The Easter Rising 1916: constructing a canon in art & artefacts

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 5

The Easter Rising—in which a twelve-hundred strong force took over the centre of Dublin, proclaimed the right of Irish citizens to the ownership of Ireland, fought, surrendered, and were either executed or jailed—is an event which has exercised the minds and pens of Irish historians for generations. Indeed, eighty-one years on, the interpretation of that event still engenders passionate debate and over the last two decades there has been an ongoing re-evaluation of written and oral material by political and social historians. It is an episode which also inspired a visual response including the production of paintings and sculpture recording or honouring it.

Monumental treatment

In spite of its initial failure and the bemused popular response, after the executions of the leaders the Rising very quickly came to be seen as heroic. It was now perceived as a brave, clean fight against a mighty Empire and its protagonists, who had sacrificed their careers as well as their lives, were accorded martyr status. That historical construct was to be maintained and fostered after partial independence had been achieved in 1921 as part of the endeavour to establish a coherent national identity. It was promoted in every area of Irish life including the class room. Handouts from the Department of Education instructed teachers to emphasise ‘outstanding personages’ and ‘striking incidents’ in the struggle for independence (See HI 2.4, Winter 1994, Francis T. Holohan, ‘History teaching in the Irish Free State 1922-1935’). Ireland’s contribution to the Great War was played down in favour of what was considered to be a more inspiring episode, one calculated to lead to even greater pride of country. The objects of high art produced in the fifty years following the Rising played a role in reinforcing this species of history which Friedrich Nietzche has called ‘monumental’—and positive, inspirational images of historical figures, exemplars to be commemorated and emulated by the nation, were duly produced.
This is particularly true of sculpted portraits and monuments. For instance the chamber in Leinster House, where the Irish parliament sits, contains a series of ten busts. Of these, seven are of the executed leaders of the Rising who signed the proclamation, and two are of men who had fought with them, indicating the importance of the event in the minds of the parliamentarians. The commissions had been on-going since 1922 but the busts were only finally put in place in time for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1966.
The monuments produced in this period fall loosely into two categories; those marking locations where the action took place and those located in the home towns of the combatants. The intentions were similar in all cases, to commemorate and honour the dead while serving as reminders that the glorious past was not a dead past but one relevant for the present. The monument to Sean Heuston [sculptor Laurence Campbell], for instance, is located in the area of Dublin City close to where he and his small force prevented several hundred reinforcements arriving at the nearby railway station (which now bears his name) from linking up with British troops in Dublin. Not only does the bust mark the site but its treatment, the large scale, the over-emphasis on the face and hands, is symbolic of Heuston’s unwavering determination.
The monument to Sean MacDiarmada [sculptor Albert Power] is located in his birth place at Kiltyclogher, a small village in County Leitrim, on the border with Northern Ireland. Its design is a simple straight-forward one, a standing full-length figure of MacDiarmada at the moment before his execution.

‘A true type of Gaelic nationality’

Christian ideals, legend and revolutionary nationalism come together in the best known and most artistic of all 1916 monuments, the statue of Cu Chulainn [sculptor Oliver Shepherd] in the General Post Office, Dublin, headquarters of the Rising (Fig.1). It depicts the legendary hero of ancient Ireland bravely meeting death, having tied himself to a stone pillar to fight his foes to the last. Although originally modelled as an exhibition piece in 1914, before the Rising had taken place, it was subsequently deemed to be the most suitable symbol of the event partly because the Cú Chulainn legend was perceived by Patrick Pearse as embodying ‘a true type of Gaelic nationality, full as it is of youthful life and vigour and hope’. The religious feeling invoked by its similarity to the Pieta theme in the pose of the figure also coincided with Pearse’s own ideology which fused Christian ideals with revolutionary nationalism.
There was some criticism of the suitability of the subject by veterans of 1916. The republican journal United Ireland pointed out that there was a certain ambiguity in choosing the legendary defender of Ulster as a symbol of nationalist ideology. In spite of such misgivings the statue was chosen as the centre-piece of elaborate military ceremonies marking the twentieth anniversary of the Rising in 1936. Its image was to be endlessly reproduced in small versions of the work, and transferred to coin and stamp designs.
Because the Rising took everyone by surprise there were few pictures painted of the event at the time. One which does date from 1916 is The Arrest of Countess Markievicz by Kathleen Fox (Fig.2). Quite by accident Fox witnessed the event outside the College of Surgeons in St Stephen’s Green. As she drew nearer she realised with a start that she recognised the woman being arrested. Fox was then attending the Dublin Metropolitan Art School and among those who came to evening classes were the Countess and her Polish husband. At the time of her arrest Markievicz was an officer in the Irish Citizen Army. Some thumb-nail sketches done on the spot provided the basis for the finished painting and while Fox was working on it she acquainted herself more fully with the events she was depicting. She realised that she knew some others involved through the art school, among them the sculptor Willie Pearse, Patrick’s brother. When he and the other leaders were executed she was horrified and as a result became more patriotically inclined. She includes herself in the painting and in looking out at the spectators invites their participation in this historic event. The picture was completed in secret in case of confiscation by the British authorities, and sent to New York for safe keeping.
Sean Keating openly declared his political position and more than anyone else gave visual expression to Irish nationalism. Men of the West (cover), painted the year before the Rising, offers a romanticised image of the Irish fighting man. Three men stare out at the spectator with steely glances, their commitment to the republican cause symbolised by the tricolour on the left of the picture. Their quaint western peasant costumes, while out of keeping with the urban nature of the rising that actually happened, are included to ideologically link the remote West of Ireland with its distinctive Gaelic way of life to the new Ireland about to be won by force of arms. Indeed the West was to provide the role model for national identity after independence.
While Fox and Keating commemorated the heroism of those actively involved, or about to be involved, in rebellion, Belfast artist Muriel Brandt’s historical genre painting, celebrated the unobtrusive gallantry of others unwittingly caught up in the fray. The Breadline [Crawford Art Gallery Cork] touches on one of the immediate outcomes of the rising. Supplies of food ran short, particularly bread which was produced in bakeries in the firing line. What there was was quickly bought up by the middle-classes, leaving the poor of Dublin with very little. A committee was appointed by the government to provide free supplies of food for needy citizens. The Breadline shows Sisters of Charity handing out these supplies. Women queue resignedly in devastated O’Connell Street, soldiers at the ready in the background. The attitude of the children is pathetic yet humorous. Unlike Fox, and Keating, Brandt remains aloof from her subject and offers no easily identifiable personal comment.

Intense mystical quality

The painter Jack B. Yeats was witness to the unfolding political drama. Like Keating he was a romantic idealist committed to independence. But his pictures are never dogmatically propagandist in their message. His most visionary and personal statement on the event is expressed in his retrospective Men of Destiny of 1946 (Fig.3). The men coming in to land are evocations of those coming to take up arms in defence of independence. The glowing colours and the flame-like figures give the work an intense mystical quality. Its modernist style, suggestive of a highly personal response, sets it apart from the academic realism of Keating and other artists engaged in history painting, a style associated with the public voice of ideological mass communication.
Art competitions formed part of the considerable cultural programme for the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1966, and from these a special exhibition was mounted in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin. Almost all of the artists represented were too young to have had any recollections of the episode and for this reason the exhibition offered an interesting display of contemporary Irish artists’ visual interpretation of the event. It was one which largely reinforced the heroic construct of the Rising. Thus we find many of the entrants concentrated on the bravery and sacrifice of the insurgents with titles like The Valour of the Irish, I am the Blood of Serfs and Defiant Rebel.
The spirit of triumphalism which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising was not one shared by the majority population in Northern Ireland and the lavish celebrations were largely ignored by the Northern media. However, of the fifty-two artists who submitted work for the exhibition, six were from Northern Ireland. Brian Ferran from Derry, now Director of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, had four paintings on display, the largest number submitted by this group of artists. These centred on different aspects of the event: the surrender at the GPO, Kilmainham Jail, the Proclamation, and one entitled A Terrible Beauty, after W.B. Yeats’ poem. Ferran recalls his response to the theme in 1966 as one of interest, principally prompted by an admiration for the socialist politics of James Connolly. This regard was tinged with misgivings about the other leaders. These he saw as an odd assembly of ‘political dadaists’. However there was no doubt in his mind that the event itself was historically significant.
It is that refusal to fully embrace the ‘heroic’ package without question that shapes and informs his paintings. The Surrender of the GPO 1916 (Fig.4) is depicted in a style recalling the propagandist posters of Soviet Russia. But while making use of the visual language of propaganda Ferran attempted to de-propagandise the image by using available authentic material from 1916 especially photographs. By this means and in his use of sepia colours his history painting is rooted in the real rather than the ideal.

‘A last, over-the-top purgation of a debt to the past’

The golden jubilee of the Rising marked the apogée of celebrations accorded to the event since the establishment of the State. According to  Declan Kiberd, the lavish nature of the myriad of organised activities in 1966 represented ‘a last, over-the-top purgation of a debt to the past’. By concentrating solely on glorifying the past it could be quietly forgotten that the aims of those who had sacrificed their lives in the Rising had not yet been properly achieved. Leaders like Pearse and Connolly were promoted only for their military exploits. Their radical ideas on education and justice, as yet unattained, were not mentioned. This kind of simplistic approach, largely fostered by politicians and propagandists, did not encourage much critical exchange of ideas and as a result a mood of disenchantment quickly set in.
By the early 1970s an increasing number of Irish historians were challenging what Roy Foster has called ‘the idea of a continuous unchanging nationalist spirit’. The Rising was now not being presented  as a heroic event but rather as a short-sighted suicide gesture on a part of a minority of extremists. These academics were aspiring to achieve a ‘value-free’ history which moved away for the bias of earlier nationalist interpretations. An important factor was the advent of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The violence there was now viewed as a legacy, via the IRA, of the protest in arms of 1916. Conversely, the Republican Movement saw itself as the legitimate heir to the Easter Rising and not surprisingly over the years, has attempted to appropriate some of its imagery for itself.

Seventy-fifth anniversary 1991

The influence of revisionism can be gauged by comparing the triumphalism of the 1966 celebrations and the seventy-fifth anniversary in 1991. The latter were very low-key. State ceremonies were spare, and cultural events few. However, although the Establishment, including the media, seemed intent on down-grading 1916, an opinion poll showed that over sixty-five per cent still took pride in the Rising. A number of these were determined to honour the event, no matter how politically incorrect. Following the official ceremonies a group of citizens, led by the artist Robert Ballagh, held its own festival in central Dublin. Thousands took part as poets, artists and musicians celebrated the events of seventy-five years before. Ballagh had earlier expressed his concern about how the past can be reinterpreted to suit present political circumstances. His 1989 painting, The History Lesson (Fig.5), is a wry comment on how the Rising was being revised by the revisionists. The artist depicts himself directly communicating with Pearse and Connolly. Thus by implication he is seen to avoid having to rely on others’ interpretations.
Ballagh produced a graphic (Fig.6) for the committee, sales of which were used to fund the series of planned events. The image was reproduced on their souvenir programme and cassette. Its popularity proved to be so great that it ended up being copied in the most unlikely of places, including the gable-end of a house in Belfast. The inclusion by Ballagh of Countess Markievicz with the other leaders is unusual in 1916 imagery. It was ideologically motivated. The committee was determined to reclaim the place of women involved in the event. Except for the exotic Countess, the contribution of other women, as fighters, couriers, nurses, trade unionists and other roles, had in the intervening decades been largely ignored. Using Markievicz, the only publicly recognisable female associated with the event, Ballagh deliberately placed her alongside the men, thus symbolically restoring women to their rightful place.

Post-revisionist re-evaluation

Although the revisionist interpretation influenced the tone of the official state celebrations it did not go unchallenged and some spirited debates were conducted in the media. What resulted was a more critical examination of the revisionist construction of the event. Since then a less extreme view has emerged, and the Rising is now being re-evaluated within the framework of promoting a reconciliation-oriented ethos. An image which expresses something of that spirit is The Easter Lily (Fig.7) by English-born artist Nigel Rolfe. The image of this flower, a symbol of the Rising with its connotations of death and resurrection, had been appropriated by Sinn Féin and sold in flag form every year to raise funds. Rolfe’s time exposure, sets out to reappropriate the image both historically and culturally. Photographed over six hours on Easter Friday 1994, the changing light sweeping over the white lily creates its own colour effects. For Rolfe the flower, no longer a pure white, symbolises a sense of spiritual loss; the concept of freedom, at the heart of the Easter Rising, having become tainted with the violence of the present troubles, a violence often evoked in the name of ‘1916’. And yet at the same time it is also perceived by him as an eloquent memorial to the men and women who had fought in the Rising. Perhaps this is the way forward for artists wanting to represent the Rising—creating images which not longer make the dogmatic statements of yester-year but rather use their art as a vehicle for constantly revising the event in the manner which historians are constantly doing. The imagery of 1916 was not inconsiderable in the construction of a heroic canon. As Rolfe has proved it still has a role to play, albeit a more reflective and thoughtful one.

Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch is a free-lance art historian currently researching a book on twentieth-century Irish sculpture.

Further reading:

M. Ní Dhonnchadha and T. Dorgan (eds.), Revising the Rising (Derry 1991).

B. Kennedy and R. Gillespie, Ireland: Art into History (Dublin and Colorado 1994).

Cuimhneachán 1916: A Commemorative Exhibition of the Irish Rebellion 1916 (Dublin 1966).

A version of this article was delivered at the John Boyle O’Reilly Summer School, Drogheda in June 1995.

The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of the following: Robert Ballagh, Sean Collins, Brian Ferran, Michael Kenny, Niamh O’Sullivan, Nigel Rolfe, Una Sheehan, Oliver Snoddy and James White.


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