Dublin 1916: theatre of revolt

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    At Easter 1916, Dublin city centre was one of a series of sites throughout Ireland where a rebellion was staged against British rule. It was a strategic failure, swiftly crushed by superior British forces. The event, however, subsequently took a central role in the mythology of modern Ireland.

    The first visual representations were of the conflict’s aftermath: photographic journeys through landscapes of ruin. From the distance of the camera, we see none of the pockmarks of shell bursts, nor the etchings of machine guns. Instead, traces of life in the city seem to have been swept aside by an unseen hand: the passing of millennia or a violent action of nature. Architecture alone has witnessed and recorded its presence. Amongst the fragments, the shell of the General Post Office (G.P.O.) in Sackville Street is one of the few buildings still wholly recognizable. The remnants of its classical form, portico and pediment, columns and entablature seem to transcend its prosaic modern functions and allude to something more ancient. The bewilderment of city’s inhabitants is also recorded. Dubliners have become inquisitive tourists in streets which hitherto were the locus of everyday life. They wander around aimlessly in a landscape as alien and picturesque as Pompeii. This shift in perception was captured by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats who hinted that Dublin, purged of modern commercialism had transcended its petty inadequacies to revive a slumbering heroic past.

    ‘I have met them at the close of day
    Coming with vivid faces
    From counter or desk among grey
    Eighteenth-century houses [.]’
    All is changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.’

    His comments were prescient. Initially unpopular, the republican leaders, executed by the British, slowly became recast as heroic martyrs. Similarly, the spaces where their heroism was forged became venerated. The G.P.O. and Sackville Street, however, already had a republican history. It was originally conceived in the eighteenth century as part of a series of magnificent urban spaces to provide an arena of spectacle and self-celebration for the colonial Anglo-Irish and their vision of a Protestant republic. O’Connell/Sackville Street became the temporal, geographical and mythical hinge upon which two different versions of Irish republicanism waxed and waned. Its recasting after independence as a space of Catholic Nationalism bore testimony to its consistency in providing a backdrop for the production of ritual and myth. In the 1920s and 30s, as the nascent country, beset with economic stagnation and political tensions, turned to spectacle as a salve for it social problems, O’Connell Street and the G.P.O. provided its most sacred sites. Within the introduction of new myths, however, individual as well as national identities were created and consolidated. The emerging identity of modern Ireland became inextricably linked with that of one ambitious politician. His uses of the G.P.O. in particular revealed a perceptive understanding of the political uses of classical architecture and urban space.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages10
    Publication statusPublished - May 2002
    Event6th International Conference for the Study of English (ESSE 6) - University of Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France
    Duration: 13 Jun 200215 Jun 2002


    Conference6th International Conference for the Study of English (ESSE 6)


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