1916 Commemoration Seminar in Perth

Flyer - Visions Past PresentA report on Perth’s Conference to mark the centenary of the Rising by Frances Devlin-Glass

The Perth Australian-Irish Heritage Association ran a superb conference on the weekend of 20-31 July 2016, at Notre Dame University in Perth. This Easter Rising commemorative event was supported by the Embassy of Ireland and is the final in Perth’s series of commemorative events, following on a highly successful cabaret style concert earlier in the year.

Tony Bray was an elegant MC, seeding each session with titbits gleaned from the contemporary press about the Rising. The audience came to  look forward to these piquant details, to reports on whether or not it came from the penny (=posh) press, or farthing press, further down the economic scale. All sorts of ephemera were covered, from a horse race that failed to pay a dividend because only one horse finished, to more tragic stories, like that of the baby that was shot in the eyes, or the dangers that journalists on foot and bicycles exposed themselves to to cover the events of the week that changed the nation.

Marty Kavanagh, the Honorary Consul in Perth, gave a very  thoughtful account of growing up in Cork in an era in which one became desensitised to violence and audience responses suggested this was not his experience alone. He talked of the trauma of undoing the complex economic interdependencies of the UK and Ireland, and of the soldiers returning from the front who were denied jobs in the Public Service. He talked realistically of the gap between the Republic that people desired and what they got, the bleakness of the deValera era,  and speculated on what might have been had Michael Collins’ pluralistic polity been implemented. For him, Ireland’s joining the European Union was the making of the Republic.

The programme was comprehensive and broad-ranging. Anna-Rose Shack spoke about what commemorative events like those staged in Dublin and elsewhere around the world can achieve and noted the plurality of voices and positions that have been progressively articulated  in connection with the centenary. She argued that such public testimony  can shape the future as well as redress gaps in the record of the past. Denis Bratton, the President of the Perth Australian-Irish Heritage Association gave a very engaging account of growing up in Armagh, not only in the shadow of two competing cathedrals dedicated to St. Patrick but also in a Protestant/Catholic family. It was a grainy account of his father’s stratagems for surviving as a Protestant war- hero, member of the A-Specials (reserve policemen, not to be confused with the B-Specials) and player of a Lambeg drum (and perhaps of the Orange Order, of which he remained silent). His Mother was the sister of an IRA operative, so there must have been times when negotiating the border was difficult, but silence was the best defence, it seemed.  There was a quiet reticence in Denis’s  account that one felt had been probably learnt from his father.

Anne McAnearney talked about women in the Rising and began her story in the era of the Ladies Land League in the 1880s, run by Parnell’s sisters. This was an aspect of first wave feminism that was new to me. The LLL became necessary when the male leaders of the Land League were imprisoned over boycotts. What surprised Anne was that it was subsequently disbanded and it’s hard to know how the men achieved this, given the proactivity of the women. Anne told me afterwards that it caused a permanent rift in the family.  From there she plotted the increasing prominence of women in politics in the Gaelic League, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army, in which they held positions of authority and for which they received military training.

Val Noone gave two papers, one in which he argued that the Easter Rising changed the shape of politics in Australia long-term. He made clear how most contemporary responses, even among the most Irish-identified, initially were strongly anti-Rising, favouring Redmondite Home Rule to outright rebellion, and how that changed over time. He felt that the Rising was not definitive, and queried the idea that it was in fact a sectarian vote,  but argued that it was rather a catalyst to the No-vote in the referenda in Australia. He said:

Most Irish Australians were opposed to conscription on classical working-class grounds before the Rising: they were going to vote No anyway. … Key ingredients were the extent of the bitterness and division caused by lower wages and rising food prices. However, the major historical ingredient and driving force was the lamentable and cursed Great War.

The second paper was on whether the Rising could be considered a Just War. Unhappily I had to leave mid-way, cursing my bad management,  to catch a plane back, so I look forward to hearing what the assembly concluded. His extensive handout canvassing issues was much appreciated.

Frank Murphy, coming from a background in radio and media studies, gave a stirring account of the two very different men who collaborated to make the Rising documentary film, Mise Eire: George Morrison, the cinematographer and film editor, and John Reddy, better know by his gaelicised name Sian O’Riada who was responsible for its stirring sound-track. The inside story of this collaboration was fascinating. What was remarkable about George Morrison’s achievement is that he had so little footage to work with (much more has become available since, and the release of Pathé footage recently has hugely augmented that), and the effects he was able to achieve with montage and panning across still images to create the illusion of movement.  His influence was Eisenstein, and he created an epic film under very straightened circumstances by dint of investment of effort and conviction of the worth of the project. The paper truly put Morrison on the map.

Dennis Haskell, an academic and poet, gave a nuanced account of Yeats’s Rising poems, especially Easter 1916, the poem originally written for private circulation. He demonstrated how they developed in intensity and equivocation and gravitas as he wrote himself into the realities of the modern world. His preoccupation with the Rising lasted the whole of his writing life.

Angeline O’Neill argued strongly for the uses of Children’s Literature in prosecuting new and more multi-stranded narratives of nation by giving examples from prize-winning children’s writers, Siobhan Parkinson and and Gerard Whelan. She demonstrated that modern kids’ books were more likely to require readers to question positions and explore the ambiguities of historical narratives.

Frances Devlin-Glass gave two papers, one on Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, and the other on Joyce and the Rising. She argued both writers were highly subversive of the nationalist narrative, and that Doyle attempts imaginatively to occupy the vantage-ground of the Irish Citizen Army and to give voice to the socialist tradition that was occluded after the Rising. Joyce takes a different track in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses in critiquing both nationalism and physical force politics, but glories in the cultural heritage and uses comic version of ancient texts to ask questions about the reification of martyrdom and to press for a less monocultural and more inclusive narrative of the nation.

The Conference was the resounding success that it was largely because the participants were so keen to exchange knowledge and were so well-read about the events that were under scrutiny.  The Conference Dinner at Chez Pierre allowed the group to kick back and engage in more relaxed exchanges over a very delicious meal.