A brief reflection on commemoration, 1916-2016

Commemoration is an act performed by the living for the living. Despite the apparent focal role played by the dead, by definition, being dead, they have no say in how they are remembered or why. It differs from the act of remembering, since remembering is often an unintended, involuntary action prompted by the strength of an emotional legacy of past experiences. Commemoration, then, is really a conscious forcing of memory, using the dead to convey a particular message to the living.

The legacies of a century’s struggle to restore a republic founded on the same principles as 1916 is such that there is no shared physical space that acknowledges all Belfast republicans who have died during that same struggle. Those who proclaimed a republic in 1916 embraced a shared aspirations over their own particular differences. This blog conventionally focuses on the history of Belfast republicanism in the period up to 1970, but in the absence of a shared physical memorial, I have incorporated those named, by various organisations, as having died as a result of their republican activities, into a single list to act as a virtual memorial.

Typically, a list such as this would be described as a ‘roll of honour’, but that would not adequately reflect the complex emotional resonances of incorporating all those named into a single unified list, with its attendant implication that their shared republicanism might transcend other divisions. For that reason, it is, instead, given as a ‘list of the dead’, deliberately opening up a greater range of readings, reflections and ambiguities.

Even such a list, though, is still unsatisfactory. It gives no acknowledgement to the contribution of those many others who gave of themselves, subordinating their own hopes, futures, health and well-being to the pursuit of a republican ideal. To some, the list will be meaningless outside the wider context of the names of all those who died or were injured during a century, and more, of conflict. Within its own terms though, it is intended to be a comprehensive list of Belfast’s republican dead, 1916 to 2016.

The virtual memorial can be viewed here.

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