1916 in Dublin 2016.

A Traveller’s Tale by Historian, Dianne Hall

Image used to promote Mna 1916

Image used to promote Mná 1916

April 2016 was a great time to be visiting Dublin, not only was the weather good, but the energy and enthusiasm in commemorating the events of the 1916 Rising was infectious. While I was not in town for the official events at Easter, I was standing outside the GPO on O’Connell street at 12 midday on 24th April, listening to a reading of the Proclamation as the crowds parted to allow for those re-enacting the arrival of the Irish Citizen Army to reach the doors of the GPO.

This year there have been so many exhibitions, displays, re-enactments of the events of that week in 1916 that it seems impossible that any one person could have gone to all them. I certainly did not even try. However in the week or so after 24th April, I saw some of the major exhibitions as well as several smaller ones, all of which were in their own ways rich and informative, not only of the events of April 1916 but of what the Irish in 2016 want to remember.

To some of the historians and politicians preparing for the commemorations over the past few years, the clamour from feminist activists, historians and women in community groups for recognition of the roles of women in Rising was unexpected. However the push for the inclusion of women in the exhibitions, books, tv dramas, documentaries, newspaper article and public talks was ultimately successful as women featured prominently in all the exhibitions that I saw. Mná 1916/Women of 1916 is an exhibition first held in the Coach House in the grounds of Dublin Castle and is now on tour in regional centres in Ireland. Curated by Sinead McCoole, the author of books such as Easter Widows and No Ordinary women, this exhibition featured panels about the women who were involved from each county. The women’s stories are illustrated with excerpts from documents and pictures of diaries, letters, photos and other artifacts. This style of presentation meant that the diversity of the women was foregrounded and equal weight was given to the many women who did not manage to travel to Dublin for the actual Rising but who were organised and ready in the counties. It was these women who later proved vital in the fight with the British after 1918.  The exhibition was complemented with talks given every day of that week by the curator as she detailed the women’s stories and how they had participated during Easter week and beyond.

Image used to promote the James Stephens exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Image used to promote the James Stephens exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Almost everywhere I turned in Dublin that week there were signs of celebrations and commemorations. From the tricolour bunting and streets signs listing local 1916 participants along Ballybough Rd to the scarves decorated with faces of the leaders sold by street vendors and the huge temporary murals on the SIPTU tower –  the Rising was everywhere. The National Library of Ireland had an exhibition in their foyer based on their archives related to the signatories of the Proclamation. University College Dublin archives reading room, a fascinating place but not by any means on the regular tourist track, had display cases of several valuable diaries and letters from their own collection. As I walked down Kildare St, the windows of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development opened onto a well focused display of the different roles that members of the civil service played in the Rising. The National Gallery of Ireland had a wonderfully imaginative exhibition curated by Brendan Rooney centred around its director during the Rising, James Stephens. Stephens witnessed the Rising as he walked through Dublin streets during Easter Week and his account, The Insurrection in Dublin was one of the earliest eye-witness reports published. The NGI exhibition which ran from February until June, 2016, featured paintings of many of those mentioned in Stephens’ book, such as Douglas Hyde. This along with display cases of letters by Stephens and others as well as a copy of the book made this a very immediate look at how men on the periphery of the action viewed the stirring events happening on their doorsteps.

The basement of GPO itself has been redeveloped into a new permanent exhibition on the Rising – GPO Witness to History. This is a very modern exhibition that incorporates interactive multi media technology as well as up-to-date approaches to museum experiences. Its iconic site gives it a prime position for a permanent place of memory of the Rising. This exhibition, unlike many of the others I went to, has an entrance charge of €10 per adult and it is recommended that visitors book online. Once at the doors, I walked down to what had been the GPO basement into a very large space where there were sections devoted to different aspects of the lead up to the Rising, the events themselves and then a section on the aftermath. Although it is laid out so that visitors can walk through and follow events chronologically, there are no barriers or system to funnel visitors one way only. This means that visitors can double back, take in only parts of the story or spend longer in sections that are interesting. While the non-linear set up can make visiting a little chaotic, as it did the day I visited, it does have the advantage of allowing for a personal journey through the material rather than one that is precisely dictated.

The displays are quite varied and unlike many of the other exhibitions there are many stands and displays with real artifacts rather than photographs. For those who want more detail or to explore some of the complexities that are debated by historians there are a series of listening booths around the edge of the room where videos play on a loop leading historians such of Fearghal McGarry outlining some of these debates. A large section of the exhibition at the back of the room is divided off a little by a huge screen that gives a ‘bird’s eye’ view of a map of Dublin showing all the key flash points and garrisons. The camera swoops down and then shows re-enactments of action based from what I could see on the statements from the Bureau of Military Archives. While this display is not for those suffering from vertigo or motion sickness, it does allow for the words of participants to be heard. One that stood out for me was the rather caustic assessment by Winifred Carney, James Connolly’s secretary, of the debates about strategy that went on in the GPO.

As well as the women combatants, the ways that civilians and children were caught up in the action have been a big part of focus of interest in 2016. The GPO exhibition has a number of displays about the effects on children of the Rising. One of these is aimed at child visitors and is a recreation of the bedroom of a middle class child and then one of the working class child from the Dublin tenements vividly bringing home the stark differences in their lives. Another is the poignant photographs of children who were killed by stray bullets as their parents tried to get them to shelter as the fighting broke out. There is also a display of the letters from his small children to a British soldier killed in the fighting.  From the reaction of the crowds that were visiting this exhibition when I was, it is a success. One American woman was excitedly pointing out to her children where her family members had been during Easter week, while a group of inner city Dublin men were pointing out landmarks and telling each other of their own family stories.

There are two other important exhibitions about 1916 that I visited while I was in Dublin. One is the Proclaiming the Republic exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks. The National Museum of Ireland has the most extensive collection of objects related to the Rising, including the flag of the Irish Citizen Army and several of the original 1916 flags of the Irish Volunteers. This exhibition is more traditional in its format than the GPO exhibition, visitors move along a set path that takes them chronologically from the beginnings of rebellion, through events of Easter week and then onto the aftermath. The flags loom over much of the huge space as do mannequins in the various uniforms. Smaller items – pocket first aid kits, pocket watches, death certificates, photographs, and letters – are all well displayed with enough information in captions to give visitors the context and significance of even the most ordinary object.  Again attention has been paid to details which interest visitors in 2016 – Cumann na mBan, child victims, the widows and children of the executed leaders as well as Irishmen who enlisted in the British Army during World War I, and their families who were not necessarily supportive of the Rising.

If a visitor could only go to one exhibition about 1916 this is the one that I would recommend, for the sheer number and significance of the objects and the thoughtful way that they are displayed. I would also recommend walking up the hill from Collins Barracks and going to Arbor Hill military cemetery where the executed leaders were buried.  The memorial wall and garden here form a quiet contemplative space. The names of the executed and others who died during the Rising are reorded but there is little contextual information, which is appropriate in a cemetery. For this reason it works well to visit the cemetery after the National Museum exhibition.

The leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and then executed at Kilmainham Gaol and this was the last of the exhibitions I visited. I was there on 2 May, the day before the centenary of the first executions. Ceremonies with relatives and government were held from 3 – 12 May and there were fresh flowers and other signs of active commemoration on the day I visited. This exhibition and tour is popular and was sold out for most of the time I was in Dublin, so it is well worth booking ahead online. The only way to see the gaol is on a guided tour that covers the whole history of the gaol from the late eighteenth century onwards. It is a very good tour and takes visitors through the cold and gloomy cells and other buildings. A special point of the tour was in the chapel where we sat while the tour guide told of the wedding that took place there between condemned 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett and his bride Grace Gifford. The cells of the leaders were all pointed out to us in the older part of the building as well as the cells in the ‘newer’ nineteenth century part where those imprisoned for their parts in the later Anglo-Irish war were held. The tour then moves to the stonebreakers’ yard where the leaders were executed in groups concluding with the execution of Séan Mac Diarmada and the terribly injured James Connolly on the 12th May.  This is a sombre bare place that was rightly marked by visitors with the hushed voices appropriate to a graveyard.

This year the exhibition space inside the gaol that visitors enter after the guided tour is dedicated to the 1916 rising. The exhibition displays many letters, documents and artifacts mostly collected from relatives of those who had been imprisoned in this and other gaols for their part in the Irish revolutionary period. There is a copy of the proclamation that Kathleen Clarke, wife of Thomas Clarke, had kept and given to the gaol collection. Others objects include letters, autograph books, diaries, craft made by prisoners out of materials that were to hand. The everyday boredom and brave efforts to keep busy and occupied come through very well here in these objects.

It is too early to give a full assessment of the 2016 commemorations of 1916, as many have said, that will be a task for future historians. However from what I could see Irish public institutions, historians, curators and community groups have used the government funds available for commemorative projects well to showcase the diversity and range of people, beliefs and events that went into this formative event in modern Irish history.

DIANNE HALL

Di teaches Irish History at Victoria University in Melbourne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Links

http://www.ireland.ie/news/mna-1916-women-1916-nationwide-tour

http://www.nationalgallery.ie/Exhibitions/James_Stephens.aspx

 

http://www.gpowitnesshistory.ie/

http://www.museum.ie/Decorative-Arts-History/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/Proclaiming-a-Republic-The-1916-Rising

 

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/dublin/arbourhillcemetery/

 

http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie/

 

 

 

 

The interactive map of the fighting in Dublin – GPO witness to history.

http://www.gpowitnesshistory.ie/

 

 

 

Plaque to the executed Leaders of 1916. Peter Moloney Photography.

Plaque to the executed Leaders of 1916. Peter Moloney Photography.

Plaque to the executed Leaders of 1916. Peter Moloney Photography.

Plaque to the executed leaders, Kilmainham Gaol, photography by Peter Moloney,

http://kilmainhamgaolmuseum.ie/photo-gallery/#jp-carousel-1875