Material Culture and 1916
By Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück
Material culture usually means objects, spaces and ways of interacting with the world; it can involve architecture, artefacts, rituals or ways of moving the body. Studying the material culture of a particular time period or event such as the 1916 Easter Rising can help us understand the role of objects in expressing ideas about identity, aspirations and memory. Important material culture of the Rising includes key objects associated with the rebellion such as the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, museum displays that communicate particular perspectives, the use of particular styles on objects associated with the event and rituals of commemoration that present ways of remembering the Rising.
The key objects of the Rising
Among the objects associated with the Easter Rising, the most iconic include uniforms, flags and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. As a rebellion involving different organisations including the Irish Volunteers, Fianna Éireann, the Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan, there was variation in the military dress of the participants, with specific uniforms designed for each group. For the Volunteers, this involved a standard tunic with rolled collar, dark green shoulder straps and pointed cuffs, brown leather bandolier and white canvas haversack. However, uniform was not compulsory other than for officers, and many participants improvised elements of their dress, deviating from the official uniforms. In addition, some combatants changed from uniform to civilian clothing in the course of Easter Week to better evade detection. Such improvisation and transformation made the image of those fighting in the Rising particularly striking to militants in other jurisdictions, for example by Breton separatists.
Various flags were flown from buildings during the course of the Rising including a number of Irish tricolours, a flag with ‘Irish Republic’ emblazoned on it and the ‘Starry Plough’ banner. The latter was designed and made for the Citizen Army, the original captured by the British during the Rising but now in the National Museum of Ireland. At least two green white and orange tricolours reportedly flew from the roof of the GPO during the Rising. This was first mooted as a potential national emblem by the Young Irelanders who brought a silk tricolour from France in 1848. While prominent at various occasions for nationalist display such as the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, it was by no means fixed as the definitive flag of Irish Republicanism before the Rising, although the suffragette Women’s Freedom League’s use of a green white and gold tricolour in the years before the Rising suggests a range of influences on its adaptation.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic is understood as the founding document of the Irish state. It was created in the basement of Liberty Hall on a Wharfdale Cylinder Press with type commandeered from West’s of Capel Street. The compositor Michael Molloy later told how James Connolly said the document should have the appearance of ‘an auctioneer’s notice’. Due to an incomplete set of type, it was printed in two halves with a distinct gap that varied from copy to copy. Limitations also led to improvisation – for example, letters from other typefaces are sprinkled throughout the document, and the ‘E’ of the word ‘THE’ in ‘TO THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND’ was formed from an upper case ‘F’, the foot reputedly from sealing wax. Printing approximately 1,000 copies was time-consuming, with the work only completed at midnight on Easter Sunday night. The form of the lower half was left on the press, and when the British military took over the building, they printed a number of copies of this ‘half-proclamation’, including one used as evidence in the court-martial of Seán MacDermott. The wording of the Proclamation has been reproduced in many formats – a particularly celebrated example is by the stone-carver Michael Biggs at the 1916 memorial in Arbour Hill. Copies of the original communicate the haste and daring of its making so directly that it seems to communicate the nature of the Rising more fulsomely than almost any other object.
National identity and the Rising
In the years preceding the Rising, the emergence of cultural nationalism had led to an interest in exploring and valorising a distinctively ‘Gaelic Irish’ past. Embracing the aesthetic language of the Celtic Revival was a way of expressing patriotic fervor: members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann wore brooches inspired by the Early Medieval Tara brooch, while a family photograph shows Thomas MacDonagh wearing a kilt and tunic – an early-20th century interpretation of the brat and léine banned by Henry VIII almost five hundred years earlier. The motifs of the Celtic Revival helped to cast the events of the Rising itself in a particular light: memorial cards for the dead leaders were framed with Celtic interlace, linking those involved in what had initially been an unpopular rebellion with broader concepts of national identity and shared cultural heritage.
The autograph books and craftwork made in prisons and internment camps in the years following the Rising drew on a similar range of visual references: bone crosses made at camps such as Frongoch in North Wales mimicked Early Medieval high crosses, although newer emblems such as the tricolour also became firmly incorporated into the symbolic repertoire through the production of items such as macramé belts and woolwork table-centres in green, white and orange. Even the Proclamation itself has been reworked to make it visually more ‘Irish’, with later re-designs such as those by Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press using a Gaelic face that is dramatically different from the more conventional Roman font of the original.
Remembering the Rising
Objects are often used as a way to remember individuals or events. In the aftermath of the Rising, both commercially-produced and home-made souvenirs were utilised, including a set of lockets containing images of the executed leaders, now in the collection of Kilmainham Gaol Museum. In addition, both official and unofficial commemorative events marked the anniversary of the Rising. Different sites became focal points, most significantly Arbour Hill, where 14 of those executed had been buried in a quicklime pit, and Glasnevin Cemetery, the location of much nationalist display and ceremony since the mid-19th Century. In the aftermath of the Civil War, competing commemorative rituals were held at both places, and throughout Ireland.
In 19th-century Europe, museums were places of education and improvement – ends achieved by contrasting the ‘primitive’ contents of ethnographic collections with the silver, porcelain and artwork of ‘civilised’ and industrial nations. Within this remit, and while Ireland remained part of the British Empire, there was little space for the creation of a national narrative. After independence, however, there was growing interest in collecting and displaying the ‘relics’ of 1916, although to begin with, the impetus for this came as much from the public as from museums themselves: the first 1916 exhibition held at the National Museum of Ireland was initiated and organised by Nellie Gifford-Donnelly, then secretary of the 1916 Club, to coincide with the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in 1932. After this, the National Museum began an active and sustained policy of collecting objects relating to 1916, and the Rising became a permanent feature of its exhibitions: with their emphasis on flags, uniforms and guns, the 25th anniversary exhibition of 1941 and the 50th anniversary exhibition of 1966 played a key role in bolstering official histories of the nation.
Yet it is clear that what speaks to the public is often more intimate and personal objects: the felt baby shoes made by Kathleen Clarke while she was imprisoned in Holloway jail or James Connolly’s bloodstained shirt have immediate emotive power. Many of the objects in the National Museum’s Easter Week collection were gifts from members of the public – mementoes that speak of the potency of personal relationships and bear witness to the sensory dimensions of memory: a father’s cap, for example, or a grandfather’s autograph book. This is perhaps why the exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol, Last Words, is so powerful: it uses the commonplace possessions of the executed leaders to communicate the fragility and humanity of these men.
Now museum collections are being used to tell different histories. Although museums in Northern Ireland tended to avoid the topic of the Rising from its foundation through the ‘Troubles’, a Christmas card (designed by George Irvine, a Protestant and member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood) recently acquired by Fermanagh County Museum is one of a variety of items relating to the Rising that provide opportunities for difficult, contentious and complex histories to be addressed. Here, the power of objects lies not in their use as ‘evidence’ but as pivots around which different understandings of the Rising can be explored and discussed. The toffee axe featured on the blog The Cricket Bat that Died for Ireland, for example, was stolen from a Dublin sweetshop in the looting that took place during Easter 1916; now part of the National Museum’s collections, it speaks eloquently of a wholly different, and less easily celebrated, aspect of the material culture of the Rising.
The centenary of the Rising offers an opportunity to more deeply contemplate just how official and unofficial remembrance of the past has been mediated, and central to such contemplation are objects, spaces and images.
Lisa Godson and Joanna Brück are co-editors of Making 1916: Material and Visual Culture of the Easter Rising (Liverpool University Press, 2015).