Meath Peace Group
in association with the
Meath Archaeological and Historical Society
Decade of Centenaries Joint Seminar: “1915-16”
Saturday, 26th September 2015
St Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Meath Peace Group and the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society co-hosted a second Decade of Centenaries seminar in St Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, on Saturday, 26th September last. The all-day seminar focused on the 1915-1916 period and included presentations by a range of academic and local historians exploring national, international and local aspects of the Great War and the Easter Rising. Peter Connell (historian and editor of the M.A.H.S. Journal Riocht na Midhe) welcomed the speakers and the capacity audience among whom were members of several groups from Northern Ireland (Lurgan, Newtownards, Belfast, and Newry). Acknowledging the financial assistance given by the Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund (through the Meath Peace Group) and the Ireland 2016 programme (through Meath Co Council), he called on Cllr Brian Fitzgerald, Cathaoirleach of Meath County Council, to formally open the proceedings:
Cllr Brian Fitzgerald thanked the organisers for the invitation and said that this was a very “timely event” in many respects. Meath County Council had a number of visitors from America recently and the “one thing they were all impressed with was our history and our archaeological heritage. I had great pleasure bringing them around various places in County Meath … and I was very proud to do so”, he said. He commended the members of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society who had kept the Society going over the years and who had ensured that people would have an understanding about what we were about… “It is so important to have organisations like yours to continue to document our history and archaeology and make it available”.
Turning to the theme of the conference he said: “it is only right and proper that we remember the people of 1916, men and women who went out for no personal gain but they wanted to ensure they had the right to determine their own future after many hundreds of years of bloody war….. Most of us had relatives involved in that period – in 1916 but also in the 1914-18 war and the 1939-45 war – we should never forget them… But after 1916, and after our own bloody civil war which thankfully didn’t last too long, the people in this end of the island decided we were going to move forward irrespective of difference. Thankfully we did not have any further bloodshed in this part of the island since then, and this is something we all have to try and work towards in Northern Ireland … that people can work together in the best interest of everybody.” Paying tribute to the Meath Peace Group he said that the group “have been involved in bringing people together right through the bad bad periods – they have done a wonderful job”. He warned that unfortunately “their work is not finished; we should all remember that today in our deliberations – that we have to continue to try and bridge the gap between the various traditions in Northern Ireland.” It was once said to him that ‘we have two traditions in Northern Ireland but there is only one community’ – and “the day that we start talking about two communities will be detrimental. We have to continue to work and not take our eyes off the ball. …And I would ask those of you who have worked with the Meath Peace Group to remember that… I would like to see the dialogue continue in Northern Ireland and that spirit [of good will]… I thought it was achieved with the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrew’s Agreement but unfortunately there have been differences of opinion and it has become a little rocky. Both governments have an obligation to keep this show on the road. …I would hope we could get back to the situation where people are working together in the name of all the people they represent…” In conclusion he said that “we should not be afraid of our history, we should be able to talk about it and move on together” and the seminar was formally opened.
In the first session, “Ireland and the Great War” (chaired by Frances Tallon of Meath County Library), Ethna Cantwell, secretary of the Navan and District Historical Society, outlined the involvement of Navan people in WWI. About one third of the Meathmen who died in the war came from Navan and its surrounding area. They fought in all the major theatres including the Western Front, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Jutland, in British regiments but also in Canadian, Australian and U.S Infantry units. Priests, nurses and doctors from the town also served in the war, and the stories of some of the Navan men were outlined in the talk. In “Irish-Australian Perspectives”, Dr Danny Cusack, Convenor of the Meath History workshop, gave a fascinating insight into the vicissitudes and complexities of war as seen through the contrasting fates of two Tipperary-born men who served in the Australian forces: Fr John Fahey (1883-1959) who accompanied Australian troops as chaplain at the famous Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915 and Martin O’Meara (1885-1935) who served on the Western Front, won a VC for his efforts but spent his last 16 years in the Claremont mental asylum. Meath involvement featured again in session three, when Fiona Ahern, researcher with Bellewstown Heritage Group, examined the role of the National Volunteer movement in Bellewstown and the increasing politicisation of a tiny Co. Meath village in the months before the outbreak of War. [Professor Keith Jeffery of QUB, who was due to speak on the overall theme of Irish involvement in the Great War, was regrettably taken ill before the seminar and was unable to attend.]
In the session, “Easter 1916” (chaired by Frank Cogan, M.A.H.S. Council member), Dr Eunan O’Halpin, Professor of Contemporary Irish History at TCD, presented an intriguing paper “Dublin Castle and Irish Sedition, 1915-16” in which he addressed the question of how much the British authorities in Dublin Castle knew about seditious activities in Ireland before the Rising, and why they were so reluctant to take firm action against known agitators. He also discussed why good intelligence about plans for the Rising which reached the Admiralty in London was not shared with the authorities in Dublin. In his paper, “Easter 1916 in 2016”, Dr Fearghal McGarry of Queen’s University Belfast, explored some of the ways the meaning of 1916 has changed over the past century. W.B. Yeats identified the sacrifice at Easter with resurrection, as Pearse had intended, while many veterans recalled it as a transformative moment. Dublin medical student Ernie O’Malley said that ‘before Easter Week was finished I had changed.’ He described ‘the strange rebirth’ that followed Pearse’s execution. But his generation recalled the rebellion from the perspective of the futures that they had anticipated prior to 1916, and the disappointments they subsequently endured. For each generation that followed, the Rising meant something different again, leading one ethnologist to ask: ‘When was 1916?’
The fourth session, “Meath and 1916” (chaired by Kieran Cummins, M.A.H.S. President), looked at Meath involvement in the Easter Rising, and the subsequent rise of republicanism in Meath. In his paper, Noel French, historian and Meath County Councillor, asked “What are we commemorating and why should we commemorate it?” The main action of 1916 in Meath was the battle of Ashbourne which was fought largely by the North Dublin men. The men in Dunboyne were also out briefly. So why, he asked, should we commemorate it? His illustrated lecture documented Meath personages and links with the Rising. The “Rise of Republicanism in Meath, 1917-21” was the theme of Ultan Courtney’s paper in which he outlined the impact of the Rising on the population and the RIC and demonstrated how 1916 influenced the growth of the republican movement both militarily and politically in the county at the expense of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In the final session, “History, Commemoration and 1916”, the local historians were joined on the panel by the chairpersons and also by Meath County Librarian Ciaran Mangan. Chairing the lively question and answer session, author Helen Litton first outlined her family connections to 1916 – her granduncle Edward Daly was in charge of the Four Courts garrison and was later executed, while her grandaunt was Kathleen Daly, a founder member of Cumann na mBan and widow of Tom Clarke. Alongside this republican tradition, there was also a strong pacifist stream in her family background. A range of questions relating to the topics of the day were discussed and expanded, and some thorny issues raised which await further discussion to address and hopefully resolve.
On behalf of both groups, Julitta Clancy, thanked all who assisted in making the day so successful – in particular the speakers for presenting their research so clearly, illuminating some of the many complexities of the 1915-16 period, and the chairpersons for their watchful diligence in keeping the sessions to time. Special thanks were due to the hard-working volunteers on the day – Liz Fleeton, Marie Cosgrave, June Wilkinson, Clarendon Wilkinson, John Clancy, Leona Rennicks, Anne Nolan and Kieran Cummins – to co-organiser Peter Connell and the council members of both the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society and the Meath Peace Group, to the Columban Fathers at Dalgan Park and to Lisa (housekeeper), Derry and the catering staff who had provided welcome refreshments and a delicious lunch. Finally she thanked the audience for their active participation. Acknowledging the presence of groups from both traditions in Northern Ireland, she said that the people of 1915-1916 had responded with sincerity to the challenges of their day – whether in joining up in World War One or taking part in the Easter Rising, or otherwise, and today we heard some of their stories. In 1915, she said, Pearse had called up the memories of “the Fenian dead”, but in 2015 we have a more pressing challenge – the legacy of the thousands killed and injured in the recent “Troubles”, a conflict which had raged for almost 40 years and which had left untold hurt, mistrust, trauma, and increased division in its wake. She commended the many voluntary groups in NI – such as Lurgan Community Outreach and Decorum NI (both represented at the seminar) – and local groups such as the Meath Peace Group and the Guild of Uriel in Louth (founded in 1993 and 1995 respectively) – who were working to foster understanding and trust, healing and reconciliation, between divided and hurt communities. Understanding and discussing together the complexities of our history – and particularly the 1912-23 period – were important components of that work, she concluded, and it was hoped to hold an “Ethical Remembering” course in Navan in the Spring of 2016 to facilitate this.
Meath Peace Group summary report 2015 – seminar “1915-16”, 26th September 2015
Proceedings recorded by John Clancy (audio) and Kieran Cummins (video)
An edited transcript will be posted when available