Sunday 26 May 2019

Exhibition giving British a glimpse into our past

A Clare man's vast collection of rare images from 1916 and the War of Independence has gone on display in London. Joe O'Shea pays a visit

A barricade made from barrels, 1916 © Sean Sexton Collection, courtesy of the Sean Sexton Collection
A barricade made from barrels, 1916 © Sean Sexton Collection, courtesy of the Sean Sexton Collection

It is one of the most extraordinary collections of early Irish photographic images anywhere in the world, put together by a former building-site labourer who left his native Co Clare for London in the early 1960s. Sean Sexton has spent most of his life scouring junk shops, antique fairs and major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's, ferreting out photographs and cameras, becoming a self-taught expert in the field.

Now in his seventies, a selection from Sexton's collection of more than 22,000 early photographic images has just gone on display at London's prestigious Photographer's Gallery, telling the story of the political and social upheaval that led to the 1916 Rising and the violent struggles which followed.

On show just off Oxford Street, The Easter Rising 1916 -Sean Sexton Collection seeks to explain events which, to the vast majority of British people, are (at best) vaguely familiar and little understood.

Curated by Sean's friend, fellow Irish exile Luke Dodd, the exhibition has taken over one floor of the gallery and features more than 80 rarely seen photographs and ephemera, including souvenir postcards, albums, press and military photographs and portraits of major figures such as de Valera, Collins and Countess Markievicz. And as Luke explains, the complex story of 1916, the focal point of the exhibition, can still confuse a British audience.

"It's been very interesting doing the exhibition here in London, people are aware of the event, but they know nothing whatsoever of the details," says Luke.

"In fact, one of the people involved in helping publicise the exhibition said to me early on, 'Why are you sending me a picture of a Polish Countess?'

"But there is a genuine curiosity here. And particularly because the relationships between the two countries have undergone such a quantum change in the last 20 years.

"The heat has gone out of it. It's become history and not politics. In the same way that, back home, our attitudes to World War I have greatly changed."

The photographs, many of which are unique images not reproduced elsewhere, are documents of key events during the turbulent years from the 1840s to the 1930s, taking in the Land League, the Celtic Revival, the formation of armed militias north and south and the armed struggles that began with the Rising and ended with the Civil War.

Some of the most striking images of 1916 - including a panoramic shot of what was then Sackville Street, one of the grand boulevards of Europe, in ruins - were found by Sean in old junk shops in London and beyond over the last five decades.

Luke explains that Sean started collecting these rare images in the 1960s, at a time when they could still be found everywhere, from antiques stalls on the Portobello Road to car-boot sales and junk shops. "He would have been up at 5am every morning, scouring stalls and sales, methodically going through every box and album and tangling with the sellers over the prices. Sean's voracious, he'll go anywhere.

"He now has probably 22,000 images, all early Irish photographs, and his collection would be nearly on a par with the one at the National Library in Dublin. In fact, in terms of really, really early images, pre-1870s, his collection could be considered better."

Many of the images from 1916 were used for propaganda purposes, with both sides very conscious of the value of images - either of brave Irish rebels or steadfast Irish soldiers of the Empire - in shaping the narrative and winning the public-relations war.

Many of the images of the leaders and martyrs of the Rising were printed on souvenir postcards for the huge Irish-American audience.

On the British side, the military authorities circulated images of loyal Irish soldiers, digging trenches on the Western Front, under the caption "The Men Who Disappointed the Kaiser" (suggesting the Germans would be dispirited by the failure of the great majority of Irishmen to heed the call to strike at the Old Enemy). They were also meant to smooth the way for conscription.

There is a famous image of Countess Markievicz, in the uniform she designed herself and pointing a Mauser pistol, which the Rebel leader had taken in a Dublin portrait studio just days before the fighting broke out. It is, in its own way, the image the Countess wanted the world to see, especially if she had not survived the fighting.

One image in the exhibition is the only known photograph of the infamous Cairo Gang, the elite undercover unit sent to Dublin to target leaders of the War of Independence in late 1920 and targeted by Michael Collins for assassination on the morning of November 21 of that year.

The photograph, of 10 men in suits and hats standing in an alleyway, is a powerful image of a turbulent, bloody time (though there is some argument amongst historians that the photo is of a different undercover unit, the Igoe Gang).

As Ireland embarks on a year-long commemoration of the events of 1916, this exhibition gives Londoners (and visitors to the capital) an opportunity to learn more about an event which is monumental in Ireland but barely remembered - and hardly understood - in the UK.

The Easter Rising 1916; Sean Sexton Collection - runs until April 3 at The Photographer's Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London

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