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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 336-339
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Trapped between Present and Past:
Writing the 1798 Bicentenary
The colourful remembering and re-enacting of the 1798 Irish Rebellion Bicentenary was the culmination of almost a decade of labour which started in preparation for the commemorations of the founding of the United Irish organizations in 1791. Thanks to some outstanding research, a considerable revision of the "Faith and Fatherland" interpretation predominant since the late nineteenth century emerged in the late 1980s. At the center of this reinterpretation, priests as leaders of national aspiration were replaced with politicized masses aspiring to ideals already successful in America and France. Despite the sound research which led to this interpretation and its widespread endorsement in Ireland, details of this new orthodoxy and the accompanying commemorations have been questioned by a number of historians.
The scholarly arguments about aspects of the new interpretation have spread into some of the literature investigating the 1798 Bicentenary commemorations (e.g. Guy Beiner, "Negotiations of Memory: Rethinking 1798 Commemoration" in Irish Review 26 (2000); Elizabeth Crooke, "Exhibiting 1798" in History Ireland 6/4 (1998); R.F. Foster, "Remembering 1798" in The Irish Story. Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland, 2001; Brian Walker, "The Lesson of Irish History: The Continuing Legacy of the 1798 Rebellion and the United Irishmen" in Past and Present, History, Identity and Politics in Ireland, 2000). The [End Page 336] three most recent publications on the Bicentenary discussed here reflect the spectrum of disposition towards the past and its relevance and role in contemporary Ireland.
Notwithstanding their immense literary difference and intention the three books reviewed here encapsulate the enthusiasm, hard work, and intensive (self) analysis which made the 1798 Bicentenary. The aptly titled Epitaph of 1798 is the result of an enormous effort to locate, photograph, and catalogue 1798 memorials in Ireland and elsewhere. The impressive result is a colourful volume of hundreds of plaques, memorials, and gravestones capturing local tradition and enthusiasm for local history. Interspersed with local lore and sketches of information about the context of some of the memorials, the volume highlights the magnitude of the rebellion from Antrim to Wicklow in Ireland to Australia, England, France and the U.S.A. Hence, a commemorative landscape of the insurrection is created through which the authors offer "insights into our concepts of nationalism and its modern relevance" (Foreword). However, by their "conscious decision not to mention those who unveiled these memorials" (Introduction) and without the unveiling date of the memorials, this catalogue falls short of the "socio-economic, as well as political study, of the barometers of public opinion" (Introduction) it set out to be. The honourable gesture of not disclosing those erecting and unveiling the memorials to "honour the patriotic dead" (Introduction) but letting the memorials themselves tell "the heroic tale of the rebellion" to future generations (Foreword) bears the danger of paving over the human tragedy of warfare. Additionally, it is the nature of memorials to simplify and thus distort the events they embody. As sites of remembrance, linking past to present, they become anchors in times of change: in the course of the 1990s and the preparations for the 1798 Bicentenary, globalization, European integration, and the potential settlement of the Northern Irish conflict were such changes. Despite falling short of their aims as stated in the foreword, this is an excellent compilation of Irish lieux de mémoire, as well as a major reference work for future historians of architecture and commemorations.
Peter Collins' Who Fears to Speak of '98? occupies a similar status. Although the...