Tuesday 21 May 2019

'We need to restore confidence in our nation'

A collection of personal tales of 1916 curated by local Wexford artists and historians aims to inspire a new generation

Piece of history: Wexford artist and historian Michael Fortune holds a Wexford pike used in the 1916 Rising.
Piece of history: Wexford artist and historian Michael Fortune holds a Wexford pike used in the 1916 Rising.

Celine Naughton

For decades after the bloody rebellion of 1798, families across Wexford kept alive the immortal warning of their forefathers to "keep the pike in the thatch."

The message was clear: locals were urged to conceal their weapons in the roofs of their homes in readiness for another Rising. The caution passed into folklore down through generations and 118 years later, was literally heeded as rebels from the model county once again armed themselves with pikes.

By 1916, the use of such primitive weapons was a necessity borne out of a lack of modern rifles, yet in spite of this crucial disadvantage, local volunteers played a significant part in the events of Easter Week 1916, with Wexford becoming the scene of the biggest Rising outside the capital and the last place where rebels surrendered.

This is one of many anecdotes that appear in 1916 Stories, a collection of personal tales of the Rising produced by local artists and historians, Michael Fortune and his partner Aileen Lambert, from Ballindaggin.

"It's important to highlight these details, because while stories about 1798 and the famine survived locally, there's a lot we don't know about 1916 and the years that followed," says Michael.

"Families were so devastated by the Civil War they refused to speak of it, and it became a terrible secret that blighted generations.

"At my own grandmother's wake last year, a man showed me a picture of her first cousin, a prominent figure in the Irish Republican Army, who took the anti-Treaty side in the war. I'd never seen it before, or heard of his activities. Was she ashamed?

"I'll never know, because she never talked about it. Certain things were simply not spoken about," he adds.

And while this year's centenary provides the perfect opportunity to lift that cloak of silence, Michael suspects the rebels of 1916 might spin in their sacrificial graves if they could hear the chatter of today's generation.

"1916 was as much a cultural revolution as a political one and I wonder what those involved would think of the homogenised, hybrid, faux-American/English accent that trips off the tongues of our young generation.

"To me, this demonstrates a widespread lack of confidence in ourselves as a nation.

"Language and accents change gradually, over time, but in the last 20 years, a dramatic shift to this new hybrid accent and its accompanying affectations has spread throughout the country.

"Since the late 1990s, the term, 'the UK' has slipped into our vocabulary and, I believe, whitewashes the cultural identities of our Welsh, Scottish and English neighbours. Are we aware as Irish people what this means, historically and globally?

"If there's one thing we could all do to mark the centenary of 1916, it's to reflect on who we are and where we have come from. Without a sense of who we are locally, we will slowly gravitate to a homogenised, global cultural identity, controlled by god knows whom, where we are told how to sound, eat, dress and think.

Other activities close to Michael's heart are his and Aileen's traditional music and song projects, The 1916 Song Project, and Children of the Revolution, and a walking/cycling event called Backroads to the Rising.

From 7am on Easter Monday, people will retrace the steps of the men and women who walked and cycled from various towns and villages to raise the national flag over Enniscorthy, which this year will stage one of the biggest parades outside Dublin.

Michael and Aileen's 1916 projects form part of the Wexford centenary commemorations programme coordinated by district manager Padraig O'Gorman, who says it's been a decade in the planning.

"For the past 50 years we've held a 1916 commemoration every Easter Monday, so it's already part of our tradition. Ten years ago, Wexford County Council started putting a small budget aside each year towards the centenary. Then, 18 months ago, we set up a dedicated committee and asked local people how they wanted 1916 to be commemorated.

"The answers were clear: they wanted something dignified, reflective, solemn and inspiring, but most of all, there should be a legacy for the youth of the county. We put together an information pack for primary and secondary schools so children could connect with this part of their history, and it's been very well received."

Another key member of the committee is Wexford County Council archivist Grainne Doran, who's given lectures, written articles and curated exhibitions in Enniscorthy Castle and the Athenaeum, the building Volunteers made their headquarters during the Rising.

Among her many projects are a Day of Letters in the town library, a Cumann na mBan tea party, the publication of a previously unseen diary account of the Rising by Goddard Orpen, a member of the local gentry, and a presentation of certificates to the relatives of those who took part in the Rising.

"The Easter Rising is part of the tapestry of the culture and history of Wexford," she says. "It means a lot to the people of our county that we commemorate the brave men and women of 1916 for their extraordinary determination, perseverance and zeal in furthering the cause for national independence."

Irish Independent

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