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Home Reviews 1916 As Spectacle

1916 As Spectacle

Angus Mitchell
Ireland’s 1916 Rising: Explorations of History-Making, Commemoration & Heritage in Modern Times, by Mark McCarthy, Ashgate, 532 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-1409436232 In its incarnation as both a site of memory and myth-making mirage, the interpretation of the 1916 Rising is critical to understanding Ireland’s modern emergence. Many vectors converged to convert different social and political dynamics into a common cause. Opinion has been divided since then on the meaning and significance of this display of resistance to the British Empire at the height of the First World War. This book seeks to map the legacy of 1916 and capture its shifting meanings by considering the multifaceted varieties of commemoration. If the narrative is often dense with detail, the approach ultimately demonstrates the divide between heritage and history. Once upon a time, heritage was about the preservation of old monuments and buildings. No more. Heritage, in its reinvented state, is part of the industrial complex of tourism and national identity politics. It is now largely about spectacle and selling the historic environment: packaging the past for the benefit and profit of the present. Preservation is frequently usurped by presentation and the efficient, commercial management of sites and memories as part of a nation’s cultural capital. History is something else. Ireland’s route forward from April 1916 has few interludes of fulfilment. It was a road littered with compromise, intellectual treachery and cynical, political appropriation. Despite all the promises to defend “the spirit of 1916” it is hard to determine exactly what that spirit constitutes a century on. Beyond the poetry of WB Yeats and the Gaelic League and the tortured politics of the language movement, 1916 has been regularly stripped of both its intellectual and historical contexts. If the Proclamation of the Republic encrypted the Fenian tradition of resistance, it also crystallised a radical and paradigmatic rethinking of a society that was pluralist, European and anti-imperial, advocating the local above the global. In the intellectual background to the Rising, there were dedicated and brilliant men and women: some of them were executed. The Irish Volunteer movement was itself a product of historical revisionism, but a revisionist position that placed the people of Ireland at its core and not a history that defended centuries of invasive, iniquitous governance. Rewriting history became a requisite part of thinking independently. The histories of Alice Stopford Green and James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History were part of a movement…

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