Magazine article History Today

Bridge Too Far?

Magazine article History Today

Bridge Too Far?

Article excerpt

The recently opened National 1798 Visitor Centre in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland, attempts to make the complex history of the Rising relevant in the 1990s. In doing so, it (perhaps appropriately) offers the visitor an experience that veers between the inspiring and the exhausting.

Set in a brand-new building on the edge of a small town, the fall of which to the rebels was a key moment in the 1798 Wexford Rising, the exhibition centre is reached by a `Bridge to Democracy'. This takes the visitor across some key planks in the development of democracy (such as 592 BC Athens, AD 1378 Florence, 1649 London, 1776 Philadelphia and 1793 Paris) towards the climax: 1798 Wexford. Once over the bridge, the visitor passes Linder a guillotine to enter an evocation of ancien regime Ireland, presented through a welter of wall-mounted graphics, touch-screens and statues of politicians disguised as plaster chesspieces.

All the while an aural barrage is kept up, with actors recreating a `Rights of Man' debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and humbler citizens (represented by crude statues) complaining about the indignities and injustices visited on them by the Protestant Ascendancy.

The sense of being bombarded with images, graphics, sounds and densely organised electronic information continues through rooms on the Rising itself (where the narrative is carried on the touch-screens) and its aftermath (a database of surnames involved in the post-'98 diaspora is provided for those interested in tracing their ancestors)

Another room reviews the arguments that have always surrounded the '98 heritage, by investigating the ways in which the events of that summer have been reinterpreted, and sometimes distorted, in the interests of the political and sectarian agendas of later decades.

Finally, the visitor is offered a multiscreen re-enactment of the Battle of Vinegar Hill, which is compelling enough to bring disappointment: like all such reenactments of warfare, it inevitably pulls its punches at the moment when steel should impact with flesh.

A children's room, with games loosely based on material from earlier in the exhibition, is provided at the end of the visit. …

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