A few days that mean so much to so many
Memorials of the Easter Rising is heavy on content but light on the complex question of motivations
The then taoiseach Bertie Ahern lays a wreath at Arbour Hill during the Fianna Fáil Easter Rising 1916 commemoration in 2006. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Memorials of the Easter Rising
Irish Graves Publications
In the midst of almost 500 pages of graves, monuments and other sombre representations of the 1916 Rising, Ray Bateson briefly mentions a cricket bat. It is no ordinary example, admittedly, but “the cricket bat that died for Ireland”.
Shot while on display in the window of Elverys on O’Connell Street during Easter week 1916, the bat remained in that window for many years, bearing its bullet and its martyrdom for every passerby to see.
It makes its way into Bateson’s exhaustive compendium of memorials because it is an “unusual” exception to the plaques, Celtic crosses and monumental figures that mark the memorial landscape of the Rising in every county and, indeed, in countries far beyond Ireland. (Argentina, Australia and the US, among others, mark Easter 1916, too.)
In its peculiar way this bat sums up the challenge at the heart of this book and, perhaps, at the heart of much of the soul-searching and hand-wringing about the centenary of the Rising.
With clever and witty irreverence, someone in Elverys realised that this bat might be good for business. What Bateson’s book perhaps unwittingly shows is the extent to which individuals, groups, organisations and political parties have been doing something ever so slightly similar since. Although Bateson acknowledges that his book will probably be used as a work of reference that few will read from cover to cover, the impression that mounts across the pages is a sense of how much has been read by so many into those few striking days almost a century ago.
Bateson makes no distinction between gravestones and more formal public memorials – and maybe he should not, as lines blur here between private grief and public memorialisation and commemoration. Groups with no family connections can be found erecting gravestones to 1916’s dead, and, like any other contested part of our past, the Rising emerges from these pages as a much desired and sought-after thing, whatever its form.
The book does not outline the pedigree of every memorial it lists, but when it does pin down the memorial seed, breed and generation it is clear that these memorials stake their own claims to the Rising, whether they were erected by the Friends of Sinn Féin Australia or the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. Plaques mark several places where Irish Volunteers assembled and disbanded and did not take part. They show how important it was at different times since 1916 to claim some kind of connection with it, even if it was just a connection with what might have been.
Bateson takes this kind of need almost as a given. The book does not question the motivations of any group at any time; monuments are classified explicitly by place. The book is not a commentary on how 1966’s motivations might differ from those after 1998, nor it is a discussion of how the Rising became so easily part of a remembered 1916-23 period with far more coherence than it ever knew. The book is not really asking those questions, but it will provide the material basis, the practical guide, for other, more interrogative future work.
Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s memorials, many of them to the Troubles’ dead, which just reference the Proclamation or bear an Easter lily, are perhaps suggesting something far more political than the text implies.
Equally, the inclusion of the Enniskillen war memorial, bearing the name of Pte John Thompson, who died on Easter Monday 1916 combating the Rising, strikes a rather uncomfortable chord. Like all the other first World War memorials cited, the book only takes note of Enniskillen’s combatant without really acknowledging the complexity of the wider Irish commemorative landscape. But there is something more disquieting because of the Remembrance Sunday bombing in 1987, and the matter-of-factness of its inclusion belies the depths of division that memory could once and may still embody.
Perhaps this betrays a scrupulous neutrality about the book’s approach. This is a book that sets itself a practical function, after all: to record the range of memorials to 1916. But this book is not at all neutral in its view of the Rising and its place in history. It comes from the position that the Rising should be marked in its every detail, that there is a national imperative to note, record and memorialise every place, every battleground, every life, without really explaining or interrogating why.
The Rising is our Alamo, our Thermopylae, Bateson argues. Indeed, “these events are dwarfed by the Easter Rising”. Now that nobody remains who remembers the Rising, 1916 may well become something its own participants might not even recognise. In Elverys’ window just after the Rising there was something far less solemn, perhaps less po-faced, than anything that might memorialise 1916 now. This book shows us much of how that change happened but never really stops to ask itself why.