Saturday, February 13, 2016
Rare Easter Rising photos show Dublin in rubble
From The BBC
13 February 2016
On Easter Monday 100 years ago, Irish Republicans occupied buildings in central Dublin and declared independence from the United Kingdom. Few photographs were taken of the short-lived Easter Rising, but an exhibition now on display in London provides a unique insight into the six days of fighting. "Dublin was always called the second capital of the empire, and O'Connell Street was one of the great boulevards of Europe," says Luke Dodd, curator of the exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery. "One of the things the insurgents had banked on was that the British authorities wouldn't bomb property - and boy, were they wrong. The entire centre of the city was completely eviscerated."
Although the British authorities were caught off guard by the rebellion, they quickly organised themselves. The rebels, who numbered about 1,500, had failed to capture Dublin's ports and railway stations so the British were able to bring in thousands of reinforcements. By the end of the week there were 16,000 troops in the city. The British also pounded the city with naval guns mounted on a ship stationed on the River Liffey, as well as from artillery positions along the river bank. About 450 people were killed and more than 2,500 wounded - most of them civilians. Few photographers were willing to brave the streets during the bombardment, partly because of the physical dangers, but also because of wartime censorship. "It was the height of World War One," says Dodd. "Anybody seen with a camera would have been arrested, because there was a blanket ban on any kind of publicity." When the fighting was over however, Dubliners went out on to the streets in droves, and some keen amateur photographers took their box cameras with them.
The General Post Office (GPO) building on O'Connell Street was a well-known landmark - it was here that the rebels read out their proclamation of independence and hoisted the flags of their new Irish republic. But as historian Roy Foster writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition, the GPO, along with nearby buildings such as the Imperial Hotel, Clery's department store, and the favourite cafe of the literati, the DBC, became a battleground. "Theatrical brio was part of the enterprise," he writes. "Several observers at first mistook the takeover of Dublin's centre by dashingly-dressed volunteers as the rehearsal for a play."
Most of the leaders of the rebellion were largely unknown to the public but that changed once 15 of them were sentenced to death. The manner in which leaders such as Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and James Connolly - who was tied to a chair and shot because he was too badly wounded to stand - were executed, provoked widespread anger in Ireland and beyond. This did more to foster sympathy for the rebellion and its aims than the Rising itself, and pictures of the rebel leaders taken before the Rising suddenly took on new meaning. "Photography's unique capacity to immortalise its subjects made it an essential part of the nationalists' armoury," says Dodd. The medium played a powerful role in establishing "nationalist archetypes such as 'hunger-striker', 'rebel', 'traitor' and 'spy'," he says.
All sides in this emerging struggle used photography for their own purposes, though. Scenes of tenants being evicted at the behest of absentee landlords showed, first-hand, British oppression (even if the photos were occasionally staged). Unionists in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, were quick to circulate images of the Ulster Volunteer Force - a militia dedicated to opposing Irish Home Rule, by force if necessary. And the British themselves, concerned about rumours of German support for Irish independence, circulated images of loyal Irish soldiers.
Of all the images associated with the Easter Rising, a carefully posed photograph of Countess Constance Markievicz is one of the most striking. A member of the Irish establishment who was radicalised in London while a student at the Slade School of Art, Markievicz "went back to Ireland and dedicated herself to Irish republicanism", explains Dodd, "and had herself photographed just before the rising in a uniform she had pulled together". The countess fought during the Rising and was sentenced to death but because she was a woman, her sentence was commuted. She was interned, then granted an amnesty in 1917, along with thousands of others. She ran for election to the British parliament, representing Sinn Fein, and became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. In line with Sinn Fein's policy of abstention, she refused to take her seat at Westminster. "But she became this huge focus for independence," says Dodd. "She was hugely important after the revolution as a rallying point. People like Countess Markievicz and others who lived through the 1916 rebellion were trenchantly opposed to partition."
Two months after the Rising, the Somme offensive in France saw the death of thousands of Irish soldiers. Troops from the 36th Irish division from Ulster suffered about 5,000 casualties, including about 2,000 dead on the first day alone. Their compatriots from the mainly Catholic 16th Irish division were introduced to the battle later in 1916. Between them, the two divisions were awarded five Victoria Crosses. Subsequently, the events of 1916 were viewed very differently in northern and southern Ireland. "World War One and the Somme become reified north of [today's] border and the Easter Rising is entirely ignored," says Dodd. "South of the border the contribution of Irish men to the war effort in World War One is completely ignored and forgotten about, and instead 1916 becomes the great moment at which Irish independence becomes inevitable."
Friday, February 12, 2016
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Just Finished Reading: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (FP: 1938)
In late 1936, along with many other men of his generation, Eric Blair travelled to war torn Spain to do something about the Fascist tide sweeping across Europe. Largely ignorant of war but full of naïve hope the book was a record of his experiences during the country’s Civil War. Staying for about a year – before being severally wounded – he spent most of his time at the front lines trying to keep warm and find food. Mostly he looked across at the enemy lines and wondered if anything was going to happen that day or the day after. Blair – who is rather better known under his literary name of George Orwell – felt that he was largely wasting his time although he tried his best to train the soldiers under him how to keep their rather obsolete rifles clean and the rudiments of military practise. Back in Barcelona he became tangentially involved in the sudden in-fighting between various left-wing factions in the city. Having fought with the Anarchists and their Socialist allies this became his natural home in the street fighting that followed. This, on top of everything else he had already experienced in Spain, turned him forever against the Communists directed from Moscow. After their duplicity in Spain he had no trouble understanding their later non-aggression pact with Hitler that caused so much anguish amongst Communists throughout the West. Not for Blair/Orwell the need to leave the Party or the forced mental contortions of those who stayed behind and who had to justify this unexpected volte-face. He had seen the Soviets for what they were at first hand and had – just – lived to tell the tale.
This, the political side of Orwell’s experiences in Spain (partially relegated to a few annexes in my edition), was the part that most fascinated me. I knew of some of the in-fighting that emasculated if not destroyed the Left’s ability to beat their more unified opponents on the Right but it was stimulating to get if from someone who had actually experienced it himself. It was clear from Orwell’s account that political ideology from the Communist side always trumped military or any other kind of logic. Hundreds of loyal Spanish fighters who were totally dedicated to fighting against Fascism where arrested and, some at least, executed because they would not bend to the Soviet way of doing things. Again, luckily for Orwell, he saw the way the wind was blowing and managed to get out of Spain before he was arrested.
Although I knew that Orwell had been injured in Spain I hadn’t appreciated just how serious the injury was and just how lucky he was to survive. Shot in the throat he was not expected to survive the trip to hospital. The bullet apparently missed a major artery in his neck by millimetres. A small distance in one direction and his writing career would have ended with a handful of books to his name and, possibly, a footnote in English literary history. Imagine, for a moment, a world culture without Animal Farm or 1984. A fraction of an inch separates the two worlds!
Whilst not exactly gripping or a great page turner this is worth the time and effort to read – especially if you’ve read 1984 and ever wondered where some of the ideas came from. It’s also worth the read to see war, and a rather chaotic civil war at that, from the ground by someone who was there. I am definitely coming to see contemporary first-hand accounts of historic events as a valuable means of getting to the heart of the action. An interesting and probably significant work.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
Monday, February 08, 2016
Thinking About: Retirement
I’m 56 in April so my thoughts have been turning more and more to retirement. The only thing (OK the main thing) keeping me at work is the fact that, at the moment, I simply can’t afford to retire as I have a powerful need to eat from time to time. But 60 is looking good (or at least do-able). My mortgage finishes in 2020 so that’s one less thing to be concerned about and I have a policy that matures that year too which will help. My company pension is claimable from 60 too and with 32 years in harness by then the pay-out isn’t bad. OK, it’s not exactly enough to live on (not quite) but with my savings and a little applied frugality it should get me to my State Pension age if I manage to live that long (crosses fingers). I don’t need much to keep me going – a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food on the table. As long as I have that I’m doing OK. I’m not planning on living the high life once I stop working so I doubt if I’ll miss that! I even said to people – after that asked me if I could afford to retire – that I’d rather eat cold beans out of the tin than work myself into an early grave. If I would actually do that….. well, I don’t know. Although I like to think that I would.
When I talked about taking ‘early’ retirement a few weeks ago my boss asked me “Won’t you be bored?” I just looked at her, chuckled and remarked that I didn’t come into work for something to do. Personally if I retire at 60 and live 10, 15 or 20 years more and spend most of that time sitting at home reading books I won’t consider that time wasted in the least. As to boredom – I’m going to have the time to really delve into things, to immerse myself in the world’s knowledge and to follow my interests wherever they lead for as long as I want to follow them. Who knows what I might find on that journey. It’ll be like going on a classic quest meeting interesting (if often dead) people along the way and sitting by their fireside on a cold and windy night (just like this one) discussing the meaning of life and the really big questions like ‘Do Penguins have knees?’
One of the things I’m hoping to do is to push my reading level back to that of my teenage years when I cleared 100 books a year on average. If I could get to those levels again I’d be very happy indeed. I’m also giving some serious (back burner) thought to doing a PhD. The problem I have, at the moment at least, is that I’m not sure what to do it in – which is a bit of an issue. It’ll definitely be in the political philosophy area (well, OK, probably) but there will definitely be a heavy historical component too. It’ll need to be something I’m passionate about, something that I can delve into, investigate and keep on digging. That will definitely take some deep thought. It’s a most perplexing three pipe problem….. [muses]. I’m hoping that something I read in the next few years will create a spark to builds and builds into quite a conflagration…. At least that’s the theory!
Ideally I’d like a lottery win (wouldn’t we all) to take a year or two off the 4 years I’ve yet to serve at the coalface but the odds of that are pretty long. It’s a dream that I shouldn’t really think about or it’ll just depress me. Oh, to win a million and spend the rest of my life in my own library! We can all dream – and that’s mine. Retirement here I come, one day at a time.