Dr. Teresa Breathnach, design historian, considers the nature and means of communicating the ideals that led to the 1916 Rising, the event as it unfolded and responses in its aftermath.
It was no accident that the GPO became the headquarters of the volunteers on Easter Monday 1916. As a cell of empire, it was instrumental in building many of the city’s networks, and in maintaining contact with the rest of the country and beyond. It was, therefore, both symbolic and operationally astute for the volunteers to attempt to control it. In the decades prior to 1916, there had been a host of social, technological and economic developments which had seen the emergence of dramatically new patterns of everyday communication: print, photography, telephone and wireless technology and film. Such technologies of communication were to play key roles in the rise of nationalism, as well as in the planning, realisation of and response to the Rising.
Published: March 4, 2016
Imagined Identities and Everyday Things
Ireland’s visual and material world was already entwined with cultural and political nationalism. It had played a central role in the construction of the imagined community of nation, a felt sense of ourselves as a distinct people, not just a geographical or political entity. The term ‘banal’ nationalism describes the nature of this process, in which everyday interactions become imbued with special significance. In this way, ordinary things become symbolic of extraordinary people or instrumental in momentous events. At first glance, some of these artefacts are unassuming pieces of ephemera, and yet it may be this apparent anonymity that is the root of their power. For example, a ticket stub for a lecture on 'Nationality' given by Patrick Pearse in the months prior to the Rising, tells of the building urgency of nationhood felt across the country. Poignantly, its owner noted Pearse’s view on the reverse: '"They have conceived of nationality as though it were a material thing whereas it is spiritual" – and yet, the impact of these words has been locked into this humble material form by its owner, kept and treasured to live beyond its own moment. These objects are not always in the form of paper documents - clothing was also used to communicate one’s identity then, as now. In the years prior to the Rising, Thomas Ashe and others had themselves photographed in piper’s costume with kilt, shirt and cloak or ‘brat’ embroidered with Celtic designs. Being photographed in Fianna Eireann or Irish Volunteer uniform nailed one’s colours to the mast. As Frank O’Connor observed, nobody could dispute the political allegiances of a man or a boy in a kilt in 1916.
These artefacts display the circumstances of their creation and use in very tangible ways. Their stories are inscribed in the nature of the materials in which they are made, the technologies used to make them, in their choice and use of type and image, and in the marks and annotations made after their creation. They often tapped into recognisable visual codes of the period and were the result of the means at their maker’s disposal under varying degrees of pressure and intensity – some were carefully considered and finely produced, others were made literally on ‘the fly’.
Proclaiming the Nation
The ‘Proclamation’ is perhaps the most familiar of these objects for many of us. Printed in Liberty Hall on the eve of the Rising, it adopts the verbal and visual codes of officialdom – this is not just a ‘poster’, or a ‘notice’ or a ‘bill’, but uses the language and layout of an authoritative statement. Rather than inconspicuously drawing something to the attention of its readers, it proclaims its presence as a legitimate authority. Using a hierarchy of information, its makers emphasised visually those words and phrases that underline this status: ‘Poblacht na hEireann’ and ‘The Provisional Government’ build visually to the crescendo of the phrase ‘Irish Republic’, shouting loudest in capital letters. One can also see the unevenness of the impression and improvisation in the use of odd letters that tell of it being printed in two halves and with imaginative solutions to a lack of printing type. The wording itself is a carefully considered manifesto, but its visual form clearly suggests a document that could not have been fully planned out in printing terms, communicating the sense of speed and confusion in which the whole operation took place. Over time, both the original and its later reproductions have become iconic, often read as visual rather than verbal confirmations of identity, an unintended consequence of their status.
Spreading the Word
It has been observed that newspapers become part of the theatre of the nation. The purchase of a daily newspaper was already a habitual reaffirmation of identity, but in the Ireland of the 1880s and 90s, there was a particularly marked increase in newspapers that were nationalist in their outlook. This confirms the close relationship between the press, local life and the rise of nationalism long before the Rising itself took place. Other newspapers were associated with communicating the views of officialdom. This occurred against a wider backdrop of changing conceptions of ‘news’ and the way it looked, and also developments in the speed with which it could be received and reproduced.
News of the Rising first broke internationally in America, via the wireless station on Valentia Island. This is remarkable, given that the station was already carefully controlled by the authorities in the context of world war. Sympathetic staff at Valentia sent a coded message to John Devoy’s home in New York via the local post office. John Devoy, leader of Clann na Gael, was founding editor of The Gaelic American which first reported the news, making it impossible for authorities to suppress it any longer.
One cannot help but be struck by the satellite view these newspapers give us of the Rising. News reports of it are interwoven with accounts of the First World War, events of localised importance and adverts for shoe polish and cigarettes, becoming a collage that allows us to traverse both the momentous and the mundane of that moment in history. In this context, newspapers were active participants in the drama of the 1916 Rising as it unfolded. One hundred years later, they still offer us multiple perspectives of the event.
Of course, newspapers were not the only means of spreading the word. Written and spoken messages were also important. Dispatches and messages of various sorts were delivered at great personal danger. The accounts of Sean McEntee, Christopher Brady, Bridget Breathnach and Kitty O’Doherty, for example, all illustrate the web of connections underpinning the movement and which allowed for communication of this sort to occur. Postcards, letters and diaries give us very personalised and immediate insights into the events from other perspectives. C. Thomas, wrote to Miss Carrothers in Enniskillen of their “lively times” during the Rising in Dublin, remembering to tell her of the “lovely weather”, whilst in his diary the stained glass artist Michael Healy asked “What will the outcome of it all be?”
Remembrance and Memorialisation
The commemoration of the Rising began almost immediately. Tapping into a long tradition, song was a powerful story-teller, carrier of emotion and means of remembrance. The words of the ballad Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week, written by Maria Giddons, were based on John Kells Ingrams' earlier The Memory of the Dead otherwise known as Who Fears to Speak of '98, written to honour the 1798 Rebellion. The layering of these events are also reflected in a version of the song published in 1916, which pairs illustrations of a 1798 pikeman and a 1916 volunteer to frame portraits of those killed or executed after the Rising. By the time of its first anniversary, these images had become iconic. This and other material and visual expressions of identity were to help fuel the drive for independence that followed. Memorial cards for those killed in action or executed were reproduced en masse, augmenting an already accepted form with their photographic portraits, verse or ornament. Other commemorative objects included posters, reproductions of the proclamation or booklets that included imagery of our own ‘Ypres on the Liffey’. Visual and verbal messages in the public domain went on to become a part of personal recollection and remembrance in many scrapbooks and albums, invested with another layer of emotional intensity. It was perhaps the easy availability of such items that made it possible to knit together private and public responses, helping to form events that were yet to come.
As new ways of gathering and sharing information become available to us, there is always the promise that some hidden nugget of knowledge will emerge. The objects digitised here played a role in both extending and legitimising the ideas at the heart of the Rising and the actions of those opposed to it. They visualised differing perspectives on the possibility of change and made solid the sacrifices made in its pursuit. As new ways of looking at them emerge, they reveal the interweaving of ordinary and extraordinary lives lived in revolution.
Author deatils for Dr. Teresa Breathnach: https://iadt-ie.academia.edu/TeresaBreathnach