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8 January 1998 Edition

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The revision and sanitation of 1798

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

WHO Fears to Speak of Ninety Eight? It was with that challenge, years after the `98 Rising, that John Kells Ingram began the task of restoring some sanity to the history of Irish Republicanism.

When the famous ballad was written, a great blanket of revisionism had already settled on the country. All of Ireland was still under the yoke of English rule, the chain had yet to be broken.

The offspring of some of those who had struck out for a Republic in the final years of the 18th century and in the opening decade of the 19th had by then become the opposite of what their fathers and mothers had fought and died for, and promoted Orange divisionism rather than egalité, fraternité and liberté.

Political amnesia wiped out the activity of the last generation. Others, nationalist, had adopted a program which was church led, curtailing and postponing for generations any attempt at uniting Catholic Protestant and Dissenter. Tone's ideal, `98 and all that it stood for, was almost taboo.

Once published, the ballad allowed for a celebration and a reawakening of the `98 memory, and historians of balladeering note that a sizeable share of the `98 ballads we sing (or don't sing) today were in fact written long, long after the event.

While certainly some of them are ripe sources of information for students of the period, containing the emotion and the incidental detail the passing of time has blurred, other songs are revisionist. The almost solitary figure of Father Murphy, responding to the burning of his church by joining the United Irish forces and being excommunicated by his bishops for doing so, is airbrushed into a glorious participation by the priest as representative of the sentiments of the whole church.

Times change, but the work of revisionism continues. I suppose it goes with the job. A revisionist is merely a propagandist with a degree in history. What is worrying me now, however, is not so much `Who Fears to Speak of Ninety Eight' as `I Fear Who Speaks of Ninety Eight.'

The `98 industry is already in full swing. Pageants, programmes, CDs, re-prints and new editions. By the end of this year `98 will have made an impact of one sort or another on every one of us, but the danger lies therein. An impact of one sort or another allows for quite a range of dubious impacts.

A hundred years ago the job was to get people speaking about the Revolution, now the job is to get them to speak the truth about the Revolution. The risk of sanitising the whole process, of blunting what radical edges the leaders were proud to expose, of minimising their tactics and maximising their dreams, of canonising their leaders and marginalising their methods ... this is the risk of too much `98.

Government money is available for projects to celebrate the Year of Liberty, but a lot of that money will be spent on re-thatching the roof and burying the pike under a lot more straw. Events organised have to be safe. Don't mention the war. Prepare for the 1798 coffee morning.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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