Jason McElligott, Director of Marsh's Library, writes about Changed Utterly?, a new online exhibition which traces the experience of minorities during the Irish Revolution.
Founded in the Liberties of Dublin in 1707 by an Anglican clergyman, Marsh’s Library was widely associated in the popular mind with the Union between Britain and Ireland. During Easter Week 1916, its location beside Jacobs’ biscuit factory and Kevin Street police station meant that its treasures were in real danger of being destroyed. Some of the most striking items in ‘Changed Utterly?’ are the books hit by rifle and machinegun fire during the Rising.
These objects help to explain the severe antipathy of the local civilian population to the Jacobs’ garrison. The men and women within the factory were bemused by the ferocity of the verbal and physical attacks upon them by local women. They saw these civilians as traitors or apolitical anti-national elements.
Yet, the 'bullet books' suggest it is probably more accurate to view those women as 'salt of the earth' working-class Dubs who were unhappy - to put it mildly - that they and their children had been placed in mortal danger. Throughout 1916 the emotions traced in Changed Utterly? are those of fear, anger, and confusion. In continuing the story through the War of Independence and the early months of the new state, the exhibition begins to focus on the ways in which people were forced to make decisions about their personal identities and allegiances.
One intriguing snapshot is afforded by the case of William Byrd from Glasnevin, who paid numerous visits to Marsh's Library during the Civil War.
Byrd first signed his name and address in the visitors’ register in English, but from December 1922 he experimented with several forms of his details as Gaeilge. It was only in June 1923 that he found a formulation that he was happy with: Liam MacBird of Glas Naeidín. It took him a while, but Wil(Liam) eventually found both an identity and a place in the new state.
The widespread sense of fear during the Civil War is suggested by a curious incidence on the front steps of Marsh's Library. In 1923, a young man named Patrick O’Connor came to read in the library but found his way barred by a cleaner on the front steps brandishing a mop in a threatening manner.
If the stories in 'Changed Utterly?' sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, we can at least take pride in the fact that there is no longer anything about this traumatic period which is taboo.
O’Connor later recounted how the cleaner initially refused him entry because she feared he had come to burn the library. It was only after he took off his trench-coat and fedora hat (the unofficial uniform of the gunman) and showed her that he was not carrying a weapon or flammable materials that the brave woman allowed him to cross the threshold.
O’Connor’s experience speaks to the fear that an institution associated with a minority church could be subject to arson. This fear was in no way irrational in light of the 'burnings’ across the country during the Civil War.
There was an honourable tradition of involvement in the independence movement by men and women from backgrounds as diverse as Stella Solomons (Jewish), Bulmer Hobson (Quaker), and Sean O'Casey and Sir Roger Casement (Church of Ireland). It would be untrue to suggest that the Irish Revolution was sectarian. Yet, sectarian incidents did occur during the Revolution, and many members of minorities did have experiences which did not chime with the ideals of the Proclamation.
This is a very difficult topic which it will be necessary to address with sensitivity when Ireland comes to mark the centenary of the internecine strife of the Civil War. If the stories in Changed Utterly? sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, we can at least take pride in the fact that there is no longer anything about this traumatic period which is taboo.
This exhibition is a testament to the vibrant nature of Irish democracy, to society’s willingness to engage with historical facts, and our ability to envisage a future which is neither imprisoned nor defined by the past.