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Column: Yes, centenaries are tourism gold but let's not forget our past for a quick buck

Tour guide John Gibney says Ireland should recognise the events being marked over the coming years as vital parts of our heritage, and not just as opportunities for tourism.

John Gibney

Should Irish businesses occasionally fly the Union Jack to cater for the sensibilities of British tourists?

This was one suggestion contained in a forthright report on tourism in Dublin published last year which addressed the alarming decline in British visitor numbers in recent years.

The Union Jack is a flag that many Irish people have a problem with. The Cross of St George and the Saltire get aired throughout the year, especially during the Six Nations tournament, but these lack the imperialist connotations of the union flag and are naturally easier to swallow.

We tend to fly quite a number of national flags, with one very obvious (and understandable) exception.

It is a thorny issue, made all the trickier by being raised on the cusp of the forthcoming decade of centenaries that technically starts this year.

Tourism can get us out of our present discontents

Between now and 2023 we can expect to hear about the anniversaries of (at the very least): the sinking of the Titanic, the Home Rule crisis, the founding of the Ulster Volenteer Force and Irish Volunteers, the 1913 Lock Out, the First World War, the Easter Rising, the battle of the Somme, the rise of Sinn Fein, the First Dáil, the War of Independence, partition, the foundation of the Free State, the British withdrawal from the twenty-six counties, and the Civil War.

Ireland’s history and heritage does, at some level, have a role to play in attracting visitors. And within that, our somewhat troubled relationship with Britain rings a bell for many, if not most. In this light, it might seem a tad ironic to start flying the Union Jack again at precisely the time when we are supposed to be remembering the events that got rid of it in the first place.

There are two key issues here. One is the renewed emphasis on tourism as a business proposition to get us out of our present discontents. The other is how the forthcoming decade of centenaries beginning this year might be a part of it. After all, it not just business that is at stake; these events have a meaningful role to play in terms of promoting some kind of mutual understanding, and not just inside Ireland.

Feathers will be ruffled; people will be offended

In a recent speech in London, Enda Kenny stated that the centenaries would be celebrated with ‘historical accuracy and mutual respect’. That is as it should be. But we must be wary of what that might mean in practice. It would be an appalling travesty just to settle on some kind of anodyne agreed history that ruffles no feathers, or to come up with an unofficial agreement that one side can take, say, the Easter Rising while the other can have the battle of the Somme.

The reality is that these events are all part of a package.

The Easter Rising was as much a product of the First World War as the Somme. Equally, if the Easter Rising is not seen in some quarters as anything to celebrate, then neither should be the foundation of the UVF in 1913; and after all, they got the ball rolling.

The reality is that the forthcoming centenaries cannot avoid offending everyone at some point. So nobody should take the easy options of confirming everyone in their prejudices by trying not to upset anyone, and then pawning this half-baked rubbish off on all-and-sundry who set foot here.

Although it’s tempting…don’t rant about the British

One should, when explaining Irish history to tourists, avoid the temptation to embark upon an anti-British rant. Because it would be far too easy. One cannot avoid the appalling record of the British state in Ireland in any such explanation. So there is no need to lay it on thick, and to use Irish history as a stick to beat innocent British tourists with.

Nobody with a stake in this – be it ordinary citizens, academics, or tourism professionals – should, if they devote any time to these centenaries, go down the lazy road of pandering to any kind of prejudices: whether from the island of Ireland or anywhere else.

That does not mean that we should not attempt to face the facts about the years between 1912 and 1923.

Amidst the breathless commentary that accompanied the Queen’s visit last year, it seemed to be forgotten that one of her first official engagements was to respectfully lay a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance. It says a lot that the UK’s head of state would recognise Irish aspirations and the struggle for independence; a struggle for independence from her predecessors, and one which involved organisations with names such as Irish Republican Army.

In that light, perhaps an ‘occasional and public display’ (as suggested) of the UK flag is something that we can occasionally swallow.

The next ten years will see the centenaries of the some of most well known events in Irish history. During this recession, with tourism earmarked for growth, that potentially presents a golden opportunity for the tourism industry. But the commercial imperative should not overshadow the fact that these events are a vital part of our heritage; they have an importance above and beyond whatever is left of our economy. They should not be sold short for either a quick buck, or to spare anyone’s blushes.

We can explain our past in all its messy complexity without boring anyone to tears.

And we should be able to understand it ourselves without flinching.

But we need to make sure that we get the facts right. Visitors to this country might find our history and heritage all the more interesting for that.

John Gibney works on the award winning Historical Walking Tours of Dublin: www.historicalinsights.ie

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John Gibney

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