By Gabriel Doherty, UCC School of History
The 1916 Easter Rising was, of course, first and foremost a military event, an armed uprising whose purpose it was to end British rule in Ireland, and to substitute for it a sovereign, independent, Republic.
Given this reality, it is right and fitting that this military focus is front and centre of the current commemoration. The Rising was, however, not exclusively a military event, but a more complex, multi-faceted affair.
One of the most interesting of these ‘other’ angles, and one of the most significant reasons for the enduring interest it has inspired, nationally and internationally, was the cultural context within which it took place, and the cultural legacy it left behind.
For this was, famously, the ‘Rising of poets and playwrights,’ and during Easter Week it is fair to say that the dividing line between the martial and the aesthetic was, at times, not alone difficult to determine, but non-existent.
Practically every action taken by the leaders of the Rising, in its planning, execution and aftermath, had a self-consciously artistic dimension to it, so that the immediate military means to achieving the Republic, and its ultimate cultural end, were not distinct, but conjoined.
In so acting this same leadership (and many of their followers, who shared their vision) defied the commonly-supposed (if mistaken) antithesis between a ‘soft,’ self-indulgent concept of culture and a ‘hard,’ self-sacrificing view of war.
For these men and women, culture was not a safe refuge from the privations and hardship of armed action, but rather a necessary precursor to it, an exploration and articulation of the central issue at stake in the forthcoming struggle, which (in their view) was nothing less than the existence of a distinct Irish nation itself, and of a worthy sense of Irish nationality; if anything they shared the view that cultural activity was more actively subversive of British rule in Ireland even than military action.
To use a geological comparison, culture formed the bedrock upon which the national struggle was conducted, with armed action its upper stratum.
Given such a philosophy, it is no surprise that artists of all media, and of many nationalities, have subsequently found interest in, and derived inspiration from, the events of Easter Week, and for this reason it is entirely fitting that culture forms one of the seven principal strands of the national programme.
It is clear from the ongoing commemorative upsurge that this role of the Rising as cultural well-spring is very much alive, with the public launch this week of plans to stage a new play on the life of local hero Thomas Kent, in Cork’s Everyman theatre in May, just one item from a prodigiously long list.
To reflect this aspect of the Rising, the School of History in UCC is hosting a free, public conference on the weekend of Friday 29th – Saturday 30th January, on the theme of the arts and the Rising. During it leading practitioners from the Irish arts scene as well as prominent academic authorities will address various aspects of the event’s central theme.
The keynote address at the official opening, which takes place in UCC’s Aula Maxima, on the evening of Friday 29th January, will be delivered by Professor Micheál Ó Suilleabháin, formerly of UCC and now of the University of Limerick, and he will address the subject of music and the Rising, with particular reference to the work of Seán Ó Riada on the universally celebrated score of the highly-regarded film Mise Éire.
The closing paper will be delivered by Robert Ballagh, the prominent artist and political activist, who will speak on the subject of the visual art of the Rising in the early evening of Saturday 30 January.
Other topics to be discussed during the conference include the cinematic, literary, poetic, sculpted, and theatrical contexts and legacy of the Rising. Each paper will include a period set aside for a question and answer session involving members of the audience, and there will be opportunities for those who attend to meet with and talk to the various speakers during the scheduled coffee and lunch breaks.
More information is available from the University College Cork website and a detail conference programme can be obtained at www.ucc.ie/en/history/conferences/, and the School of History looks forward to hosting all those who can come along to what should be a fascinating series of talks.