Heartache in Remembering 1916

It is not purely about 1916, but about how 2016 can commemorate 1916.

By Dr Nicholas Collins


In 1938’s New Poems, published a generation after the revolutionary events of Easter week, W. B. Yeats records a visit to the Municipal Gallery. Yeats records the shock and upset he feels at seeing the faces in the portraits of key figures in the Irish revolution:

Heart smitten with emotion I sink down

My heart recovering with covered eyes[.]  

(ll. 17-18)

There is a complex sequence of emotions here, for not only is Yeats dramatically responding to the images of those lost over twenty years earlier, but he is also ‘despair[ing] that time may bring / Approved patterns of women or of men / But not that selfsame excellence again’ (ll. 30-2).

The heartache and despair develops from seeing their faces, and also from the memory of seeing their faces before they died. It’s likely that memory is as powerful today in remembering 1916 as it was for Yeats in the 1930s.


How do those memories shape our contemporary responses to 1916?


To misquote the nineties band ‘Wet Wet Wet’: memory is all around. The project to which this article contributes (theirishrevolution.ie) aims to inform and engage its readers about the 1916-1923 revolutionary period in Ireland. The project features Professor John Murphy’s astute piece that questions the continued ‘cherishing’ of the Proclamation in 1916.

What also interests me in Murphy’s piece is that it stems from a two-stage memory process: Murphy remembers ‘declaiming Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa’. That is, Murphy remembers remembering Pearse’s oration.

Another example: last Saturday’s Irish Independent informed us that a 1916 commemorative garden is to be designed by a competition winner and ‘brought to life’ by award-winning gardener Fiann Ó Nualláin. Entrants are being asked to inspire the gardener through their memories. This is ‘about trying to find a real life story about a family’s participation in 1916,’ says Ó Nualláin. In this instance, as with Murphy’s, the stress is on how remembering 1916 can influence our commemoration today.


It is not purely about 1916, but about how 2016 can commemorate 1916.


Roy Foster’s 2014 book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation of Ireland 1890-1923 takes an alternative approach, focusing on the past rather than the present. His introduction is titled ‘The Ireland of Yesterday’ in which Foster explains that the book will ‘attempt to recapture the voices of people from the era, rather than relying too heavily on memories and rationalizations—and to do this by charting opinions evidenced in letters, reflections and diaries’.

In other words, Foster dismisses memories of 1916 in his own remembering, choosing rather to revive primary documents of 1916, even from those for whom ‘“revolution” did not seem to be in their “objective” interests’—figures normally left out of the revolutionary narrative. Foster’s approach re-members—pieces back together—the hitherto silenced or forgotten figures from 100 years ago.

Here, then, are two subtly distinctive types of memory: privileging the present or re‑membering the past. One more phenomenon of memory needs to be added to these. Returning to Yeats, for instance, we must think not only of ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ when we consider Yeats’ memory—nor, for Foster’s purpose, only ‘Easter 1916’. Yeats offers a treatise on memory in A Vision, whose first version was published in 1925, the second in 1937—the decades when Yeats was thinking through the power of the revolution.

Bruno's memory image, De compositione imaginum
Figure 1: Giordano Bruno’s memory system

A Vision includes poems and stories about Michael Robartes, whose name heads the collection in which ‘Easter 1916’ was published. A Vision is therefore tied inextricably to memories of the revolution and so, even when Yeats’ structural thesis on memory explores the supercelestial, rather than the mortal sphere, we have to think of A Vision and the revolution at once. Yeats’ theories about the ‘Great Year’, as established through the ‘Great Wheel’ of Giraldus, might quite easily be dismissed to a footnote of Yeats’ career. However, I’d like to consider this treatise on memory as important: not only to Yeats’ thinking through ‘Easter 1916’ and the subsequent revolutionary events, but also to remembering what Yeats remembers in and through his writing.


For example, one of the potential sources for Yeats’ inspiration ‘Giraldus’ is Renaissance Humanist Giglio Gregorio Giraldi. Who else has been influenced by Giraldi, and how do they compare to Yeats? This leads us to another Italian, Giordano Bruno, who was for a short while an inflammatory and significant figure in sixteenth-century Europe and England. Bruno’s own memory system relied on Hermetic-Cabalist traditions which went against certain Humanist trends in Renaissance Europe; Yeats’ Robartes also had an interest in Cabala, ‘found[ing] a small Cabalistic society in Ireland’ for a time. In fact, Bruno’s memory system [Fig. 1] is pictured not too dissimilar from Giraldus’ ‘Great Wheel’ image [Fig. 2]. Should we then ignore the connection between Bruno’s and Yeats’ memory? Or, further still, should we ignore the connection William Shakespeare had to Bruno, and thereafter Yeats’ connection to Shakespeare?

Great Wheel A Vision A
Figure 2: Geraldus’ Great Wheel


The answer at this stage must surely be ‘no’, even if these initially interesting avenues turn into cul-de-sacs. What is central to these ideas is the notion of memory.

There is no doubting that our commemorations of 1916 are driven by memory, be they rethinking memories of the past, putting documents back together in order to re-member the revolutionary period or—and this is an avenue currently unexplored—remembering what those we commemorate had at the forefront of their own memories.

I would add that this doesn’t apply only to the events 100 years ago, but to any event that contributes to the formation of the modern Irish nation-state—right up to the marriage referendum of 2015. All of these events follow in the shadow of 1916, but are less evenly assembled than we’ve yet to appreciate. Memory provides another key to unlocking their full meaning.


Dr Nicholas Collins, Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, will be speaking at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures Conference at UCC in July on ‘1916: Remembering the Renaissance’.

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