In 1916, a small group of armed rebels staged an insurrection against British rule and declared an independent republic in Ireland. Fighting began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, and ended six days later. Irish politics was transformed by the Rising, and by 1922, an independent state had emerged.
This exhibition examines the ways in which people connected to Marsh’s Library experienced 1916 and the subsequent turmoil of war and civil war. It also traces shifting cultural and national identities during these years. ‘The other side’ is a phrase laden with historical, religious and cultural connotations in Ireland. This exhibition challenges viewers to examine what constituted the ‘the other side’ in the Irish revolution.
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Eugenio Biagini's preface examines the situation of Marsh's Library in 'an age of rapid and dramatic changes, which enthused many but left others perplexed and painfully aware of the need to make difficult choices'.
At the outbreak of fighting in 1916, the Library found itself in the firing line. A force of rebels under Thomas MacDonagh seized Jacob’s biscuit factory, now the site of the National Archives, some 200 yards from Marsh’s. Luckily for the library, the rebels in Jacob’s factory saw little action. They later recalled playing the piano, reading in the factory’s library, and feeling ill from eating too much cake. At the end of Easter week, Thomas MacDonagh formally surrendered to the commander of the British forces in the grounds of St Patrick’s Park, an event which would have been clearly visible from the library windows.
Significant damage was inflicted on the library on the morning of Sunday 30 April 1916. A British machine gun located in the Iveagh Buildings ‘inadvertently’ sprayed the building with bullets, shattering windows and damaging books. The library’s records stated that the books were ‘injured’ — as if the books were in some way comparable to humans. Most of the ‘bullet books’ belonged to Élie Bouhéreau (1643–1719), a French Huguenot refugee and first librarian of Marsh’s Library, who brought his books with him when he escaped from France in 1686.
Roger Casement was a British diplomat and humanitarian who became an Irish republican activist. He attempted to land guns and ammunition from Germany for the Easter Rising. He was arrested and, in August 1916, executed. Casement was a figure of international repute, but a campaign for clemency was severely undermined when the British government released his private diaries, which recorded his homosexual relationships. Casement offers multiple facets of Irish identity: a Protestant, a British imperialist, a humanitarian, a gay man, a republican revolutionary, and, finally, a Catholic convert before his death.
In 1916, Jessica Taylor was a middle-class teenager living in north county Dublin. Her diary, here made public for the first time, was kept in a series of school jotters and continued until 1918. At the time, the Easter Rising was deeply unpopular with Dublin citizens of all backgrounds. Jessica Taylor was no exception. Her sympathies lay with the soldiers of the British army, who she regarded as ‘our people’. She was appalled at the destruction of the city centre, especially O’Connell Street, which was in ‘really pityable’ condition. However, the Rising also provided a frisson of excitement. When she found out about the rebellion, she ‘was running up & down the hill all day telling everyone the news’. To modern readers, it is striking that Jessica did not comment on the executions of the rebel leaders. On 12 May, the day of the final executions, Jessica disappointedly recorded that ‘everything is just the same as ever.’ She had no sense of how dramatically her country would change in the years to come.
The 1916 Rising took place during the First World War. When the rebellion broke out, the military response leaned heavily on Irish units stationed in Dublin. Reinforcements arrived from England on Tuesday; until then, a good deal of the fighting occurred between Irish soldiers in British army uniforms and Irish rebels in Volunteer uniforms. In the end, more than a third of the ‘British’ army troops who died during Easter Week were Irishmen. During the First World War, four Assistant Librarians at Marsh’s served in the British army, of whom three survived. The library’s story was not unusual. More than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the British army during the First World War, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed.
In 1923, at the time of the Irish Civil War, a young researcher visited Marsh’s Library, only to be refused entry by a woman cleaning the front steps. His clothing seemed to mark him out as a potential danger to the library. Marsh’s Library may have felt especially vulnerable during the Civil War, as it was historically associated with the Anglican church. In an atmosphere of widespread destruction in which Protestant institutions perceived themselves to be particularly at risk, it was not unreasonable that the staff of Marsh’s Library should be nervous. An entry in the library accounts book records ‘compensation for malicious injuries’ in 1922. Whether this attack was explicitly sectarian in nature is unknown.
The irish civil war was ongoing while William Burd, a Church of Ireland reader, was visiting the library in 1922 and 1923. This bitter conflict brought with it questions of allegiance and self-definition that troubled the country as a whole. On his first visit to the library, William signed his name in the library’s register in English. However, as the weeks passed, he experimented with various forms and spellings of his signature in the Irish language. Newport J.D. White’s stamp collection is a reflection of his changing sense of self, as well as being a meditation and comment upon unfolding events.
During the early 1920s, Marsh’s Library was unsure of its relationship with the new Irish state. On the one hand, the library was anxious for reassurance that financial support would continue under the new administration. On the other hand, it refused to recognise the new Chief Justice of the Irish Free State as a legitimate trustee of the library, and entered into a terse correspondence with him on this point. The relationship was not mended until 1968, when the library approached the then Chief Justice, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, to join the board of trustees.
The playwright Sean O’Casey was born in Dublin to a working-class Protestant family. In early life, he was drawn to nationalism, before becoming deeply involved with trade union and socialist causes in Dublin. Critique of the revolutionary agenda in his plays drew angry protests.
Estella Solomons was an important Irish artist of the early twentieth century. She was from a prominent Jewish family, and joined the women’s revolutionary organisation Cumann na mBan in 1915. She is a reminder that Irish revolutionaries could, and did, wear multiple identities without contradiction: Irish, Jewish, nationalist, artist, and revolutionary.
Jason McElligott's essay reflects on the varying views of 1916 from the perspective of a new Ireland willing 'to engage with the messy realities of history as it happened, not how one would like it to have happened [and] to envisage a future which is neither imprisoned nor defined by the past'.
Curated by Elaine Doyle
Elaine Doyle holds an MPhil in Historical Studies from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in History from Queen’s University Belfast. She has worked in a range of curatorial and editorial roles across the heritage sector and was the specialist Exhibitions Officer for Marsh's Library to stage this exhibition.
Online version curated by Arantxa Mejía del Río
Arantxa Mejía del Río is studying for her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Oviedo, Spain. Mejía’s principal interest is Modern History and specifically the Age of Enlightenment. She is completing her dissertation in the legislation of Philip V against gypsies in Spain. In early 2020, she held a cultural heritage internship at Marsh’s Library which included digitisation of this exhibition.
Web design by Sue Hemmens, Marsh’s Library
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