Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Essay: Holy Relics of the Easter Rising

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Essay: Holy Relics of the Easter Rising

Article excerpt

The reverence for those involved in the Easter Rising is evident in an exhibition devoted to its centenary, says Harry Mount

This is the first exhibition I've been to where the Prime Minister joined the hacks at the press view. A week after the Irish general election, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, came to the biggest show in Ireland devoted to the centenary of the Easter Rising. Kenny's presence at the press launch just goes to show how the Irish rebellion against British rule at Easter 1916 is still the defining story of modern Ireland.

In fact, the Easter Rising was a pretty good failure, although I didn't suggest that to the Prime Minister at the press view. The rebellion lasted only six days before it was put down by the British army. Other attacks on British barracks in Meath, Galway and Wexford didn't get very far either. Planned attacks in Cork, Tyrone and Donegal never happened. And Irish independence didn't come until 1922, after the War of Independence.

But, still, the Easter Rising is treated with a holy reverence -- partly because it happened in Easter Week in a devout country; more because of the brutal treatment of the rebels. Sixteen of them were executed -- and they quickly became political martyrs, tinged with a semi-religious aura.

That reverence for the Rising and its leaders is what makes this comprehensive show so gripping. What had been a fairly small-scale rebellion was immediately treated as the definitive spiritual battle on an island soaked for centuries with the blood of thousands, from dozens of battles. As a result, the 300 objects in this show were also immediately treated with the reverence shown to religious relics. And what an exceptional, captivating collection of relics they are.

Some of them have the inevitable macabre fascination of things associated with fighting and death. One oddly heart-stopping object is a cricket bat from Elvery's shop window on Sackville Street, which was caught up in the shooting and looting that began on the afternoon of Easter Monday. Hit by the crossfire, the bat still has a bullet lodged in it.

After the Rising, the most everyday things took on a holy green hue, among them the blocks of metal print used for the 'Proclamation of the Irish Republic'. Even the printers' huge battered table, on which they laid out the print, is on show. Nearby is the holiest of holies -- the green flag, with 'Irish Republic' in gold Celtic letters, which flew from the flagpole of the General Post Office on O'Connell Street (then Sackville Street), the headquarters of the Rising's leaders. Captured by soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, the flag was given to George V, before it was donated to the Irish government in 1966 on the Rising's 50th anniversary.

The poignant story of the 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the first world war for a nation their countrymen were rebelling against is movingly and objectively told. One extraordinary surviving artefact is a handwritten poster erected by Germans opposite the trenches of the Royal Munster Fusiliers on the Western Front during the uprising. 'Irishmen!' the German poster reads in stilted English, 'Heavy uproar in Ireland, English guns are firing at your wifes [sic ] and children!'

That poster was lent to the exhibition by the Queen -- a sign of how much Anglo-Irish relations have improved in recent years. The Queen's trip to Ireland in 2011 was the first visit of a British monarch there in a century. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.