Commemorating 1798 with the Wexford Senate

[This dates back to a time, in the late 1990s, when I wrote a monthly column for the Newfoundland Telegram about connections between Ireland and Newfoundland, where I had been brought up for a while and visited a number of times since.]

How would you like be a senator in Ireland this summer? If you are Irish-born or of Irish ancestry you could do so for only IR£2000, and this would allow you to attend a session of the Wexford Senate which is being set up this year as part of the massive commemorative ceremonies of the 1798 rebellion.

For a brief time in the late 18th century some Irish people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds came together in the aftermath of the American and French Revolutions to fight against the English administration for a popular, non-sectarian democracy in Ireland, in which Catholic, Protestant and Presbyterian would be united under the common name of Irishman.

Of course, the project failed and to this day Ireland continues to struggle with the legacy of this period which includes many of the ‘isms’ that define modern Ireland: Republicanism, Loyalism, Separatism, Unionism, Orangism, Sectarianism and ... Emigration-ism(!).

The country is just emerging from three years of officially marking the Great Famine but relentlessly, commemorative events for 1798 have already begun: on new year’s eve ceremonial bonfires were set ablaze on all the famous battle hills around County Wexford, where most of the action of 1798 took place, including the famous battle of Vinegar Hill in which the rebel forces were so thoroughly defeated by the crown’s army that the rebellion was effectively over. Then, on January the 2nd, a concert in the town of Enniscorthy before an audience of 800 included a new composition by Shaun Davy (of Brendan Voyage fame) entitled Requiem for the Men, Women, and Children of 1798.

The official calendar lists over 340 events for the year, the centrepiece of which is the convening of the Wexford Senate to represent the concerns of the Irish diaspora of 70 million people worldwide. The organisers hope that the Senate “will become a living memorial to the 30,000 people who died in 1798 and to the thousands of émigrés transported to many lands across the seas.”

According to the official programme, a motion will be proposed at the commemorative session of the Senate that “a permanent forum for the greater Irish family, with an open agenda pertaining to Ireland and the Irish in the new millennium” should be constituted to “provide a focal point for the Irish across the world who have so much to offer each other in the economic, social, and cultural spheres.”

There is also a huge amount of media and academic attention being given to debating the how and why of the commemorations. Opinions range from absolute scepticism to outright revelling. The former position is represented by the likes of academic journalist Kevin Myers who wrote recently in the Irish Times that “to present the insurrections of 1798 as a simple rising in pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity is to ignore the complex and probably incomprehensible realities of the time.” He asks the rhetorical question: “Is it wrong to wish that Ireland had paid no attention to the insurrectionary pleadings of the United men, and had remained at peace?” and for this expects to have to endure “those dreary, witless accusations of ‘defending British imperialism’”.

Mr Myers’s accusers are likely to come from the opposite camp of misguided revellers in the glories of heroes and heroines

But there also appears to be a lot of healthy middle-ground in the official revisions of the events which avoid the triumphalism and glorifications of previous anniversaries of the rebellion. Marianne Elliot, recent biographer of Wolfe Tone, emphasises that the act of commemoration includes celebration and mourning, and that 1798 is “one of the few periods of history that Presbyterians share with Catholics.”

So if you happen to be in Erin’s pub in the coming year and hear a song such as the enchanting ‘Boolavogue’ being dedicated to the memory of 1798 Catholic ‘heroes’, bear in mind that it was written a hundred years after the event and, as Kevin Myers says, is a misguided celebration of horrible and hysterical atrocities.

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