Analysis: from cakes marking the 1916 Rising to a Scent of War candle, some historical merchandise has been colourful to say the least

Commercially produced memorabilia is an inevitable product of large scale commemorative events. From food products to items that may remain in households for years to come, many retailers have seized the opportunity and produced pieces of commemorative merchandise that it may be best to forget.

1916 Rising in cakes

In March 2016, Decobake held a 1916 Edible Art Exhibition in association with Little Lady Bakes in Dunleer, Co. Louth. Bakers commemorated scenes and participants of the 1916 Rising through the medium of sugar art. Cakes included those which depicted a burning GPO, Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford's wedding, a bust of Éamon de Valera, nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell and, perhaps most bizarrely, a representation of James Connolly’s execution complete with soldiers with rifles pointed at a blindfolded rebel tied to a chair. Ah, the sweet taste of revolution.

Michael Collins Irish Whiskey

Named after the Irish revolutionary, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey was sourced at Cooley Distillery in Co. Louth for the US market. Collins was nicknamed "the Big Fellow" and the packaging originally reflected that, coming in a bottle that was difficult to fit on the shelves of bars and whiskey shops before it was forced to be redesigned.

The whiskey features a picture of Collins on his famous bicycle on its label as well as a copy of his signature from the 1921 Treaty. It was launched in December 2006 and was criticised by Fine Gael councilor Tom Sheahan in Collins's native Cork as being in 'poor taste’. Presumably, Sheahan was referring to the branding, rather than the whiskey itself leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

Proclamation Porter

The commemorative alcohol market doesn’t stop there. To mark the 1916 Rising in Wexford, the Arthurstown Brewing Company, founded by brewmaster Kieran Bird and TV chef Kevin Dundon, launched the 1916 Proclamation Porter. The Proclamation Porter is described by as "an old-school Irish stout, such as those brave men and women of Wexford would have known, brewed from our own native grains, grown in the very soil they pledged to liberate". Perhaps this porter would have been more appreciated one hundred years earlier as a means to provide temporary relief from the terrors of the rebellion.

Tricolour fridge

Anyone for the last of the tricolour fridges now? Anyone for the only tricolour fridge? That’s a resounding no, as there was apparently no buyer for the tricolour Smeg fridge available in Arnotts for a patriotic price of €1619 in 2016. The Irish market missed out on this unique piece of commemorative merchandise - the fools, the fools, the fools.

Scent of War scented candle

Ever wondered what the US War of 1812 smelled like? Now, you can have it in your own home. The War of 1812-Scented Candle features a tiny wax White House on its surface, so buyers can even reenact the British army's burning of the White House. The US Capitol, Library of Congress, Supreme Court and Treasury buildings were also burnt, but you’re on your own if you want to reenact any of those events.

The same company sells The Titanic-Scented Candle, which features a tiny wax ship slipping beneath the tiny wax waves after tragically striking a tiny wax iceberg. The selling point or rather, the smelling point, is that it ‘does not smell like: coal smoke, torn iron, or emergency flares. What it does smell like is water’. Just when you thought the description wasn’t ridiculous enough, the sellers insist that ‘if you’re looking for a subtle and delicate scent to enjoy while you quietly contemplate tragedy, then you could not possibly do better than the Titanic-Scented Candle’.

Papal paraphernalia

When Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018, one of the items produced by opportunistic entrepreneurs was an environmentally friendly portable chair for pilgrims planning to attend the papal mass in the Phoenix Park. Veritas, the Catholic bookshop chain who approved the chair, said that it reflected Pope Francis' emphasis on caring for the environment. The chair featured an image of the Pope and was "completely biodegradable" as well as "a great souvenir of a historic day".

Of course, papal visit merchandise is not a new venture in Ireland. Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979 produced an abundance of plates, mugs, rosary beads and ephemera. Not to mention the many souvenir shops in Knock, Co. Mayo who sell anything from holy water fonts to baby bibs all year round, but don’t knock Knock til you’ve tried it.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show in 2018, Pope Francis' trip to Ireland is big business for entrepreneurs looking to capitalise on the pontiff’s popularity

Poppy pizzas

The poppy is the enduring symbol of remembrance of the First World War and is strongly linked with Armistice Day. Lest you forget your dinner on the day, Tesco marked the fallen in salami, olives and green peppers, creating special pizzas decorated with poppies.

Commemorative jerseys

The growing market of GAA merchandise paired with various milestones in the history of Gaelic games and the Decade of Centenaries has prompted a series of commemorative jerseys. Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Wexford have all released jerseys that commemorate people, achievements and historic moments from 100 years ago in a sometimes jarring combination of history and nostalgia.

1916 choclamation

Have you ever wanted to have the hopes and plans of Irish revolutionaries in chocolate form? Well look no further than the choclamation. A product of the 1916 centenary merchandise market, the wrapper of the commemorative chocolate bar included an image of the signatories of the proclamation above a digitised version of the document itself. It’s what they would have wanted, right?

Choclamation Chocolate for Rising Centenary, a step too far? Let us know on 1850 715 815 #liveline pic.twitter.com/j67YCYgOpk

— Liveline (@rteliveline) November 3, 2015

Barack Obama souvenirs

When US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle visited Ireland in May 2011, the country went into commemorative merchandise mode once again. Obama’s ancestral home town of Moneygall was awash with baseball caps, scarves and t-shirts to mark the occasion. A cafe in the village was even renamed Obama Cafe, complete with a life-sized image of Obama and a range of themed items, from table mats to clocks, plates and magnets. You could argue that this may have been over the top for a 24-hour State visit. Still, it could be worse - imagine if a motorway service station was named after him?

One of the primary aims of commemoration is about retaining in the memory or committing to the memory, events, developments and people from the past. It seems from these examples that there are few historic events that escape being commercialised through commemorative merchandise and as such, may pose a threat to authentic commemoration. Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the sale for half price.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ