Introductory comments by the academic director, Felix M. Larkin,
at the Parnell Summer School, 2013-2015
2013: Parnell and Kennedy – Lost Leaders (11 Aug. 2013)
My name is Felix Larkin, and I am the academic director of the Parnell Summer School this year.
When John F. Kennedy addressed the joint Houses of the Oireachtas in June 1963, he referred to Charles Stewart Parnell ‘whose grandfather fought under [Commodore John] Barry and whose mother was born in America, and who, at the age of thirty-four, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country’, he said, ‘so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people towards Ireland”. And [Kennedy added] today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of [the] good wishes of the Irish people towards America’.
The continued mutual goodwill between Ireland and America was very much in evidence earlier this year when we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s historic visit to Ireland, a return to his ancestral homeland. This Summer School is another expression of that goodwill, as we seek this week to explore the place in history of both Kennedy and Parnell – two lost leaders taken from us prematurely: Parnell at 45, Kennedy at 46. I am delighted to welcome you all here today, but I extend a particular welcome to our distinguished guest, Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, who will launch our Summer School – and I now call on the President of the Parnell Society, Professor Donal McCartney, to introduce Dr. Prendergast.
2014: War and Peace (10 Aug. 2014)
My name is Felix Larkin, and I am the academic director of the Parnell Summer School again this year. Our theme is ‘War & Peace’, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – what the historian Barbara Tuckman called the ‘Guns of August’ – and sadly, one hundred years on, in August 2014 the guns of war are still sounding in various parts of the world, and with greater ferocity than ever.
All of us, I suspect, have our very own sense of the First World War – and mine is derived in part from childhood family holidays in the 1960s in Portstewart, Co Derry. The promenade in Portstewart is dominated by a very striking war memorial, and Seamus Heaney – in his elegy for Francis Ledwidge – recalls it from his own childhood holidays in Portstewart:
The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned
Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque –
It all meant little to the worried pet
I was in nineteen forty-six or seven...
But clearly it did mean something to him, since he remembered it so vividly – and it certainly meant something to me in my teenage years in the 1960s, an iconic image of war. Later on in that poem, addressing the ghost of Francis Ledwidge, Heaney writes: ‘In you, our dead enigma, all the strains / Criss-cross in useless equilibrium’ – which, I think, neatly captures the difficulty that we as a nation have had in coming to terms with our collective memory of the Great War and the commemoration of our countrymen who participated in it.
But let me emphasise what we say in our brochure: our Summer School this year is not just another ‘Decade of Commemorations’ event. The programme is not narrowly confined to the First World War, and our intent is to interrogate the past rather than to commemorate it. We will attempt to take a broad look at issues of war and peace generally. I hope the Summer School will provide an opportunity for all of us to reflect on these issues, and perhaps learn a few lessons for the future.
In this spirit, I am delighted to welcome you all here today. But I extend a particular welcome to our distinguished guest, Major-General David O’Morchoe, The O’Morchoe, who will launch our Summer School – and I now call on the President of the Parnell Society, Professor Donal McCartney, to introduce General O’Morchoe.
2015: The French Connection – Ireland and France (9 Aug. 2015)
My name is Felix Larkin, and I am the academic director of the Parnell Summer School again this year. Our theme is ‘The French Connection – Ireland and France’, and it is an opportunity to reflect upon the close associations between our two countries – cultural, intellectual and political. These associations, rooted in our shared love of liberty, find expression today in our common membership of the European Union, but they stretch back through the United Irishmen of the late eighteenth century to the Wild Geese and beyond.
Our focus is mainly on history – as it has been since the inception of the Parnell Summer School in 1991 – but history not just for its own sake, but as source of wisdom for dealing with the present and planning for the future. Historians study the past: we ask what actually happened, how it happened, why it happened, and why it had the effect that it had. We don't celebrate past events – shamelessly, or otherwise. We are neutral observers. And we are uneasy – or we should be uneasy – when faced with State-sponsored jamborees relating to historical anniversaries. The approach that should characterise our work is one of interrogating the past, questioning received orthodoxies and restoring their frail and imperfect humanity to heroes.
For me, the activity of being a historian is well summed up in these words of the late Professor John O’Meara of UCD, taken from his autobiographical volume The singing-masters. I quote:
Yet one goes on, partly for reasons of history: to make known the truth, however little more, about some important figure in the past; to remove from him the imputations, favourable or unfavourable, which successful groups in bolstering their power, in good faith or confusedly or in simple bad faith, attribure to him. This, however small an achievement in itself, participates in the transcending importance of the discovery of truth, which is ultimately one.
In this spirit, I am delighted to welcome you all here today. But I extend a particular welcome to our distinguished guest, His Excellency Jean-Pierre Thébault, the French Ambassador to Ireland, who will launch our Summer School – and I now call on the President of the Parnell Society, Professor Donal McCartney, to introduce Ambassador Thébault.