Sunday, April 22, 2018


GPO Rebel HQ 1916 - The Movie
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So I was.

It's hard to know where to start with this excellent and engaging exhibition. It is centered around the 1916 Rising but also puts it in the context of the time.

A good place to start might be the innovative presentation of a dramatised version of the Easter Week Diary (above). This is a sort of wide-screen Cinemascope version of the progress of the rebellion in various critical locations across the city.

Aerial view - Operations Room, Dublin Castle - The Movie

Continuity between the various locations is preserved by constant reference to an operations map of the city which is swooped into and out of after the fashion of the Google satellite map.

This may sound a bit scrappy but it works. We swoop in on the GPO, the Castle, the Shelbourne Hotel, Mount Street Bridge etc. to catch up with the ongoing action in each place. And the action moves at breakneck speed. You'd really want to watch the sequence a few times to make sure not to miss anything.

One of the first things to hit me on the way in was the on-screen commentaries from established scholars. These were very well edited, to the point, and presented a seamless introduction to what was to follow. I have referenced these below.

Fearghal McGarry

Fearghal has interrogated the Witness Statements comprehensively and in depth which has enabled him to evaluate the Rising from the perspective of the ordinary footsoldier.

Padraig Yeates

Padraig has researched and written extensively on the revolutionary period from a social history point of view.

Catríona Crowe

Catríona spent her career in the National Archives and her great legacy will be the 1901 and 1911 censuses online. She has also fought for women to be given their rightful place in the history of the time.

Joe Lee

Joe is the grand=daddy of living Irish historians.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmuid is a relative newcomer on the block and has spread himself quite widely. He is a savvy media presence.

Kevin Myers

Kevin has long campaigned for recognition for Irishmen who fought in WWI and has tended to downplay the Rising.

Irish Volunteer uniform

There are many well curated glass case exhibits covering both combatants and non-combatants in the Rising and those affected by related events of that time.

Cumann na mBan uniform

British Auxiliary uniform

Housewife bearing the brunt of the 1913 lockout

This messenger bike really took my fancy and I went over for a closer look at its contents.

I was paying great attention to the labels on the tins when I noticed the black pencil-like things sticking out of the top of them. It was only then that I realised that this was a consignment of lethal weaponry.

Needless to say the walls are replete with explanatory panels like the one above. Replica brick walls are also plastered with posters for everything from theatre performances to monster meetings.

A 50th Anniversary Present
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Then there is a short on-wall exhibition upstairs bringing the story up to date.

The panel above gives me an opportunity to mention the one thing that jarred with me. The text panels are all bilingual and happily the Irish versions are fine as far as the content goes. But I found the combination of the earlier Gaelic font with the Roman spelling disorientating. I would have expected that font to include séimhiús or else have the Roman font with the "h"s.

It may well be that this disorientation applies only to those old enough to have used the Gaelic font extensively in their youth. And I can see that the organisers may want to have added an extra bit of "Irishness" to the Irish language text. Perhaps others may wish to comment on this.

All of the above is really only a teaser for the exhibition. I dropped in with just under an hour to kill while waiting for Felix Larkin's talk on Grace Gifford. But I'll need to go back myself and look at the vast array of interesting material in more detail. I'd be well advised to arrive early in the morning, take the tour and a short break for lunch in the onsite café, and then stay until closing time.

Anyway, I said at the outset that I was in the GPO. I hope I gave the impression that this had been in 1916 and that I was still drawing the military pension. This, of course, was just to mislead you in the interest of adding a bit of spice to my report.

I did think I had an uncle Michael in the Rising and, indeed, there was a Michael Dwyer in the GPO garrison but he wasn't my uncle. The uncle turned out to have been in Boland's Mills, but that wasn't in 1916. An interesting mini story which I will recount another time.

However I have been in the GPO and not just buying stamps or posting letters. I spent a lot of time there in my youth, on the third floor which then housed Radio Éireann.

I was reminded of this when being ushered out the side door after Felix's talk. That door used to be the way in to Radio Éireann.

Friday, April 20, 2018


Diarmuid Bolger
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Let me be clear from the outset. This is a marvellous series of lectures on Rebel Irish Women run by GPO Witness History, curated by James Curry and introduced by Diarmuid Bolger.

There has been a pile of work done on the place of women in the Irish revolutionary period in recent times - from the un-airbrushing of Elizabeth O'Farrell to a raft of biographies.

Hopefully it's not too late to redress the balance but the absence of these women from accepted history over the years is nothing short of a national scandal.

Felix Larkin

This month's talk was on Grace Gifford. And sure don't we all know who she was? Didn't she marry that Plunkett fellow in his cell the night before he was executed as a signatory of the 1916 proclamation? Pure romance. End of story.

Well, before I let Felix loose on the story, let me just say a word about the title of this blog post.

The history I was taught in school was plastic history, by which I mean embroidered myth. It was essentially propaganda rather than history and it conveniently skited over messy reality to embellish already over-polished glory.

Understandable, up to a point, maybe, given that I was educated by the Christian Brothers and was surrounded by a society imbued with a high level of tolerance for myth, particularly in its religious ethos.

I have drawn attention elsewhere to the "educational" compromise involved in the presentation of Brian Merriman's Midnight Court in the classroom.

Imagine any Christian Brother having to dwell on a pregnant Grace Gifford's marriage to Joe Plunkett in his cell in Kilmainham jail just prior to his execution.

And the same Brother having to deal with a barrage of questions from a potentially rowdy class of boys who had been taught that a girl's primary purpose in life was to ensnare a man, starting now.

So had our hero Joe succumbed to the temptress? Hard to see how either Grace or Joe would have come well out of that encounter.

So to the flesh of the matter.

Grace was essentially an artist. She had attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (incidentally around the same time as Gordon Brewster). She was a pupil of the artist William Orpen who thought highly of her and painted a number of portraits of her. She relied on her artwork for a living and, despite not being well off, she did much pro bono artwork for the revolutionary movement.

Later, she would quote this unpaid work when applying for a military pension, characterising it as income forgone in the cause.

Her family had thrown her out over her dalliance with, and subsequent marriage to, Joe. They did not approve of this unhealthy young man for their daughter, but there were, no doubt, other grounds, such as a mismatch between her parents' unionist convictions and her espousal of the nationalist cause, though she did not endorse violence in pursuit of that cause.

Her parents had a mixed marriage. The boys had been baptised Catholics and the girls Protestants after the fashion/requirements of the time, but all the children had been brought up Protestants. Grace had converted to Catholicism shortly before her marriage.

Anyway, there I was lapping all this up and taking photos like mad when I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Felix had broken into song, and a fine voice he has too:
Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love, I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won't be time to share our love for we must say good-bye
An apparently well known ballad, immortalising Grace, written by Frank & Seán O'Meara in 1985.

Ruth Dudley Edwards in her book The Seven has a neat little piece of exegesis on this chorus, particularly on the last line.
The coy implication that their relationship was unconsummated is challenged by Gerry's testimony that she had uncontrovertable (sic) evidence that Grace had a miscarriage shortly after Easter while staying at Larkfield.
Gerry was Joe's sister.

Ruth, like Felix, is a myth buster and the online vituperation against her pouring out of hard core Sinn Féin/IRA has to be seen to be believed. So I just thought I'd give her an on-topic mention here to help her keep the faith.

If you're still with me, you can hear a moving version of the song recorded in Kilmainham Gaol for the 2016 centenary celebrationsM, or an earlier version by the inimitable, and sadly no longer with us, Jim McCann.

Mind you, this is as nothing compared to the impact of Felix's public secular singing debut on the GPO audience. Maith thú..

I can't quite remember, such was my state of shock, but I think the image above is of Felix softly hitting one of the high notes.

I've just realised that I have not so far included any of Grace's own work, so here goes.

This is her sketch of Joe done just a month after his execution.

And this is Douglas Hyde in her inimitable cartoon style.

Nearly finally, back to melting plastic history.

The decade of commemorations has seen a huge outpouring of "revisionist" research looking back on history through evidence-tinted spectacles.

This has exploded a host of plastic myths but it has also revealed the underlying humanity of many of the main players, the real environment in which they were operating and the real choices they faced.

In many cases, far from destroying the mythological character, it has made them more understandable and ordinary. That is not to deny them their extraordinary actions but it does make it easier to relate to them.

A quote from the French historian Pierre Nora, that Felix used in the talk, captures this well: “Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again”.

In the Q&A I asked Felix for his reaction to two recently available sources of evidence: the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and the Military Pensions Applications.

The Witness Statements were taken many years after the events and clearly needed cross-corroboration to filter out the puff. The Pensions Applications on the other hand were more personal cries from the heart, admittedly with a purpose, but many of them are closer to the events to which they relate.

Felix felt he had got closer to Grace through her pension application.

You can check out Grace's Witness Statement, her Application for a Widow's Pension, and her Application for a Service Pension directly. She was awarded the former pension (£90pa in 1924 rising to £500pa in 1937) but was refused the latter pension.

Talks like this can run into unexpected moments of intimacy and emotion. On this occasion we had a contribution from the floor from a lady who turned out to be Grace's grand niece. She was the grand-daughter of Grace's sister Muriel who married another signatory, Thomas MacDonagh.

James Curry

I don't want to go without congratulating James Curry on his recent doctorate and on his curating of this excellent series of talks. A book in the future perhaps?

I'll leave you with this charming sketch of Grace by William Orpen. You'll have seen a version of it on the cover of Marie O'Neill's book on Grace in the second image in this post.

Sunday, April 15, 2018


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Just looking at their Twitter account, The Long Room Hub is an intellectual and visual ferment 24/7. And why not. It is a great facility and it's in a university.

I ended up there last Wednesday (11/4/2018) at a talk on the very provocative subject you see illustrated on the opening screen in the illustration above. I was certainly looking forward to the talk. The assimilation of Southern Protestants, or what's left of them, is truly a saga in itself. But how I came to be there has a much more obscure cause, or more properly causes.

Ida Milne & Ian d'Alton

I worked with Ian d'Alton in the long defunct Department of Economic Planning at the end of the 1970s. I lost contact with him when that Department was beheaded by Charlie Haughey though I have been aware of his distinguished public service career since. It is only in very recent times that I have bumped into him again and it was this that led me to his talk in the Hub rather than the subject matter as such.

Ida is a different kettle of fish. I had never heard of Ida until recently, when I learned of her forthcoming book, Stacking the Coffins, which deals with the 1918 flu epidemic. I am working on a talk which takes a whimsical look at death in my family. I have infant death, TB, drownings (plural), war and even a possible double poisoning. My plan is to talk about these causes of death in a thematic way and illustrate this with family examples. It was only when I learned of Ida's forthcoming book that I realised I had no examples of flu deaths in the family despite the prevalence of the epidemic at the time.

So my real reason for being in the Hub was Ian and Ida rather than the Southern Protestants as such. But thinking on the matter I figured who better to give a talk on Southern Protestants than two Southern Protestants.

The term Southern Protestants is a contested one. Referring to the Republic as the South has many adverse connotations which it might be wise to avoid, but then what do you say? The Free State has a cut off point in 1937 and the Twenty Six Counties is clumsy, not to mention it reminding us forcibly of the other six. So, as Ian says, Southern is a term of convenience and we'll stick with it.

The talk was a teaser/trailer for a book that is in gestation, or possibly in the labour ward. It's title is Protestant and Irish and it consists of more than a dozen essays dealing with the Southern Protestant experience, many of them case histories.

Eunan O'Halpin

The session was introduced by Eunan O'Halpin who is Professor of Contemporary History in TCD.

I'm not going to go through the talk seriatim. In fact I may say very little about the talk itself as an audio podcast will be available on the Hub's Soundcloud page shortly.

The method of delivery was one I had not come across before. It wasn't quite a duet as the two presenters did not both speak at the same time. More like an agallamh beirte where they alternated covering a few paragraphs at a time. I've no clue how this alternation related to content or authorship. Suffice it to say it gave them both a crack of the whip while the audience got a seamless presentation. Some lessons here for Stormont maybe.

The book's contributions are grouped under three themes: belonging, engaging, and other(ness).

Protestants spanned the full range of Irish life but generally at the top of the heap. Today's generation may well be unaware of this, being less preoccupied with the other person's religion, if any.

The slide above gives some idea of this spread. Some of the names will be familiar but their religion less so.

It is very easy at this remove to underestimate the shock of Southern Independence to Southern Protestants. Could they succeed in belonging to this new, somewhat alien, entity? Did they even want to? How best to engage with it? To what extent would they remain "other"?

How these questions were answered would have implications right down to my own time.

Before the talk, in conversation with Ian, I mentioned the hate counter in Hodges Figgis which was there up to the start of the 1970s. This was an obscure corner at the back end of the shop which was packed with anti Roman Catholic literature. Ian had been totally unaware of it. Mind you it didn't last long after Michael Viney's exposé in the Irish Times but it was interesting that it had survived unscathed for so long.

I picked up a pamphlet advising Protestants never to marry a Roman Catholic. I don't think that would be viewed too kindly today but you could see where it was coming from. The Protestant community was a tiny minority and the Roman Catholic Church insisted that all children of (religiously) mixed marriages should be raised as Catholics.

There was a famous, or rather infamous, case in the 1950s in Fethard on Sea, which is Ida's part of the country. The whole saga was very confrontational across the religious divide and even RC Bishop Michael Browne, or cross Michael as he was known, got involved though Fethard is far from his Galway bishopric. He was one of the terrible trio of his day with Connie Lucy in Cork and John Charles McQuaid in Dublin.

Whatever about the formal confrontation which involved a boycott of Protestant businesses, Ida suggests that there was a much more live and let live process attempting to break out behind the scenes.

Ida mentioned that as far back as 1798 when Protestant ascendancy landowners were being burned out of the big house, her own people were saved by local Catholic neighbours.

I always knew that the GAA was a force for community development but I also thought of it as Catholic. It had not occurred to me that it was also a force for integration across the religious divide.

For historical reasons the business class in Ireland tended to be Protestant at least at the level of management and that took a long time to normalise. Guinness and Dockrell come most immediately to my mind.

If I can be excused a little bit of celebrity puff here to mention Bono. His parents had a mixed marriage (in fact two of them) in 1950 and it did not seem to go down too well with either family. Despite having been married in the Protestant church in Drumcondra, the local curate in Dolphin's Barn dragooned them into a second marriage in his church which he duly registered with the State making them doubly civilly married, a process for which there is not yet a word in the English language, as far as I know. I'm suggesting bonomy.

As far as the rural scene is concerned I'd just mention the experience of Colm Ó Gaora in Bangor Erris in Co. Mayo in the early 20th century.
Colm O'Gaora was a young teacher and a timire for Conradh na Gaeilge. He was new to the Irish speaking Bangor Erris disrict in Co. Mayo when he met a man along the road. "Dia dhuit" (God be with you) says he, in the traditional Irish greeting. The immediate and vehement reply took him aback: "May God and Mary bless you and may bad luck strike you down you dirty old Protestant".
It's a lovely story and it illustrates the depth of feeling across the religious divide in some rural areas. If you want to get the key to the "conversation", and my little bit of "poetic licence", have a look at my review of Colm's book.

There was a fairly lively Q&A after the talk with many contributions and questions from a packed, and in parts, distinguished audience.

I know I haven't done the talk justice and have rambled all over the place. But I'm in my anecdotage and there is nothing stopping you listening to the whole thing once the podcast goes up, and you can read the book once it hits the streets.

Saturday, April 07, 2018


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The occasion was a talk by Diarmuid Ó Gráda on Georgian Dublin - The Forces that shaped the City and it took place in the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) library on 4 April 2018.

The illustration above is of the cover of Diarmuid's book which was published by Cork University Press and launched in the Royal Irish Academy by then Lord Mayor, Críona Ní Dhálaigh, in 2015. I mention this because Diarmuid's talk proved to be a wonderful skim through his book, all 390 pages of it.

Lord Chesterfield

I had not attended a function in these premises before and if I had let myself I could have found my surroundings quite intimidating. There is that hush of entitlement where members silently glide about the place while visitors are afraid to audibly clear their throats lest they draw attention to themselves.

I could have been put off when I encountered Lord Chesterfield, former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and President of the RDS, on my way to the loo (Gentlemen's Cloakroom to you).

However, as guests began to arrive, I was reassured to see the good lord bend his dignity to take on cloakroom duties and serve as a hatstand for the duration. A sign, no doubt, if one was needed, of the ongoing democratisation of this venerable royal institution.

So I felt quite at home and relaxed when I entered the magnificent spacious library where the talk was to take place. In any event, hadn't I been to school all those years ago with the speaker's older brother.

David Dickson

The talk was introduced by David Dickson, whose own magnificent magnum opus Dublin - The Making of a Capital City had been launched in the Dublin City Library and Archive in 2014.

David was lavish in his praise of Diarrmuid's work and in passing drew attention to copies on sale at the back of the hall. Diarmuid, in the course of his talk, reciprocated, praising David's book and acknowledging his debt to David's work.

If you were brought up like me where history is definitive and you just have to learn it off and regurgitate it as appropriate, you could be forgiven for your amazement at how much new work is being undertaken and published on this hitherto "settled" subject.

In the political sphere much of it is unfairly disparaged as revisionism whereas in the archeological and social sphere it is classed as enrichment. In any event, much modern historical research is leading us to question who we are and this, while sometimes quite disturbing, is also very exciting.

David specifically mentioned a collection of drawings of Dublin street scenes from 1760 entitled The Cries of Dublin by Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton which were only discovered in 2002 and were published a year later.

Diarmuid soon got into his stride and took off on a whistlestop tour of Georgian Dublin. He must have been very happy to have had his book published by Cork University Press and launched in the RIA, and now this talk in the RDS.

Before I forget I should say that the place was packed. And I should take the opportunity to compliment the RDS on the wonderful venue and on the high quality sound, including Diarmuid's head-mic which allowed him move about and physically point out things on the big screen.

Diarmuid Ó Gráda

I have referred above to Georgian Dublin's underbelly and that may be a bit contentious as Diarmuid deals with a wide range of aspects of Georgian Dublin. But what his book, and the talk, bring to the table is the result of a career of research on how the man in the street fared in this city, the second in the Empire.

Much has been written on the architecture of the period, on the doings of important people, and on the very dramatic politics of the period. But what was it like for the ordinary citizen, for the artisans or casual traders, for women and for blaggards?

This is all explored in great detail and with great accompanying illustrations.

A Crippled Beggar
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton 1760 (private collection)

Looking at the beggar, you wonder how he got to his present state. Perhaps he lost his legs in a war? Diarmuid then draws our attention to his two hand grips. These allow him to move along without his flesh coming into contact with the dirty, and perhaps diseased, street.

A Parish Watchman
from The Cries of Dublin

There wasn't much of a police force in those days. Each parish had to organise its own watchmen and the smaller and poorer parishes could not afford much on this front. The job could also prove quite dangerous for the watchman.

Drunken grandees attacking the parish watch in Dame St.
from A Real Paddy [Pierce Egan] Real Life in Ireland 1821

It appears that a regular sport among the grandees was beating up the parish watch. Clearly a policeman's lot was not a happy one.

Three Papist Criminals going to Execution
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton 1760 (private collection)

Nevertheless, "justice" was done after a fashion. These three ladies are handcuffed and praying to the Lord on their way to their deaths.

Robert Emmet's Execution
by F W Byrne 1877 (private collection)

And, speaking of execution, here is the Bould Robert Emmet.

If this is the same famous painting I have seen many times before, then I'm staggered. I have only been familiar with it in black and white and this coloured original is amazing. There are all sorts of details standing out, including the huge military presence and the way they are keeping the crowd at bay, mounted horsemen with drawn swords.

Diarmuid made an interesting point in relation to the choice of location for the execution. Apparently criminals were often executed at the scene of their crime.

Although Diarmuid didn't, I couldn't resist showing this detail from the painting. Emmet has clearly been hanged and cut down, decapitated on the block and awaiting his quartering, after which his quarters would be dispatched to the four quarters of the Empire.

If you get a chance do examine this painting in detail.

This is probably the place to mention the excellent quality of the illustrations. It is one thing to have quality digital illustrations on a screen, as we had, but a significant feature of the book is the quality of the illustrations, as you can probably gather from those I have reproduced here. I have taken them directly from the book but only used those which Diarmuid used in his talk.

Displaying the Hat
from James Malton,
A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin 1799

A shopkeeper brings out a hat to show to the lady in her carriage. Quite apart from any class angles involved, the lady will not leave the carriage for fear of soiling her clothes on the dirty street.

A Chimney Sweep
from Hugh Douglas Hamilton (private collection)

This wee boy, unlike his master, does not look in great shape. These children were actually sent up chimneys, often while there were still embers in the fire below. Many of them eventually died of diseases, including cancer, from inhaling the fumes.

Looking South from O'Connell St.
by Henry Brocas

Always the town planner, Diarmuid included this view of the work of the Wide Streets Commissionners. Of course the balance they achieved has since been broken by the construction of O'Connell Bridge House on the corner of Burgh Quay and Dolier Street.

Dublin Brothels 1747 - 1800

Diarmuid has listed all the brothels between 1747 and 1800, giving us the name of the madame, the year(s) of operation, the location, and notes on happenings. The map above gives a graphic representation of locations.

Diarmuid's only comment on this was to mention Temple Bar. I could think of a few more.

This model illustrates the forces influencing urban expansion.

So, if you were offered a choice, would you really like to go back and live in Georgian Dublin?

Not me, certainly not after Diarmuid's talk, and, of course, having read the book.

It is a tribute to Diarmuid's holding power that he did not lose the attention of a single member of his audience despite the hanky panky going on in the aisle thoughout his talk.