On 26 January Professor Roy Foster opened our Weinrebe Lecture series with an excellent talk entitled ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history.’ It was a fascinating and engaging presentation that held the audience captivated, so I will begin with a request that everyone who missed it take advantage of the podcast when it is available.
Roy Foster began his lecture by reminding us that the Irish are very good at making saints and this tradition of pious hagiography translated very easily into the way in which lives of revolutionaries were written. Catholicism became a central part of their politics; they were revered as martyrs to their cause and the language used was borrowed from hagiography. Those who fought in the rebellion of 1916 were always going to be remembered as heroes and after 1918 as saints. Following a traumatic civil war Ireland settled down into a deeply conservative environment, the participants could only be written about with reverence, everything else was silenced and as a consequence their lives were immobilised.
Both the timing of the revolution, and those who became involved in the violence came as a surprise to many. Foster argued that the best way to get a clear picture of those who took part is by creating a group biography, focusing on their temperaments as much as ideology. Interpreting their lives before they became saints is the key to understanding how the uprising went from thoughts to actions. As a generation they were not just rebelling against the British State, but also their parents and their values. They were conscious of living at a time of flux. It was not just nationalism that bound them together, but also radicalism, suffrage, secularism and vegetarianism, among other things, which does not fit easily with the Catholic image of sainthood.
Foster explained that for half a century hagiography dominated, in 1966 there was an outpouring of comment and celebration but not scepticism. Behind the scenes, however, things were very different. The Bureau of Military History was recording a lot of the personal memories of revolutionaries. These added extra depth and dimension to their stories, although it did not question hagiography. The 1960s helped to set in motion the questioning of this practice and a rethinking of their lives. It came about as a reaction to escalating violence in Northern Ireland and as a new way of looking at Republican history was growing in Ireland. Leaders were critically examined for the first time. Over the last 2 years the re-evaluation has stalled somewhat in the lead up to the centenary, with a Government concern that Sinn Fein will hijack 1916.
In conclusion Foster argued that group biography is a better guide to reconstructing the revolutionaries’ efforts and youth. He left us with the thought that if the revolutionaries became martyrs, they certainly were not saints.