For better or worse, 2016 looks set to go down in history as a momentous year with such a seismic shift in the political landscape that everything changed. Indeed, dates are used as a yardstick to commemorate many significant historical events; right now, for instance, we are in the midst of marking the centenary of World War I.
This year, I happened to be in Dublin for the centenary of an event that did much to shape Ireland as it is today – the 1916 Easter Rising, which aimed to establish a self-ruling Ireland free from British occupation. Heavily outnumbered, and lacking popular support from the locals – many of whom saw it as disrespectful to their loved ones who were fighting at the time in World War I – the rebellion was crushed after a week of fighting. However, the brutal British reprisals afterward did much to sway public opinion and shape Ireland as it is today.
One of the main icons associated with the rising is Kilmainham Gaol, as here is where the ringleaders were interred and executed, but it does have a history before and after that.
Located some way West of the city centre, the Gaol is only visited through a strictly-ticketed guided tour system that leaves every 15 minutes. This does involve a lot of hanging around in the entrance area, but the knowledgeable guides do a great job of breathing life in to the dark, dilapidated and menacingly claustrophobic labyrinth of prison corridors.
The 1916-associated stuff – the cells where the rebel leaders were held, the Stone Breakers’ yard where they were executed – provide the most solemn moments, bringing home the significance that the Gaol had in Ireland’s history. Monuments to the executions are marked with simple crosses where they were executed, and a plaque on the wall that lists the dates of their death alongside their names.
Back in the city centre is the vast outdoor area that is St Stephen’s Green. With the main thoroughfare that is Grafton Street just up the road, and notable buildings such as the Royal College of Surgeons and Mansion House adjacent, it’s no small feat that a peaceful quiet still somehow reigns over the park. With a serene lake at its centre, and manicured lawns, elegant lawns and multi-coloured foliage spread across its environs, the picturesque setting can almost make you forget its violent history…
Much of the fighting in the 1916 Easter Rising took place here. The information plaques dotted around do a splendid job of documenting the unfolding of the fighting on the green, including individual tales (heroic and not so heroic) near the spots where the incident in question occurred.
For all that, it’s not actually a memorial to the rising in its own right; the Garden of Remembrance, north of the River Liffey, fulfils that function. It was opened to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and its most visually arresting feature – the statue of the Children of Lir – is a later addition. But it is a suitably austere and contemplative memorial, not least due to the stone-inscribed poem that asks the ‘Generation of Freedom to remember the Generation of Vision’.
Perhaps the most significant monument of all though, though, is the striking GPO – or General Post Office – building. This served as the HQ of the rebel forces in the 1916 Rising, and it’s from the steps of this building that its leaders declared their ‘Proclamation of the Republic’ to little immediate fanfare. An excellent interactive exhibit has recently opened here, documenting the story and legacy of the rising.
Auspiciously lowlit on the basement level – and brightened by natural light on the first floor – the exhibit is laid out in a spacious and accessible manner, so that not even the arrival of an all boys’ school group (who were very well-behaved and attentive to their guide, I might add) could not get in the way. It begins with the ideology and causes, goes on the chronicle the events of the rising, and finishes with its immediate aftermath.
The comprehensive introduction that this exhibit provides makes it a must-visit. It does a great job of shedding light on the lesser-known stories behind the rising – such as the role of women and even children – and delves in to the socio-economics of Dublin at the time, filling in some much-needed backstory for the beginner.
Hands-on interactive games keep things fun: I particularly enjoyed the one where you have to steer a carrier boy from the GPO to another rebel base, avoiding the British soldiers enroute. The superb dramatized movie, told mostly from the POV of the rebels but also featuring some British and civilian perspective, is the centrepiece. And things end with a timeline of commemorative ceremonies of the rising down the years, whilst a quiz invites you to share your opinion on whether the rising was a success, justified and significant or not.
Whatever your take on the rising itself, there is little doubt that revolutions – and the change and upheaval associated with them – are lessons from history that should never be forgotten.