By Roisín Higgins
Historians have identified a cult of commemoration in the nineteenth century which expressed itself through the erection of monuments and the marking of anniversaries and jubilees. It was fed, some argue, by a fear of cultural amnesia.[i] Pierre Nora famously claimed that ‘We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left’.[ii] It is difficult, while observing the volume of commemorative events to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, to determine whether they are driven by a fear that we will forget or a fear that we will remember. The ritualistic observances often obscure as much as they illuminate. So, what can we learn from re-enactments of the past?
It is well known now that the central moment of the Easter Rising was a subdued affair. Pearse stood on what some judged to be a chair and read the Proclamation to a bemused crowd. The writer Stephen McKenna recorded that he felt sad for Pearse because the response from the crowd was chilling. There were no wild hurrahs, no scenes reminiscent of the excitement which had gripped the French mob before they stormed the Bastille. The Irish simply listened and shrugged their shoulders, or sniggered a little and then glanced round to see if the police were coming.[iii] Michael Collins later admitted he did not think the Rising week was an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrases. But Pearse understood the importance of historic rituals.
Dick Humphreys, a former pupil at St Enda’s who was a twenty-year old rebel in 1916, wrote later that Pearse’s eyes lit up with intense joy when told that the posters of the Proclamation were attracting attention and excitement. However, Oscar Traynor, a Volunteer, spent the best part of Easter week in the GPO without, he said, ever seeing the Proclamation.[iv] In contrast, Kathleen Murphy, a member of Cumann na mBan, along with six other young women from Belfast, was one of the first people to see a copy having been shown it by James Connolly in Liberty Hall. The intention was to send a copy North and, as Murphy was the tallest of the girls, she remembered that Connolly had suggested that she should be the person to carry it concealed under her blouse: ‘I folded the Proclamation and fitted it under my blouse. I can’t now recollect what happened to [it]. I was speaking to Mr. Connolly again before we left Liberty Hall. Perhaps Mr. Connolly may have taken the Proclamation from me as the carrying of it would mean so much danger. My mind is blank on what happened to the Proclamation’.[v]
On the original document the signatures of the leaders were appended on a separate piece of paper. The compositor Michael Molloy recalled:
I took this with me and put it in my pocket and had it on my person when I was later a prisoner in Richmond barracks. Realising how dangerous it would be if the document containing actual signatures of the Proclamation was found, I destroyed it by chewing it up into small pieces and spitting it out on the floor. Actually the suggestion came from a fellow-prisoner. When he saw that I was beginning to tear this document he advised me that the best thing to do was to chew it up into small bits.[vi]
Therefore, for some of those intimately involved in the Rising, the Proclamation was, by turns absent, lost, chewed up and spat on the floor.[vii] Yet, this year a copy has been delivered to every school in the Republic of Ireland for the centenary of the Rising, and members of the Irish Army have gone into schools to read it aloud. In this process we see the confluence of history as it happened, as it has been imagined and as it has been reconstructed. In taking the time to read the Proclamation aloud to mildly-interested bystanders, Pearse undertook a vital service. He provided a scene that could be easily re-enacted.
Re-enactments of Pearse’s words have been a central part of commemorations of the Easter Rising. The reading of the Proclamation on platforms, in schools and by gravesides is the Rising’s signature repeatable ritual. Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa has also been echoed at many gravesides and, between March and October, is re-enacted at 2.30pm daily at the original spot in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.
It was with the anniversary of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa that the Irish state began the official 1916 centenary programme on 1 August 2015. The Irish President, Taoiseach and invited guests gathered in Glasnevin to remember the life and death of ‘this unrepentant Fenian’. Sinn Féin organised a parallel ceremony re-enacting the funeral procession in the capital from City Hall to O’Donovan Rossa’s grave. The centrepiece of both commemorations was Pearse’s oration which ends with the famous lines: ‘They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’ Pearse did to the corpse what no one would do to a bride: he upstaged it.
The centenary of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa was a re-enactment of the original event in at least two senses. It was a recreation of the ritual and pageantry that had taken place in Dublin one hundred years before and it repeated the clamour of political figures wishing to be associated with the Fenian tradition, however implausible the connection. All of nationalist Ireland was represented by the centenary graveside, listening earnestly to words that were imbued with the solemnity of official ceremony; words that, in another part of Ireland in another decade, had carried a very different meaning. As in 1915 members of the political and cultural elite understood the way the popular wind was blowing and determined not to be overly-troubled by the biography of the bones around which they gathered. The body in the ground mattered less than the words being spoken and Patrick Pearse, who spent decades as a derided figure within intellectual circles, was summonsed to give historic weight to the proceedings. His words, which had been a constant refrain for Republicans during the Troubles in the north, were repeated as if their only relevance was to the birth of the southern state.
So it was that the old Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa became the leading corpse in a state ceremony; was reduced to the hashtag ODR100; and was upstaged by an actor reading the words of Patrick Pearse. Glasnevin cemetery hosted several events around O’Donovan Rossa’s grave, the first location of the centenary’s competitive commemorations.
The most robust challenge to the state’s official event came from Sinn Féin which encouraged all those attending its commemoration to dress in period costume. Dressing-up in this way is a somewhat novel development in Irish commemorations but did make an appearance during the events to mark the centenary of the 1913 Lockout and RTÉ’s Road to the Rising in Dublin city centre on Easter Monday 2015.
On the hundredth anniversary of the Lockout’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ (31 August 1913), thousands of people, including the Irish president, assembled on O’Connell Street in Dublin to hear an actor deliver the words of Jim Larkin while horse-drawn ambulances and police carts gathered up those who were cheering him on. Police re-enactors ran at workers to simulate a baton-charge. A re-enactment also took place on 5 October 2013 of the arrival in Dublin of the SS Hare, a food relief ship commissioned by the National Transport Workers’ Federation to help feed starving Dublin workers. To mark the event a ship sponsored by trade unions set sail from the Liverpool docks to Dublin. The aim of these commemorations was to isolate events that convey an important political message and to make them visible, bringing them into the present.
Internationally, historical re-enactments tend to be associated with military engagements and battle regalia. In American Civil War re-enactments there are gradations of commitment: ‘Farbs’ are those who have a casual attitude to their attire and have been known to wear trainers or smoke modern cigarettes while performing. ‘Mainstream’ re-enactors wear period-appropriate clothing but modern underwear, while the ‘hard core’ participants wear period-appropriate clothing including woollen underwear and eat period-appropriate food, staying in character throughout the re-enactment gathering.[viii] It seems safe to assume that the re-enactments taking place in Dublin have been, within this terminology, populated by Farbs.
Much more serious re-enactments have been used to examine or highlight traumatic historic events. Mark Auslander has written about the Moore’s Ford lynching re-enactment which has been performed annually in Walton County, Georgia since 2005. The event commemorates the murder of four young African Americans in 1946 by a group of white Klansmen. The re-enactments were an attempt to mobilise public pressure for the reopening of the federal investigation into these deaths. An activist at the time remarked, ‘White folks love their Civil War re-enactments, which is mainly one big fantasy about the Lost Cause being so noble, so why not reenact some real history for a change?’[ix] During the Moore’s Ford lynching re-enactment white participants are always careful to wear clothing that marks them as being in performance mode while the African Americans wear street clothes and make no attempt to wear period-appropriate clothing. A re-enactor told Auslander:
‘The thing is, we shouldn’t dress up like this only happened in the past, just in the past. This thing, it happened once, but it’s still happening to our people, to our young people. It just isn’t over, I mean.’
This striking example suggests some possible ways in which to understand adopting costumes in the interpretation of Irish history. On the one hand it can be a way of re-running a fantasy version of the past and imbuing it with nobility and grandeur. On the other hand, it provides a way of communing with the past which allows different versions and meanings to emerge in the present. Much depends on the power structures of the present in determining whether or not the re-enactments are rendering visible a difficult past or providing solace from an uncertain present. In re-enactments in which precision and detail are closely attended to, material objects can provide a visceral encounter with a historic moment. Where clothing is suggestive of another period rather an exact replica (some argue that the genesis of ‘Farb’ is ‘far be it from authentic’) then the experience is one of playful dress-up; history as costume drama. Period clothing can act a way of differentiating between past and present, and of redirecting attention away from the politics of both.
So, in the dressing up there is an escape from the present and, in some sense, a nostalgia for the past. Svetlana Boym identified a nostalgia across Europe at the end of the twentieth century which was not just a longing for place but for another time and ‘for unrealised dreams of the past and visions of the future which [had become] obsolete’.[x] In this sense the commemoration of the Rising is not so much a celebration of Irishness as a longing for a different Ireland: the hope that re-running the past might uncover a different future.
However, the example in Georgia shows the pain that can be present in a re-enactment in plain clothes; in the past that isn’t over. What is clear, at least, in Ireland is that some elements of history are now in the past, though wounds are still carried. Indeed, amid all the props and paraphernalia in Dublin city centre on Easter Monday there will be no guns. The atmosphere will resemble that of a Bank Holiday before it was interrupted by an insurrection.
Roisín Higgins is senior lecturer in History at Teeside University. Her book, Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising, won the 2012 ACIS James S. Donnelly Sr Prize for the best book in History and Social Science.
[i] See for example, P. Connerton, How Modernity Forgets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.27.
[ii] P. Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26, p. 7.
[iii] M. Caufield, The Easter Rebellion (London: Four Square, 1965), p. 100.
[iv] Bureau of Military History Witness Statement (hereafter BMH WS) 824, Charles Donnelly, Member of “E” Company 4th Batallion of the IRB in 1916, pp.6-7.
[v] BMH WS 180, Kathleen Murphy, member of Cumann na mBan, p.5
[vi] BMH WS 716, Michael Molloy, Compositor in the office of The Irish Republic and member of “E” Company 2nd Batallion; one of the printers of the Proclamation, p. 5.
[vii] For a longer discussion of this see R. Higgins, ‘”The Irish Republic was proclaimed by poster”: The politics of commemorating the Easter Rising’, in R. Grayson and F. McGarry (eds.), Remembering 1916 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
[viii] M. Auslander, ‘Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic “Living History” Reenactments, Signs and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2013), p.169.
[ix] Auslander, p. 174.
[x] S. Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. xvi.