Remembering 1916 at the Ulster Museum

By William Blair

The First World War is many things – terrible, epic, dramatic, tragic and compelling – but in Northern Ireland today it is, perhaps most importantly, a barometer on our ability as a ‘post-conflict’ society to deal with a complex and divisive period of our history. That is certainly the intention of local policy makers in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by the priority attached to the so-called ‘Decade of Centenaries 1912-22’.

The Ulster Museum therefore approached the issue of remembering the First World War and 1916 within a political environment where culture can be the focus of fractious assertions of representation and entitlement, but within a particular policy framework around the Decade of Centenaries that emphasises tolerance and a ‘shared history’ approach. The expectations of museums more generally have also changed with new critical museology emphasising their role in interpreting and mediating complex contested history.[i] Significant too are the new directions in academic history that increasingly draw on cross disciplinary approaches blending social anthropology and explorations of diverse forms of historical memory.

The greatest challenge for the Museum looking forward lies in dealing with the difficult and divisive legacy of ‘the Troubles’. The contemporary relevance of the events of 1916 to the Troubles is exemplified in two objects in the collection made by republican and loyalist prisoners. One is a plaque depicting ‘James Connolly 1916 The Irish Rebel’ and was made by republican prisoners in the Maidstone prison ship in the early 1970s while it was docked off Belfast. The plaque was signed by the men who made it. The other object commemorates the Battle of the Somme and was painted by Gusty Spence, the former leader of the modern Ulster Volunteer Force. Painted on glass, this prison art work was produced by Augustus ‘Gusty’ Spence during his time in the Maze prison. It features the crest of the Royal Irish Rifles flanked by two buglers and is in memory of the 9th Battalion West Belfast Volunteers, part of the 36th (Ulster) Division and the British Expeditionary Force.

Each consciously seeks to establish a direct link between the modern IRA and UVF with the loyalist and republican movements of the early twentieth century. Therein lies the core of the problem around the meaning and commemoration of 1916 – its compression and appropriation to justify political violence and support loyalist and republican claims of legitimacy during Northern Ireland’s recent conflict. Therefore, the question is whether recovering a more complex, inclusive narrative around the Decade of Centenaries can offer a model for considering history and identity more generally.

The challenges and opportunities presented by the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ have led to the development of a new Modern History gallery at the Ulster Museum; a series of temporary exhibitions and the development of new resources and activities for formal and informal learning . Underpinning this is a process of opening up the collections through research and recovery, leading to increased digitisation and on-line publication. Creative partnerships are also integral to the programme, most significantly the Museum’s collaboration with Queens University Belfast (QUB) and Ulster University (UU) to establish the Living Legacies First World War Engagement Council, one of five in the United Kingdom supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Re-examining our collections has been akin to a process of excavation and new research is recovering the meaning and significance of diverse items in the collection, located within multiple contexts ranging from personal/family history to broad themes of technology, social, political and cultural change, and commemoration.

The material accumulated by the Museum during and after the war speaks to the scope of the war and the diversity of experience. The accession register for 1916 records eleven acquisitions relating to either the ‘European War’ or the ‘Irish Rebellion’. These include a fragment of glass picked up in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London following a Zeppelin raid; a German-made sea mine picked up off the North Antrim coast by a trawler; and a handbill and tramway poster made in connection with bottle collecting scheme by Belfast Boy Scouts to raise funds to provide a recreation hut for the soldiers at the Front. In relation to the Easter Rising, the Museum purchased two sets of commemorative postcards depicting scenes of ‘damage and military occupation’ in Dublin. The shell of a bullet found embedded in the wall of Liberty Hall in Dublin by a soldier on duty there was also donated. Around 250 First World War items are recorded in the registers from 1914-1930 and a selection of the most significant objects have been incorporated into the new Modern History gallery.

The centrepiece of the new Modern History gallery is a section entitled ‘Home Rule to Partition’. This is introduced by two ‘gateway’ objects – the (Ulster) Division’s base depot flag and an original copy of the Easter Proclamation. The Division’s base depot flag was donated to the Museum in 1933 by Andrew Lorimer of Donnybrook Street, Belfast, a former quartermaster with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. It flew on ceremonial occasions at the base depot of the 36th (Ulster) Division in France and Belgium during the war. The depot received men on arrival from England and kept them in training while they awaited posting to a unit at the front. The Ulster Museum’s collection also features an original ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’, which was handed to a Belfast man, Mr R. McMillan, on business in Dublin at the outset of the Rising. The poster was donated to the Museum in 1937 as part of a larger collection gifted by the Robb family of Castlereagh. The juxtaposition of these two objects in the same case under the heading ‘War and Revolution’ deliberately connects and contrasts these two iconic objects. Visitors are invited to consider them as part of a larger inter-connected narrative that explores the impact of the First World War. More generally, the ‘Home Rule to Partition’ section of the gallery includes a selection of objects aimed at conveying the complexity of the period before, during and after the war. The Ulster Museum’s collection has been augmented by carefully targeted loans from other institutions, notably the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, and the Science Museum in London. The latter loaned the Museum a prosthetic arm that was invented and made in Belfast by Surgeon T. Kirk and engineer Alexander Pringle. It serves as a poignant reminder of the human cost of the war and the terrible injuries suffered by so many thousands of soldiers.

In March this year the Museum opened a new temporary exhibition entitled ‘Remembering 1916: Your Stories’, which will run until spring 2017. This has showcased not only additional material from the Ulster Museum’s collection but also, importantly, the fruits of collaboration and community engagement through ‘Living Legacies 14-18’. In particular, it incorporates around fifteen selected objects identified during the community roadshow events that have been held across Northern Ireland since 2014. These objects have been kindly loaned to the museum for display in the exhibition. The introductory panel states:

Our collection, largely donated to the museum during and immediately after the war, reflects what people believed to be important and worth preserving. Since 2014 we have also been collecting family histories through the Living Legacies 1914-18 Engagement Centre. As we reflect on the iconic events of 1916 we must consider the impact of war and revolution on society as a whole. By remembering these events in context we can better understand their enduring legacy and their effect on cultural and political identity.

The exhibition is divided into four sections: ‘War and Society’, ‘The Easter Rising’, ‘The Battle of the Somme’ and ‘Legacy’. The last section incorporates the James Connolly plaque and the Gusty Spence painting commemorating the Battle of the Somme.

Among a range of commemorative items, the Legacy section also features a Connaught Rangers regimental badge. In 2008, with support from the Community Relations Council, the Connaught Rangers Research Project, based on the Falls Road, published a new history of the ‘6th Connaught Rangers’. It was launched at a reception hosted by the then Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Tom Hartley. In a gesture of friendship in 2009 the Progressive Unionist politician Gusty Spence gave this Connaught Rangers regimental badge to Tom Hartley for his collection. Hartley retired from the Council in September 2013. He has published books on the history of Belfast cemeteries and been actively involved in local history and commemoration. In 2015 he donated over 900 items from his personal collection to the Ulster Museum.

Public feedback to the exhibition has been generally positive. Over 100 visitors have completed a questionnaire about the exhibition. Of these visitors, 78% have rated the exhibition as ‘very good’ or ‘good’. However, the juxtaposition of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme in the same exhibition, within the context of war and society, has also provoked some strong and mixed reactions:

  • ‘I came to pay homage to Ulster’s Fallen at the Somme but what had most impact on me was the fact that a foreign country’s rebel failed uprising is displayed along with the heroes of WWI.’
  • ‘Very poor interpretation of an Irish event and made worse by combining it with the Somme. Rising is a big enough event on its own. Who is responsible for this disaster of an exhibition?’
  • ‘Accountability needs to be taken for this embarrassing exhibition to the Catholic population in the celebration of our history – totally diabolical.’
  • ‘I think it is a disgrace that you have compared the Easter Rising with the Somme. There is no comparison.’
  • ‘Not happy that 1916 was in the same place. The Somme is far more important. It is like everything in Northern Ireland – trying your best to keep the Green happy.’
  • ‘In any public setting concerning this pivotal year in Irish history I’ve never seen the two stories aligned or historiography used to inform a more balanced account. So progressive.’
  • ‘I didn’t expect controversial topics to be so well integrated. It shows there is hope for a more integrated future.’
  • ‘I liked the Easter Rising panels and understanding some of the underlying dynamics and history behind more recent events. Also the legacy panels and learning about remembrance/narratives today.’
  • ‘I really liked how the parallel experiences of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme were presented side by side. The bloodstained notebook of a soldier killed in action really put it into perspective.’

In reality, an exhibition of this kind can be expected to elicit mixed reactions, particularly given the combination of preconceptions around the Ulster Museum and the zero sum mentality that exists around issues of the politics of identity in Northern Ireland today.

Walkowitz and Knauer highlight how political transformations serve as triggers or flashpoints for renewed struggles over the legacy of the past and how political shifts often necessitate multiple and varied interpretations of history to engage with a changed present.[ii] The history of the Museum’s approach to ‘1916’ is characterised by a shift from passive to active. For most of the twentieth century, the Ulster Museum remained largely detached from the politics of identity. Since the inception of the ‘Peace Process’ in the 1990s, however, interpretation and programming has accelerated in a conscious effort to contribute to the public policy agendas of ‘shared history’ and ‘shared future’. The Ulster Museum’s Decade of Centenaries programme rests on a deeper investigation of the collection to recover a breadth of material that reflects diverse human experience, both shared and contested. Locating this material culture within multiple contexts, local and international, and within a weave of personal stories, has enabled a more nuanced and critical interpretation to emerge. Critical insights have also been deepened through the active involvement of academic historians in the development of interpretative content. This in turn has enhanced opportunities for public engagement, stimulating new conversations with our visitors. The prison-made Connolly plaque and Somme painting lie outside the scope of the new Modern History gallery, but fall within the future development of the Troubles gallery. Given the present intersection of ‘shared history’ and ‘shared future’ agendas, the experience of the ‘Decade of Centenaries’ indicates that these potent commemorative objects must be located within an inclusive and complex interpretation that challenges narrow ideological viewpoints and exclusive versions of history. 

William Blair is head of human history at National Museums Northern Ireland.


Horne, John, ‘Commemorating the Centenary of the Great War and the Division of Ireland: a European perspective’, paper presented at the Institute for British Irish Studies Conference ‘Commemorating Shared History, University College Dublin, 2010

Horne, John, ed., Our War: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin: Ireland and the Great War, 2008)

Horne, John and Edward Madigan, eds., ‘Towards Commemoration: Irish in War and Revolution 1912-23 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2012)

Houdiard, Michel (ed., The Presents of Painful Pasts: History Museum and Configurations of Remembrance: Essays in Museohistory (Montpellier: Université Paul-Valery, 2012)

Knauer, L.M and D.J. Walkowitz (eds.), Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004)

Knauer, L.M. and D.J. Walkowitz (eds.) Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race and Nation (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2009)

McBride, Ian, ed., History and Memory in Northern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Nesbitt. Noel, A Museum in Belfast: A History of the Ulster Museum and its Predecessors (Ulster Museum, Belfast, 1979)

Saunders, Nicholas J., ed., Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, memory and the First World War (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2004)

[i] See, for example, the collections of essays the two volume series ‘Radical Perspectives’: L.M. Knauer and D.J. Walkowitz (eds.), Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004); and L.M. Knauer and D.J. Walkowitz (eds.) Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race and Nation (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2009|

[ii] L.M. Knauer and D.J. Walkowitz, ‘Introduction’ in L.M. Knauer and D.J. Walkowitz (eds.), Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004). pp.1-18 (p.4)

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