I can’t remember if it’s in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies in which one of Hilary Mantel’s characters alludes to the liturgy of the Eucharist, and uses the word ‘commemoration’. Perhaps it was ‘in my commemoration’, or ‘in commemoration of me’, I can’t recall exactly. The version of the liturgy I’m most familiar with says ‘do this in memory of me’.
Most people in Ireland are well aware that the country is supposed to be engaged in a decade of centenaries, a ‘programme of commemorations’, as the official website puts it, relating to the events that led to Ireland’s independence a century ago. I was wondering about the religious dimension to this. I mean, why bother commemorating all this stuff, and why do it in this way?
The ‘decade of centenaries’ calls to mind a decade of the rosary, but it strikes me as more coincidence than anything. Commemoration, however, in the case of the Mass, has a purpose: to eat and drink in memory of the Last Supper in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit ‘and become one body, one spirit in Christ’. What is the purpose of state commemorations? Let me venture that there is an analogous purpose: to recompose the body politic in keeping with the supposed ideals of the State, that is, to renew the nation-state.
How that recomposition happens, and what those ideals are supposed to be, is a contentious matter. But in so far as State commemorations take place, and are recognised as necessary, then the nation-state is recognised as necessary, and hence renewed. The decade of centenaries, then, ought to be seen as a form of State religion. Its potency derives precisely from the fact that the events commemorated are contentious, and therefore, in the playing out of debates –such as John Bruton claiming that Home Rule legislation should also be commemorated- allow for reconciliation of divergent perspectives within the State, but not against it.
In William Blake’s eyes, ‘State Religion’ was ‘The Abomination that maketh desolate’, ‘the source of all Cruelty’. In The Rebel, Pádraig Pearse, who was influenced by Blake, envisaged the people of Ireland as calling on ‘the dear God that loves the peoples / For whom He died naked, suffering shame’ and then rising, to take what their masters ‘would not give’. Here Pearse consciously identifies the people of Ireland with Christ in a way that anticipates liberation theology in Latin America, where Jesus appears the crucial reference point of the multitude of the poor.
Witness this video of a guerrilla mass in Latin America, where Ernesto Cardenal along with guerrilla fighters interprets the ‘least of these’ passage from Matthew to present Christ as the proletariat, as the judge of nations, and as the people (‘el pueblo’).
In The Rebel, Pearse goes on to assert that Law is not stronger than life, or ‘men’s (sic) desire to be free’. Interesting here is the way Pearse himself became an icon of Irish State religion, in which Law, as any woman in need of an abortion will know, is most certainly stronger than life. To compound the irony, it is this Law that the decade of centenaries, with its programme of commemorations, is intended to uphold.