- Review Essay: The Material and Performative Culture of 1916
The centenary of the 1916 Rising has seen a plethora of books, performances, exhibitions, conferences, concerts, parades, websites, and many other events and products to mark the occasion. A welcome development has been new scholarship on the material and performative culture of the period. Because of the availability of new archival sources, it is possible to track all kinds of themes, environments, behaviors, locations, and objects in a way that could not be done before now. For example, if you search for the term “biscuits” on the website of the Bureau of Military History, you will find 104 results, ranging from the biscuit-gorging of the 1916 garrison in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory to the lice-ridden mattress, known as a biscuit, on which Kathleen Lynn slept as a prisoner and the rock-hard biscuits given to prisoners in Ennis Barracks in 1921.
The books under review here deal with three different aspects of material and performative culture in and around 1916: Making It Irish with the distinctively Irish Arts and Crafts movement; Making 1916 with objects, locations, and performances from the period and its aftermath; and The Abbey Rebels with the employees of the theatre who [End Page 124] participated in the Rising, as well as with their subsequent treatment by the independent state. The three books, taken together, provide a kaleidoscope of valuable information about the material world inhabited by the people of the period, the powerful artistic movement that produced so many highly charged objects relevant to a reimagined Ireland, and the birth and development of what is now our National Theatre during a time when it influenced, and was influenced by, the real events taking place outside its doors.
“We Were Making Little Gold Crosses When You Were Living in Holes in the Ground”: The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making It Irish
In 2016 Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art offered a major exhibition of widely sourced objects illuminating and reflecting on the Irish Arts and Crafts movmeent that created so many visual motifs and ideas that we take for granted today. Making It Irish was curated by Vera Kreilkamp and Diana Larsen, and Kreilkamp has edited a beautifully illustrated selection of essays relevant to the exhibition and its broader contexts. The book is laid out in four sections: political, literary, and geographic contexts; the Honan Chapel; stained-glass revival; and women’s work.
In her introduction Kreilkamp outlines the vision of the movement: “Arts and Crafts practitioners, like their literary counterparts, turned to a distant preconquest past in their search for themes and images expressing their country’s claims for the future. This look backward played a significant role in shaping literature, music, popular culture, and the visual arts during Ireland’s seemingly unstoppable passage to modernity” (9). She outlines the development of the English Arts and Crafts movement, whose origins preceded that of Ireland by less than a decade and which espoused the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris: ennobling, skilled craft work as opposed to the demonic mills of the industrial revolution; the value of handmade objects; the end of hierarchical distinctions between artists, designers, and craft-workers; and the value of good design in improving domestic and public environments. Although Ireland, aside from the northeast, had nothing like the industry England possessed, there were other reasons for wishing to espouse such a movement: the glance back [End Page 125] to a monastic and pre-Christian past allowed ideas of pre-invasion sovereignty to gain ground at a time when both constitutional nationalism and separatist republicanism were seeking to weaken, or break altogether...