First Word: How Looking Back Has Helped us Face Forward

A 19th century eviction, Vandeleur Estate, c. 1888. One of the photos from the Sean Sexton Irish collection. See below for a
version to enlarge.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
February / March 2017

As you will see when you turn the pages, we couldn’t stop with the photographs in this commemorative issue. From North America to Argentina, Australia to Ireland, and places in between, we bring you pictures of school children and senior citizens, native Irish and the descendants of Irish immigrants in far off lands, paying tribute to the men and women who fought so bravely in Ireland’s bid for freedom in 1916.

From the big parade in Dublin, which drew a crowd of over 250,000, to smaller events in rural Ireland, to New York and Boston, to Buenos Aires and Auckland, the spirit of the centenary was captured in photographs that, while great to look at now, in years to come, will serve as an important visual dimension to our history.

Since its invention, photography has provided a window into the past, and alongside all the documentation of modern history in the making in this issue, we also bring you some rare photographs from the Sean Sexton collection that cover the period after the Rising, when the Irish were battling it out with British forces during the War of Independence.

Irish history doesn’t just linger in the eye, it burns in the heart. The stories my father told me of the Black and Tans (British Army irregulars known for their brutality) gave me nightmares as child, and some vestige of that anxiety resurrected itself as I looked through Sexton’s images while making my selections for this issue. I turn away from the war photos only to become fixated on images of evictions dating to the 1880s, when struggling Irish tenant farmers, still recovering from the famine and unable to pay their rent, had their houses leveled and their few remaining possessions sold off.

These are the toughest images for me to view. Harrowing, in fact. I have an unreasonable fear of being homeless that is not rooted in reality. I think it’s inherited – part of my DNA. There were more evictions in my home country of Tipperary in 1847 than in any other county in Ireland.

Photographs are evidence that terrible things happened, but they are also serve as a reference point. We know that no matter how bad things were, we as a people could not be kept down. Like a boxer with more heart than skill, we kept fighting, kept getting up after every knock-down, and, as Pete Hamill, that wonderful chronicler of our race, is given to say, “we won all the late rounds.”

Click to enlarge. The caption on the photo reads, "House of ML Higgins – Ram after bursting door – Vandeleur Estate." (Photo courtesy Sean Sexton Collection)

Click to enlarge. The caption on the photo reads, “House of ML Higgins – Ram after bursting door – Vandeleur Estate.” (Photo courtesy Sean Sexton Collection)

Well, not entirely. As we mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, we are careful to use the word “commemorate,” not “celebrate.” The country that was whole during all the years of British occupation is now split in two. Not that I blame those who signed the Treaty. The rebels couldn’t hold out against the might of the British forces forever. It was partition or it was or nothing.

The hope of Michael Collins, that a free 26-counties would be the first step in a process that would eventually lead to an independent Ireland free of British rule, was not to be. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty led to a civil war so horrific that it was barely mentioned when I was growing up. I still can’t bear to read about it, let alone see photographs. And at the end of it, the North stayed partitioned and the 26-counties, war-weary and heart-sore, turned away and set about re-making itself.

The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland throughout most of its existence exploded into massive violence in the 1970s with terrible consequences for all, especially the children. We are reminded of this by Sarah Buscher, writing in this issue on the documentary How to Diffuse a Bomb, the story of Project Children. Here we find a hero that the leaders of 1916 would be proud to know. Denis Mulcahy, a bomb squad detective with the New York Police Department, founded Project Children in 1975, and over the next 40 years, with the assistance of many kind and generous American families, he changed the lives of thousands of children from Northern Ireland by giving them a respite from the violence and a chance to just be kids for a while.

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Irish America took a step back from the North, and, in the minds of many now, all is well. That may be so on the surface, but in these times, when there is much talk of building walls, we should remember that there are more “Peace Walls” separating neighborhoods in Belfast today than ever existed during the Troubles. And there’s a more pressing worry: the immediate concern over the impact of Brexit. The possibility of reinstating a hard border between the North and the Republic is real, and could have dire consequences on both sides of the line. Colum Eastwood, the leader of the S.D.L.P. described Brexit as “the most dangerous thing for Northern Ireland since partition.”

But here now, to offer some reassurance, let me introduce Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. Anderson believes we are more than capable of meeting the challenges to come. In a recent lecture (adapted for this issue), she said, “History has its coincidences: it has not escaped us that, just at the time we were commemorating the events of 1916 – the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland – we found ourselves facing another radical adjustment in British-Irish relations: for the first time ever, one of us will be inside the European Union and the other outside.

“There is no minimizing the Brexit challenge that lies ahead, which will test us in very many ways. But I believe that all of our centenary experience – this process we have lived through of remembering, reflecting, and re-imagining – will have helped to fortify us to meet that challenge. We certainly do not have all the answers, but we are better grounded, with a surer sense of who we are, as we seek those answers. And so, in that very real sense, the centenary commemorations will have achieved one of their key objectives: looking back has also helped us to face forward.”

Mórtas Cine. ♦

One Response to “First Word: How Looking Back Has Helped us Face Forward”

  1. Michael Collins’ dream of one Ireland was “not to be”? For a time, maybe, but it is inevitable, I think. Remember, the English are relative newcomers to our corner of the world. Ireland, lovely Ireland, shall be free.

    Peadar Garland

Leave a Reply to Peadar Howard


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