This is my ‘soap box’ talk from The Souvenir Shop 1916 art exhibition in May 1016
Recently I have been involved in a wonderful art exhibition called The Souvenir Shop, situated on North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1. The Souvenir Shop is a part of the 1916 commemorations and took a unique view on the Rising and the way in which it is remembered. As a part of my work there my colleagues and I each presented a one off ‘soap box’ talk loosely inspired by the exhibition. Here is mine:
For anyone living in or even visiting Dublin this year it would be virtually impossible to not notice the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Uprising. It was incredible to watch the silence that fell on O’Connell Street during the main commemorations as the proclamation was read out. How often is today’s society will you see up to half a million people gathered together in silence, without mobile phones photographing every moment, as so many people connect with their history. But whose history is it?
The 50th anniversary of the rising in 1966 came as Taoiseach Sean Lemass was hoping to both secure Ireland’s place and future within the European Economic Community, whilst also improving relations with Britain and Northern Ireland. At one point he wrote that “the Rising of 1916 belongs to nobody if it does not belong to the people of Ireland. Some of them are proud of the Rising, others would disown it if they could, and there are quite a number . . . who are so indifferent that talk about it bores them. Nevertheless the 1916 Rising is theirs”. Aware of the need to clarify the meaning and relevance of the Rising to an Ireland of the 1960s whilst also honouring the men and women of 1916, was a difficult task.
Even when the government gathered in 1965 to discuss the direction for the golden jubilee they faced criticisms that they had not fully embraced a cross party opinion. Who owned the Rising? Who had the right to decide how it should be remembered and what it should mean when they could never escape the fact that since the momentous events of that Easter week, the six northern provinces had not been included in the new Irish Republic? A form of partition existed on the island of Ireland.
In the event images of a ‘modern’ Ireland that looked forward just as much as back dominated the commemorations. Lemass pushed for peace and harmony to be the defining ideas of the commemorations. However this was easier said than done. Being only 50 years after the event it lived on in memory and family history for many. Remember that it was only a few months before that Nelson’s column had been blown up by the IRA. Republicans were frequently vocal about their feelings of betrayal. This came most from the female relatives of the signatories. The Souvenir Shop is inspired in part by Thomas Clarke, the first of the signatories, newsagents and tobacconist. In 1966 his widow, angered by the description of Pearse as “the first President of the Provisional Government” argued that “surely Pearse should have been satisfied with the honour of commander-in-chief when he knew as much about commanding as my dog”. This feeling was felt by others. On the day of the official commemorations an alternative parade, coordinated by the National Graves Association, was held. It included a much larger crowd which included the sisters of signatory Sean MacDiarmada. As we can see the idea of who is a hero, a martyr, worthy of remembrance is an issue that remains to this day and is perhaps best shown by the candles that are a part of this exhibition, that place Patrick Pearse, De Valera and Bobby Sands, among others on the same shelf. In contrast to this no state sponsored events took place in Northern Ireland. In the end only the nationalist community celebrated the anniversary, who largely saw it in terms of (re)unification.
Although many of the issues that plagued the run up to the 50th anniversary are still present today there were many similarities between the commemorations of 1966 and 2016. In both cases a military parade marched along O’Connell Street, being sure to pass by the centrepiece of the rising, the GPO. Pageants, religious services and art exhibitions were held. Also RTE dedicated much of its schedule to programmes related to, however tenuously, the Rising. Art has always been one of the ways in which people remember, celebrate, interpret and understand their history and its place in their current society. Rita Duffy has approached the Rising from a northern nationalist perspective. Whereas most of the documentaries, books, articles in the Republic have been cautiously celebratory – careful not to upset the delicate peace that currently exists. This exhibition, with its Big Boot of Empire Black and Tan boot polish, Carson’s Marmalade and pink balaclavas takes a different approach.
2016 did see some change of emphasis, most notably in its treatment of women. This year has seen the reintegration of women into the history of the Rising and its aftermath. There is a very famous photograph which shows Pearse officially surrendering to the British. He is viewed from the side, tall in his military uniform and coat. In the original image one can just about make out the legs and feet of a woman stood by his side at this momentous moment. By the time the photograph made it into the papers, the little that could be seen of the nameless woman had been airbrushed out. Almost as though from the start there was a conscious effort to airbrush women out of the story and memory of the Rising. This is something that also marks this art exhibition. In the same year that a woman in Northern Ireland has been prosecuted for illegally purchasing and taking abortion pills the Republic is trying to actively return women to the Rising narrative; though books, documentaries and of course their soap opera drama Rebellion. Here we have another take. The large images of the nurse, barefoot with her hands covered in blood, Kathleen Ni Hooligan bath products and of course Widow Walsh’s sugar coated chocolate pills. This helps to show one thing. That even if you airbrush history, do not teach it in schools or are simply very selective in the information and ideas you use when trying to control and influence the narrative history doesn’t disappear. Ultimately it cannot be avoided. It will always reassert itself.
I came to this with a different perspective again. As you have probably noticed by my accent and ignorance of Catholic saints I am British, or more precisely English. I have studied history throughout school, A Levels and then at degree level. Throughout all of these years of study and research I don’t think the word Ireland was ever mentioned. This is especially strange when you consider the number of times I have had to study Elizabeth I, but at all times the national curriculum was careful to avoid any mention of Ireland, empire or colonialism. Having looked into the subject more closely over recent years history teaching in English and Welsh schools seems to remain as politically correct and almost celebratory as possible. The dark, dangerous and dirty side to the creation of modern Britain is studiously avoided.
When I tell people at home that I am involved in this exhibition I have to explain what it is and why, for example, there is something called “Laundered Diesel” in an art exhibition. Before I came to Ireland I do not think I had ever heard of the Rising, of Patrick Pearse or knew anything of the 16 Men executed at Kilmainham. It was through art first, films in particular, that I started to learn about this history and it is one of the reasons that I believe exhibitions are so important.
Just as the women involved did not simply disappear when they were relegated to the footnotes or history, and the issues surrounding partition did not disappear after the 1921-1922 Treaty was signed. Art is one vital way in which people access and delve into their history. Re-evaluating the things they thought they knew, or perhaps knew nothing of, and reinterpreting their own take on the events that have formed their own society. In general more people are likely to attend and be influenced by an art exhibition than an academic text book and as we continue here in The Souvenir Shop we will continue to see visitors be entertained, challenged and take something away with them.
The Souvenir Shop was created by artist Rita Duffy and Curator Helen Carey.