- All Dressed Up: Modern Irish Historical Pageantry by Joan FitzPatrick Dean
A vogue for historical pageantry swept Europe and North America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its impact was felt in Ireland. Throughout the late nineteenth century and the entire twentieth century, Irish historical pageantry recycled vernacular culture (ballads, poems, speeches, tableaux, songs, stories) and iconic images as it seized upon a fragmentary understanding of the past. Historical pageants—including those sponsored by the lord lieutenant, as well as such voluntary groups such as Conradh an Gaeilge, the GAA, Catholic and Protestant organizations, and suffragette clusters—played to and gratified the audience’s horizon of expectations. As a rule, pageant makers crafted narratives based on an understanding already embraced and endorsed by their audience to address specific moments in a highly contested Irish history. Their public appeal and success alone merit scholarly attention. More important, these pageants and the role they play in Irish theatrical history are a vital element in understanding the broader history of theater in Ireland.
All Dressed Up, the latest monograph from Joan FitzPatrick Dean, is the first critical study of pageantry in Ireland. It traces the history and impact of pageants in twentieth-century Ireland. A substantial academic study, the volume includes thirty-seven illustrations, eight of them in color; it also contains a new English-language translation of P. H. Pearse’s Macghníomhartha Chúchulain translated by Seán Ó Briain, and draws material from privately held archives.
In pageantry, the past is experienced as present. The very act of personation of figures from Ireland’s past, mythological as well as historical, carried affective, ludic, and cultural powers. Such powers are the theme and topic of this study. Drawing on Pierre Nora’s influential theorizing of national memory, Dean describes these manipulations of the past as lieux de mémoire that aimed not only to entertain but also to incorporate symbolic elements as they aspired to forge Ireland’s heritage. Pageants, throughout the twentieth century, mediated and [End Page 148] meditated on Irish history. Such pageants, historical in nature and theatrical in form, depended on a large cohort of amateur performers to construct narratives. Often performed in open-air venues to impressive audiences, pageants demanded larger casts than the organizers’ numbers alone; the inclusions of supernumeraries allowed pageants to expand the prospective, sympathetic audience to include performers’ friends and families. The narratives they performed perpetuated an interpretation of the past shaped less by empirical research or by professional historians than by the appropriation of key events and figures to suit their community’s immediate purposes and ideological needs. Pageants privileged the sensory over the cerebral, the affective over the intellectual, and they deployed extravagant effects to resonate with audiences’ political convictions. “By creating sensory overload,” Dean writes, “pageants reclaim the theatricality that realism drained from drama. As spectacle comes to dominate, the spoken word or text recedes.”
Dean points out that many more people saw the Free State’s military tattoos or parades than attended all of the Abbey performances of O’Casey’s plays in the 1920s. Historical pageantry had traditionally served to consolidate and expand power, and Ireland was no exception: public spectacle was associated with the colonial administration, aristocrats, and the monarchy. Elsewhere, pageants were typically royal, imperial, or vice-regal, and in most cases, hegemonic— almost always state-sponsored, supported, or subsidized. The focus of Dean’s study is how the Irish experience bucked that trend. As she notes, “For all of the similarities that exist in the historical pageants in Ireland and the pageants in other English-speaking countries, ruptures unique to the Irish experience profoundly shaped not only the narratives of historical pageantry but also when it flourished. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Irish historical pageants often created aspirational narratives in which a young man came to lead a weary, oppressed people.” Bombastic celebrations of hegemonic power in Ireland led nationalists to respond with subversive pageants of resistance.
Chapter 1 considers pre-1922 pageants that “instilled a highly selective heroic...