Remembering the Rising

Portals to an Imagined Past: Remembering the Rising 1916 - 2016

Published: June 14, 2016

Dr. Róisín Higgins, Senior Lecturer in History, Teeside University, England considers a variety of material objects, from buttons to buildings and everything inbetween, that provide a portal to an imagined past by documenting the ways in which the events of Easter Week 1916 have been memorialised and commemorated, both in the public sphere and in more private ways, over the last century.

The significance of the Easter Rising in Irish history owes as much to how it has been remembered as it does to the original event. The memory of 1916 has been transmitted through stories, objects, rituals and songs; through state commemorations and in more furtive, unofficial commemorative gestures. It has been used very effectively by a variety of groups to assert legitimacy or to challenge authority. In representing a moment of possibility, the idea of the Rising offers a powerful imaginative space into which can be projected the hopes and disappointments of Irish society. With each commemoration there are echoes of previous demonstrations and anniversaries so that the event operates as a palimpsest; revealing an ongoing, multi-layered negotiation with the present through the past.

In its planning and as it unfolded, the central participants of the Rising showed an awareness about how they might be remembered and provided mementos and souvenirs for the future. They offered what was to hand including buttons, rosary beads and watches. These were personal items which had become political; ordinary things imbued with new meanings. Michael O´Hanrahanś sisters framed and inscribed the buttons given to them by their brother in his cell during their last moments together. Relatives of those who were executed acted as curators and protectors of the memory of the Rising in the days and weeks ahead. Everyday items such as a key belonging to Joseph Plunkett; Con Colbertś cap; Patrick Pearseś sword stick and a pocket watch belonging to Seán MacDiarmada have become historical artefacts: symbols of what was won and lost. The blood-stained undershirt in which James Connolly was executed is an intimate object which now belongs to the public having been given to the National Museum by his daughter Nora. As a vivid reminder of his death it is now an object inscribed with the idea of Connolly’s sacrifice. These material things have become portals to an imagined past, replete with emotional and cultural understanding.... 

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The Easter Rising was situated within recognisable historical, cultural and religious traditions and this is reflected in the ways in which it has been remembered. The executed leaders were depicted as Catholic martyrs in the days and weeks that followed their deaths. Masses were held across the country to mark the executions and religious services were an important part of successive commemorative programmes nationally and internationally. Tethering the Rising to Catholic imagery was a way of making it more easily identifiable to the majority of the Irish population and of stabilising its meaning within a familiar tradition.
The writer Stephen McKenna remarked that Patrick Pearse´s ideal Irishman would have been ´a Cúchulainn baptised´. Such inter-mingling of the religious and mythological to convey an abstract idea of heroism became prominent in many representations of the Rising. Yet the most obvious example - Oliver Shepherd´s statue of Cúchulainn, unveiled in the GPO in 1935 -showed how commemorations of the Rising are rooted in the political context in which they take place. Such was the division in the country over the legacy of the Rising that members of the Opposition, including W.T. Cosgrave and John A. Costello, refused to attend the unveiling ceremony and some Republicans accused de Valera, who was Taoiseach at the time, of playing politics through memorialisation.
The Easter Lily also underlines the ways in which different groups competed over ownership of 1916. Introduced in 1926 by Cumann na mBan, the Lily was regarded as a less compromised symbol than the tricolour which, it was believed, had been corrupted by its association with the partitioned state. Cumann na mBan publicity material explained that the men of 1916 had ‘raised the banner of complete separation from England, and the wisdom of their demand united all the people of Ireland. That banner has been basely lowered. In the Easter Lily it is raised again.’ The Lily was worn in opposition to the state and as an alternative to its flag. It was a subversive symbol which was used by Republicans across the island to challenge the northern and southern jurisdictions, and is a reminder that the message of the Rising cannot be entirely controlled by politicians. It is also a reminder that the memory of Easter week has been disruptive and potentially explosive at various times in its history.  
The Rising is a heavily narrated event. The records of the Bureau of Military History, Military Pensions applications, letters and diaries have left hundreds of accounts of the revolutionary period. The launch of Telefís Éireann in 1960 provided a further medium through which to collect memories, and the national broadcaster began the process of recording interviews with survivors of the Rising as the golden jubilee approached. Often during the fiftieth anniversary there is a powerful sense of the original event’s transition from living memory to shared or cultural memory, as its participants grow older. The impulse is therefore to stage vivid performances of commemoration in defiance of what will be forgotten. As time passes, the responsibility for remembering shifts to younger generations which then create their own meanings and recollections.
Memories of the Easter Rising have been stored in words, objects and deeds. Some have lain dormant, to be retrieved when Irish society can accommodate the stories they tell. These memories operate as messengers from the past that can both unsettle and reassure in the present. In the decades after 1916, the Rising was used as a powerful symbol of the values of the idealised Republic. More recently, the desire to remember the Rising represents a search for meaning; prospecting for alternative futures in the aspirations of the past.

About the Author: 

Dr. Róisín Higgins hold a PhD in history from the University of St Andrews, Scotland and has lectured on Irish history at universties in Ireland and Britain. She is currently Senior Lecturer in History, Teeside University, England. Her research focuses on the politics of historical memory with particular emphasis on commemoration of the Easter Rising; she also researches social networks in the nineteenth- century with particular attention to sport, print culture and transport. Her publications include Transforming 1916: meaning, memory and the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising (Cork: Cork University Press, 2012) and The Life and After-Life of P.H. Pearse/ Pádraic Mac Piarais: Saol agus Oidhreacht (eds.) with Regina Uí Chollatáin, (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009)

Dr. Higgins is a co-founder and Director of the Irish Association of Professional Historians (IAPH), a Government-sponsored networking community for professional and graduate historians that also provides the public with access to quality assured historical services. 
Cite this essay using the following format (MLA):
Higgins, Róisín, “ Inspiring Ireland 1916: Remembering the Rising.” Digital Repository of Ireland. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to Inspiring Ireland 1916].
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