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Remembering 1916: the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising

Fearghal McGarry
Professor Fearghal McGarry
School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics
GPO Dublin
General Post Office, Dublin

Research carried out at Queen’s led to the creation of a series of works which focus on the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, an event regarded both as a powerful symbol of Irish nationhood, as well as one with a controversial legacy. The work has been hailed as an exemplary model of how controversial historical events can be interpreted in ways that encourage social and political cohesion and understanding.

Research Challenge

A PLURALIST AND INCLUSIVE COMMEMORATION 

The centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 generated enormous interest in Ireland and beyond. In the century that followed 1916, the significance, meaning and symbolism of the event has assumed many forms. 
 
Factors such as the Northern Irish peace process, liberalisation of Irish society, and adoption by the Irish government of a reconciliatory commemorative framework, meant that a pluralist and inclusive commemoration was needed to counter the socially conservative interpretations which had dominated both public understanding and popular historiographical interpretations of the rebellion after Irish independence.

Our Approach

HISTORY FROM BELOW

Through high-profile collaborations with public-history partners, and institutions such as the Irish Post Office and Abbey Theatre, researchers at Queen’s analysed the Rising and the evolving historical memory of that event over the past century. 
 
Adopting a ‘history from below’ approach which mined recently-released witness testimony and pension records detailing veterans’ experiences, the  research built a historical record the experiences of rank-and-file revolutionaries from ordinary backgrounds, particular radicals who were marginalised after independence.  
 
The works that were created included: 

  • ‘The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916’ (Oxford University Press, 2010, 2015, 2017) by Fearghal McGarry 
  • ‘Rebels. Voices from the Easter Rising’ (Penguin, 2011) by Fearghal McGarry 
  • ‘The Abbey Rebels of 1916’ (Gill & Macmillan, 2015) by Fearghal McGarry 
  • ‘1916 and Irish Republicanism: between Myth and History’, in John Horne and Edward Madigan (eds), Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution 1913-1923 (RIA, 2013) by Fearghal McGarry 
  • ‘Remembering 1916. The Easter Rising, the Somme and the Politics of Memory in Ireland’ (Cambridge University Press, 2016) by Richard S. Grayson and Fearghal McGarry 

Through these works the researchers promoted greater public awareness of how progressive impulses such as feminism and socialism were obscured after 1916, as Catholic nationalist representations gained ground in a more conservative state and society, the research helped to shape a pluralist approach to the commemoration.

“The work has been hailed as an exemplary model of how highly controversial events can be interpreted in ways that encourage social and political cohesion and understanding.”

What impact did it make?

'A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF 20TH CENTURY HISTORY IN RETROSPECT'

The research was used to create “GPO Witness History”; the flagship exhibition of Ireland’s commemorative  Post Office. The €100,000 exhibition was opened by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016. In 2017 the exhibition won the European Museum Academy’s prestigious Micheletti Award (2017). The judges stated: ‘The Centre is a perfect example of 20th century history in retrospect, dealing in an even-handed way with a very emotive subject . . . It is an extraordinary achievement, an historical challenge which has been transformed into a reconciliation centre which also poses questions for the future.’  
 
In 2012 Ireland’s national theatre commissioned playwright Jimmy Murphy to adapt Rebels for the stage. Featuring archival testimony, the production dramatised ‘ordinary’ rebels’ experiences, bringing to public attention their radical motives. Staged at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, 2015 and 2016, it also performed to sold-out audiences in London, Manchester, and New York in 2016. 
 
The lead researcher on the works, Fearghal McCarry is renowned as an expert about the Easter Rising and his extensive TV and radio engagements continue to generate impact among the public.  

Key Facts
  • ‘The Abbey Rebels’ was described ‘one of the most significant studies to emerge from the explosion of recent research on this extraordinary episode in Irish history’ (Prof. J.J. Lee (NYU) 
  • The Rising was described by Irish Economic and Social History, 37, as ‘The finest account yet of the 1916 Rising’. 

Our Impact

Impact related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Learn more about Queen’s University’s commitment to nurturing a culture of sustainability and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through research and education.

  • SDG 16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions
  • UN Goal 16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions

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Sub-themes
  • Creativity and cultural understanding
  • Peace, identity, conflict and social sustainability
  • Valuing heritage