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'History is never simple' - Soloheadbeg Centenary Commemoration

Commemoration to mark the Centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush, Co. Tipperary

The Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations, in its most recent guidance to Government, which I published earlier this month, emphasises the importance of adopting a measured and sensitive approach to the remembrance of the difficult and often deeply personal events that defined the Struggle for Independence, - an approach which focuses on reconciliation and the respectful remembrance of allwho suffered and lost their lives.

The events of 21st January 1919 were defining moments on our journey towards nationhood. Dáil Éireann - the independent Irish parliament - was convened, issuing its Message to the Free Nations of the World, seeking support for Ireland's claim for self-determination and passing the Democratic Programme, which promised wide ranging social reforms. The Soloheadbeg Ambush took place on that same day, led by Séamus Robinson, Dan Breen and Seán Treacy, resulting in the deaths of James McDonnell and Patrick O'Connell - both constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary. This ambush set the pattern for the independence struggle that followed, so beginning a chain of events that would leave an enduring legacy for generations to come.

It is very fitting that the significance of what happened here a century ago is remembered with a respectful, community-led commemoration, supported by Tipperary County Council and the State. It is a great honour for me to represent the Government at today's ceremony. I welcome the presence of Dr Martin Mansergh, Deputy Chair of the Expert Advisory Group and look forward to hearing his insightful reflections. I welcome also the presence of relatives of those who participated in the Ambush and those who lost their lives – this is, I know, a deeply personal and moving occasion for you all.

For decades, the ownership of chapters in the story of our revolutionary past was bitterly contested but the opportunities for shared remembrance and commemoration presented by the Decade of Centenaries have gifted us with a greater insight into our history.

If we truly respect our past we must be truthful in the way we commemorate it. And we must do so with empathy, with understanding, and with respect. We commemorate what happened – not what we would have preferred to have happen. The events at Soloheadbeg on the 21st of January 1919 were controversial at the time and, for some, remain controversial. It was an ambush that was not authorised by the Volunteer leadership. It resulted in the deaths of two Irishmen, two RIC men who were much respected and admired in this locality. It left the children of one of the men orphans and shocked a community. And yet, those same shots were heard across the world, and heralded the start of a military campaign that helped Ireland secure her independence. History is never simple. Its very complexity is what enriches us, because it forces us to think about the past and come to terms with its legacy.

As Minister, I see no contradiction today in honouring and remembering the lives of James McDonnell and Patrick O’Connell, and also commemorating the start of our War of Independence. It shows how far we have come during this Decade of Centenaries. We are no longer at war with our past. We can commemorate it in its entirety. We can honour all those who fought, without forgetting those who died, because we live in an Irish Republic that cherishes all its political traditions.

By approaching the difficult legacies of our past with understanding, empathy and a generosity of spirit, and by acknowledging and remembering all of the lives lost during this period, we have revisited painful memories, creating the possibility of reciprocal compassion and reconciliation. It is not easy and it challenges us to open our hearts and minds to one another in a spirit of mutual respect and kindness.

One of the most significant learnings from the Decade of Centenaries is the extraordinary capacity of local communities to mobilise for the greater good, when the right structures and supports are put in place to assist them. The Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations has emphasised the leading role of local authorities in supporting the national conversation about the events of the Independence Struggle, by encouraging respectful and authentic engagement, debate, and analysis, which is sensitive to the local context. This is a view that I very much share.

I commend everyone involved – Tipperary County Council, the Solohead Parish Centenary Commemoration Committee and the Third Tipperary Brigade Old IRA Commemoration Committee – for their very responsible, balanced and measured approach to the remembrance of all of those whose lives were irrevocably altered by the events that took place here, 100 years ago.

The Government's approach to commemorating the significant historical events in the first half of the Decade of Centenaries has sought at all times to strengthen peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. Engagement took place across the island and we worked with interested parties from all traditions to encourage authentic commemorations that are sensitive to the differing perspectives on our shared history and that promote respectful remembrance. We have acknowledged too the very important work of historians, custodians of records, librarians, educators and cultural practitioners in fostering authentic historical enquiry and debate and analysis. This form of respectful public discourse is essential for any honest exploration of our history.

As the Minister with responsibility for leading the State's Decade of Centenaries programme, my objective is to support authentic historical exploration and to encourage respectful reflection about the multiple identities, traditions and perspectives that are part of the overall Irish historical experience.

In remembering this period in our history, we acknowledge both the military campaign of the Independence Struggle as well as the constitutional parliamentary traditions and the democratic processes underpinning all traditions on this island. Tomorrow, we will mark the centenary of the convening of the Dáil Éireann for the first time and we are reminded that the democratic parliamentary tradition ultimately prevailed and that, today, we have one of the oldest surviving democracies in Europe.

In any consideration of our journey over the past 100 years, access to local stories, perspectives, and archives will inform our comprehension of the overall narrative. The national and local archives that hold material most relevant to the forthcoming period of commemorations, including our National Archives and the Military Archives, will illuminate and give new understanding of the Independence Struggle – its impact and enduring legacies. New research and scholarship, - particularly concerning local histories and the impact of nationally significant events on individuals, families, and parishes around the country - has been an invaluable tool in encouraging public discourse, as we reflect upon long-accepted narratives. The observations and personal testimonies of those who shaped or lived through this period allowus to connect seminal moments of national importance with the deeply personal stories of human experience, thereby opening a door to further exploration and a greater understanding of our shared humanity.

Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCoiste Cuimhneacháin Céad Bliain i bparóiste Solohead agus le Coiste Cuimhneacháin Sean-IRA an Triú Briogáid Thiobraid Árainn as bhur gcuireadh le bheith i láthair anseo ag an ócáid thábhachtach seo. Molaim bhur gcuid iarrachtaí thar na blianta agus bhur dtiomantas le deimhniú go mbeadh an clár cuimhneacháin seo barántúil, measúil, cuimsitheach agus fiúntach. Cabhróidh bhur gcur chuige tuisceanach cineálta maidir le cuimhneachán na n-imeachtaí a tharla anseo, céad bliain ó shin, go mór le machnamh aibí tuisceanach ar a dtábhacht agus ar a n-oidhreacht a chur chun cinn.


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