April 01, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Shane Kenna

Shane Kenna is a Doctor of History. Shane holds a PhD in Modern Irish History from Trinity College, Dublin and has written extensively on the subject of Irish Republicanism. He has a particular interest in Fenianism and the Irish question in the early 20th century.
Shane was born in Dublin and was educated in a working class community in Tallaght, attending St. Dominics National School, later Old Bawn Community School. In 2002 Shane was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin where he studied History and Political Science. Graduating in 2006, in 2007 Shane began a PhD examining the historical evolution of terrorism culminating in a thesis on the Fenian dynamite campaign of 1881-85.

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916?" Shane McKenna:
"I first learnt of the Easter Rising when I was a young child. My family were traditionally Fianna Fail supporters and there was always an awareness of the culture of Republicanism and nationality within the home. The Rising was always seen as something to be proud of and there was a particular emphasis on Patrick Pearse. As a family we would regularly visit Kilmainham Gaol and this inspired me more as I remember being enthralled by the stories of bravery and heroism of that generation. I always associated the Easter Rising with the North and a desire to be independent. In hindsight as a child my interpretation of the Easter Rising was romantic and was not grounded in the complex realities of the time. For instance I always questioned why the North was part of Britain and I could never find an answer. It was only when I attended secondary school that I finally developed an understanding of the complexity of the Easter Rising within the Irish historical psyche."
BJS: "Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" SMcK
"On a personal level the Easter Rising and the ideals stated in the proclamation are important to me. I am very proud of the Easter Rising and believe that equality and fraternity are central to the ambition of the Rising. For too long, however, the Rising was portrayed as either something essentially romantic within the historical narrative, or something to be opposed (due to its perceived relationship to the troubles in the north of Ireland and its potential power to legitimize political violence). For me, when I consider the importance of the Rising, it is important to view the rising within its historical context, and while celebrating the most momentous epoch in modern Irish history, it is important for historians to consider other factors at play within Ireland. 
Of great assistance to this is the Easter proclamation itself, and even a tentative examination of the proclamation reveals a great deal about the Ireland that existed in 1916 and the Ireland that was inherited by the people of this Island between 1921-22. I often consider the lines of the proclamation ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ as the most important ideal that was elaborated 100 years ago. This ideal, which refers to the social and religious positions of Irishmen and Irishwomen encourages the idea that an Irish Republic should guarantee religious and civil liberties, equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens irrespective of creed, social status or, within the modern context, nationality or race.   
As we commemorate the centenary of the Rising, however, I increasingly find that the ideals of the Easter Proclamation are at odds with that of modern Ireland. 100 years after the Easter Rising there are currently 138,000 children in poverty across the state. 46,000 citizens are trapped in rental accommodation organised by vulture funds in addition to an obvious homelessness crisis through the capital city. Ironically, each evening a soup kitchen operates from the columns of the GPO providing relief to the homeless because their government cannot do so. 
As I commemorate 1916 100 years afterwards I will look to the Easter Rising with a sense of pride, but I will be acutely aware of the fact that the state I live in has no connection to the ambitions of the Easter Rising and in many respects has failed to take adequate appreciation and care of all its citizens as encouraged by the momentous act of the Rising and its verbal justification through the Easter proclamation."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" SMcK
"As a teenager I learned about the Battle of the Somme and I discovered that my Great-grandfather William Scully had served in the British Army. This encouraged me to read up about the experience of the War and to imagine the horrors which my Great-grandfather must have experienced."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" SMcK
"For me the First World War represents a tragedy of epic proportions that frankly should not have happened. I believe that the First World War was an imperialistic adventure that was responsible for the death and maiming of millions of decent men, women and children across the continent.   
I was aware of the Battle of the Somme and the tragedy which took place during it. I always associated the battle with my Great-grandfather and remember being told how he would always wear his medals and poppy with pride in Dublin each Remembrance day. His family would plead with him not to wear it as it could bring trouble upon him, but I remember being told he refused to take them off as they were worn in remembrance of his comrades. I discovered that he had been a nationalist and had joined the Irish Volunteers during the Home Rule crisis, but like so many men of his generation had answered John Redmond’s call to enlist in the British Army. While I may disagree with his decision to take part in the war, I am immensely proud of him in my own way. I recognize those Irishmen who fought in the War whether they were there to defend Home Rule or oppose it. While I may disagree with their motives for enlisting for the war, I believe that those people, my Great-grandfather included, were motivated by what they believed was right and just and should be commemorated. But it is important that when we commemorate those who died at the Somme we do not justify the horrific nature of the war but rather use the opportunity of celebrating peace."
BJS: "As an Irish person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island? And as a Irish person, is the Somme important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" SMcK: 
"Being Irish is complex. We are born on this island to an inherited history which interweaves between us all gives us all a unique commonality, despite how we may not realize it as a people. The Rising and the Battle of the Somme are both important to history, however, as a people they do not define us. The Rising is part of a rich heritage found within the peculiar conditions of this country which defines our national sense of identify. I see those who live on this island united through a common history that has come together to make us what we are today and defines us as a people whether we identify as Irish or British. For me as a Dublin man, the Ulster Covenant is as important as the Easter Proclamation. Both helped to shape the Ireland that we live in today and are important within two political traditions that have much more in common than they have against."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" SMcK: 
"I will be commemorating the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising and will be giving some talks about the significance of the rebellion within the context of our history. I decided to avoid the state centenary on Easter Sunday due to the overarching militarism of the event, in favour of the family day that was planned for Easter Monday. Organised by RTE this event transformed some Dublin Streets into 1916 in a carnival atmosphere which incorporated lectures, free public concerts and street theatre. I strongly believe that this is a better way to commemorate the Easter Rising than military parades and political speeches. 
The Somme will not be as big a part of my personal commemoration, but I will remember with pride my great-grandfather during the centenary of the battle. I think I will read more about this momentous battle during the first world war and am eager to study the roles played by Irishmen, nationalist and unionist alike, during what I have always perceived to be, a tragedy."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" SMcK: 
"I have not been entirely happy with the events put forward by the Irish State. I have found at times, that they are bland and tend to be somewhat elitist. Many people share the belief that the government are afraid to speak of 1916 on the basis that they fear, that in discussing the Rising, there could be a legitimization of violence in addition to a realization that the state created in 1922 has no relationship to that proclaimed in 1916. Unfortunately, I feel that the state commemoration of the Easter Rising centenary has been a litany of failure. This was first represented by the O’Donovan Rossa funeral in 2015 which marked the opening of state events related to 1916, followed by the Ireland Inspires Video which failed to mention the Rising, which one historian described as ‘embarrassing unhistorical shit’. Additionally, there has been a growing emphasis on the third Home Rule Bill, specifically how, had we have waited, Ireland would have been granted independence without the retort to violence. Then finally there was the potential destruction of Moore St., an iconic battlefield site associated with the evacuation of the GPO, saved at the last minute by a court ruling against the government. The state handling of the Easter Rising centenary tells us an awful lot about the politics of 2016, but unfortunately this is at the expense of historical reality and provides a great disservice to present and future generations who are/will be eager to learn where they have come from. In feel that in 100 years from now, as historians look back to the centenary of the Easter Rising, they will not look upon it favorably. 
I was very disappointed by Arlene Foster, if I am honest. I feel that she failed to show leadership and unfortunately, through no fault of her own, followed a wrong course of action. Recent comments by Ms Foster about the legitimacy of the rising, in which she describes the Rising leaders as ‘egotists,’ who lacked a democratic mandate, are unhelpful. When I learned that Arlene Foster was not going to attend any 1916 related events, I was reminded of Martin McGuinness and how he met with the British Queen. In no way shape or form do I endorse any political party, but I believe on that occasion Martin McGuinness showed viable leadership and represented a new kind of politics based upon reconciliation. I was delighted to learn that Arlene Foster would attend a conference on the Easter Rising at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This was a step in the right direction, but I remain disappointed that, as First Minister, she declined to attend events which are important to my tradition. I, on a personal level, would have no objection to attending events that are important to her tradition, as I recognize that they are part of my culture as well and furthermore make me the strange thing that I am as an inhabitant of this island."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" SMcK: 
"While Ireland, North and South, has become a more tolerant society, there is still so much work to do. Once hardened and conservative attitudes have changed and have become more liberal amongst our people and this is to be welcomed. As a people I believe we have come along way in 100 years and believe that that as we progress throughout the next few years we can only get better. Cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness are incredibly important to developing our country as an outward looking modern and secular European place.     
For me, the highlight of 21st century Ireland has been the marriage referendum. This was a joyous and momentous event for all on this island and united the majority of public opinion on both sides of the border. It represented for me the triumph of love over narrow conservatism and mindedness. I remember distinctly the pride I had when the results were announced in Dublin Castle, and the crowd simultaneously sang The Soldiers Song followed by a Whole New World, in mass delight. In the north marriage equality remains a contentious issue, however, it is my decided opinion that the majority of our people in the north support marriage equality and are favourable to it, but an element of the political class cannot move to consider such."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" SMcK: 
"I would like my children to grow up in a pluralistic, secular and united country. The Ireland I would desire for them is one that is proud of itself, its abilities and the peculiarities of its people. There are immense changes in our country both north and south and these are to be welcomed. However, change is slow and we must be aware of the importance of equality and social justice while preparing for the future of our country."
BJS: "Please share any further thoughts these questions may have stimulated." SMcK: 
"I think the questions have stimulated an awareness that the people of Ireland, north and south, have more in common than they think. This commonality is related to the unique and rich heritage that interlinks us as an island people. Yes there are a plethora of differences amongst those of us who inherited this island from those who made it what is is today, but ironically it is these historical differences, shaped between 1912-22, which divided us in the past, unite us historically as a peculiar people belonging to this island."

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