Ireland Communities and society

Marking history and identity – the critical role of local government

Photo by Anna Church on Unsplash

Dr Seán Ó’Riordáin reflects on the often forgotten role that local government played in achieving Irish independence and outlines the importance of commemoration in councils’ work to recount local history.

The recent publication of the History of Clare and its People by Clare County Council has provided an admirable addition to my now large collection of local histories which have become a feature of the Irish historical landscape. It reminds me of the critical role played by both individual local authorities and their national representative bodies such as the AILG, and the CCMA,  in underpinning the sense of place and history of our counties, cities and rural communities across Ireland.  This underpinning of our understanding is also reflected in the leading role played by local government in the course of the decade of centenaries, marking events, in particular, of the Irish Independence era (and indeed the earlier and more traumatic Great Irish Famine) that had largely been forgotten or ignored.

Indeed, as I write this blog, Ireland is marking the effective destruction of civilian imperial rule with the destruction of the Custom House Public Records a centenary ago. The irony of this event in our troubled history will not be lost on successive local government administrations since independence!

In the collective national amnesia up to the current decade of centenaries, the remarkable story of local government in its central role in achieving Irish Independence was left in abeyance, while the actual events themselves were largely parked for fear of legacies of that era returning to haunt the country.

The reawakening that has occurred in the past couple of years has underpinned the strengthening of democracy and self-confidence in what is now one of the world’s longest surviving democracies, something perhaps not fully appreciated by the wider population. The publication of books like that of Clare brings back a sense of achievement, resilience and a sharing of experiences that often were at the root of great travesty and conflict between governments, between countries and communities and, of course, often bringing considerable personal pain to/within families, my own included.

The approach taken by the Irish local authorities has been to commemorate. They are applying balance and openness to the many opposing ideals, dearly held by so many people, that are at the root of Irish history at the local community level. At the same time, they are giving clear expression to the pride that goes with developing local democracy and respecting local identities. One person’s hero is another’s villain might be a common perspective across the globe but it goes without saying that bringing the need to appreciate the socio-environmental conditions in which revolutions can take place has to be a central aspect of understanding and, more importantly learning, from our history, a notable feature of the thinking of President of Ireland Micheál D. Higgins in his recent book, Reclaiming the European Street.

Most notable of all has been the many events organised and hosted by the Irish Local Authorities over the course of the ”Decade of Centenaries”, especially as Covid-19 raged across the state. Marking events such as the deaths of local leaders and Mayors such as Cork’s Terence McSwiney and  Limerick’s  George Clancy could have been problematic but instead has proven to be an underpinning of the importance of democracy, something we need to appreciate given the many challenges currently facing democracy across the globe. Balance, evenness, maturity, openness, are all aspects of the approach taken by the Irish local authorities over the past number of years. Basing historical remembrance upon the very communities impacted has been a hallmark, where families from both sides of the conflict have been central to the effort, as occurred in the commemoration in Soloheadbeg which was organised by Tipperary County Council, for example.

Building upon this community-centred approach has seen the rebuilding of inquisitiveness on the many interpretations of local history, challenging long-held views and reminding for most of us that history is multi-layered, deep and for many of us, even if we care not to admit it, intensely personal and complex.

As the decade draws to a conclusion it begins to get into even more challenging commemorations, those of the surrender of the British Imperial Forces, Partition of the island of Ireland, the establishment of Northern Ireland, the Irish Civil War. Even greater resilience of the population across the island of Ireland will be required. The central role played by local authorities across the island will, through their focus on local remembrance, provide the space in which to debate the often obscure reality that is the past.

The focus on commemoration, and not celebration, remains important but certainly despite all the challenges which had to be confronted by local government over the past decade, and indeed century, their leadership remains a critical platform for such memories, further underpinning the relevance of local government to community identity and locality.

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