonists of the first few decades of that state.

Clearly the political dynamics of 1919 have not gone away and right now are taking centre stage in not only Irish or British but European politics. On Monday 21st 2019 Theresa May will present (or is supposed to) her “Plan B” after a Brexit plan floundered, to a large extent on the “Irish Question.”  Furthermore, while Soloheadbeg had a far smaller death toll than 1916, there is something much more personal about the killing of two local Catholics who happened to be RIC men. The reality that the Irish state (like every state, pretty much) was born in conflict, and that all the main Irish political parties arose from or were strongly linked with paramilitary forces of various kinds is one that a veil is often drawn over.

All in all, one wonders if the current Government would rather not make much of a fuss about the whole thing, and one wonders if this could backfire somewhat. A whole raft of centenaries – of ambushes and assassinations and of the Treaty and the subsequent debates – is following in the coming years.

 

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