The year 2012 was like being in the chocolate factory for historians.
So abundant was the range of anniversaries, centenaries, and of other historical events, of national and of local significance, that the appetite for nostalgia was more than fulfilled as the year progressed. Whether it was the centenary of the “Titanic” sinking, the Home Rule Bill or the Ulster Covenant, the year 2012 brimmed with commemorations and reflections.
From the early days of the year it was certain that one event was going to loom over all others and that was the centenary of the sinking of the RMS “Titanic” in April 1912.
The fascination of the Titanic for generations many times removed from 1912 is hard to fathom. Notwithstanding the plethora of disasters – including two world wars – that have happened in the years since 1912, the sinking of the “Titanic” continues to mesmerise the public imagination. Of course it was a great personal tragedy for those who perished.
But the numbers of fatalities on the “Titanic” were small compared to the carnage of the First World War or to the ravages of consumptive diseases which stalked Ireland in the early part of the 20th century. And the sinking of the great ship had little impact on the ways of the world.
Life went on after the loss of the “Titanic” – its Belfast builders Harland and Wolfe continued to launch ships while a steady flow of people continued to board ships to sail across the Atlantic. So why then has the “Titanic” such a fascination for a modern generation?
A possible answer might be found in the appeal which the costume drama has for modern audiences. The “Titanic” story was a kind of sea-going costume drama with all the elements of class distinction from first class to steerage which appeal to people looking from the distance of our modern era. The “Titanic” story and the plethora of commemoration that went with it might make for compelling drama but whether it makes good history is another question over-shadowing, as it did, reflection on other less visual events which nonetheless have a bearing to our present day.
The violent demonstrations reported from Belfast earlier this month over the City Council’s decision to cease permanent display of the United Kingdom flag over Belfast City Hall are an all too real example of an 1912 event which has stark consequences to the present day. The Ulster Covenant of September 1912 was a mobilisation of loyalist political activism in opposition to the imminence of Home Rule for Ireland which would see the country gaining its own parliament for the first time since 1800.
The introduction of a Home Rule Bill in Westminster in April 1912 promised to deliver the Holy Grail for Irish nationalists – the establishment of a parliament in Ireland, the first assembly since 1800 in which Irish people would have a say in how the country was governed.
However the prospect of Home Rule was met with an equal and opposite reaction by the Ulster Protestants who saw the prosperity which they had created in Northern Ireland through the success of the linen and ship-building enterprises being undermined by southern Irish Catholics whose capacity for responsible government was in doubt.
In an effort aimed at protecting at least the six counties of north-eastern Ireland from the dubious ministrations of an Irish parliament the Ulster unionists mobilised an extraordinary campaign which within a few weeks in September 1912 had succeeded in getting 470,000 unionists to sign a declaration that they would resist by any means the imposition of a Dublin government.
The declaration was never put to the ultimate test as by the time Westminster had Home Rule ready to go on the statute book the First World War had broken out and Home Rule was put on the back burner. However it should have been very clear to nationalists in southern Ireland that nearly half a million people were implacably imposed to Irish rule and instead were to insist on maintaining their connection with the British Empire, an insistence in which symbols such as Union Flags were all important. Northern Ireland may have gone through many stages of war and peace since but the Union flag protests of 2012 suggest that the reactionary spirit of the 1912 Ulster covenant has not gone away.
So much for the calamities and the politics of 1912 which were recalled at centenary events during the year. One of the sad duties of an end of year reflection is to remember those who have passed to their eternal reward in the calendar year.
Two loyal friends of this column died in the last quarter of the year. Mrs Mary McNally (neé Sheil) of Rathcoole was a great historian of the families who lived on the boundary of counties Kildare and Dublin in the landscape embraced by Athgoe, Rathcoole and Saggart. Back in the 1930s and 1940s such boundary townlands looked to Naas as their service town and Mary had many memories of the county town in that era. She also had a special connection with one of the great aviation adventures of the era when Colonel Fitzmaurice and two German aviators took off from Baldonnel in 1928 to attempt (successfully) the first ever east-to-west air crossing of the north Atlantic.
Mary was a childhood friend of the Fitzmaurice family and had a clear recollection of seeing the aircraft -- named the Bremen -- being prepared at Baldonnel before its pioneering flight. Mary passed away in October and is sadly missed.
Another friend of this column who passed to his reward was a man who not alone recalled history but was touched by it in a profound way. Zoltan Zinn-Collis was a child survivor of Hitler’s Holocaust which claimed his parents, his brother and one of his two sisters.
Aged five he was found at the liberation Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by Dr Collis, a doctor from Dublin. Dr Collis brought Zoltan and some other German children to Ireland and gave them a new life. Zoltan put his horrendous experiences behind him and trained as a chef – a profession which brought him to Athy where he married and raised a family.
It was only in retirement that he began to talk about the horrors of fascism which had deprived him of a family in his childhood. He visited schools in Co Kildare sharing with pupils his experience of the Holocaust. In March 2012 this column was witness to him holding spellbound hundreds of hard-to-impress students in a big lecture hall in NUI Maynooth with his recollections of one of the defining catastrophes of the twentieth century. Zoltan passed away at his Athy home earlier this month.
Thus with such memories of commemorations and of farewells this column sets its keyboard at rest and closes its file on the year 2012.
Series no: 311
- Liam Kenny