Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Easter Rising 1916 at the Photographers’ Gallery

The Countess Markievicz confusing armed struggle
 with theatrical posturing (Sean Sexton Collection)

To mark the centenary of the Easter uprising in Dublin, the Photographers’ Gallery in London has put on an exhibition focusing on that historically significant event.  There are about 80 images, including ephemera, drawn from the important collection of Irish photographs owned by Sean Sexton, who lives at Walthamstow in London.  The first part examines early photography in Ireland in order to emphasise the poor living conditions in the rural south, and the British military presence, the asymmetric relationship symbolised by an 1861 photograph of Queen Victoria in a carriage surveying her Irish domain.  The main section deals with the uprising itself, the major personalities involved in its leadership, and the immediate aftermath.  The final section looks at the consequences, the dividend for Sinn Fein despite not having been involved in the uprising, the political fallout as the struggle for independence gave rise to partition, and the bloody civil war which followed.

It is clear that photography had long been used not only as a documentary tool but also to foster a distinctive Irish culture which was Celtic and Catholic.  That could be achieved overtly – photographs of evictions – or implicitly, in photographs of archaeological sites that suggested the continuity of a national identity which pre-dated the presence of outsiders.  In that sense records of the events of 1916 were part of a continuum of photography as propaganda in the Nationalist cause, though clearly qualitatively different in their dramatic impact.

The uprising started on 24 April 1916, taking advantage of British involvement in the European conflict.  As one of the information panels put it, ‘England’s engagement in a protracted war provided the perfect cover for a revolution and resurrected an old adage, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.’   Understandably with the cumbersome technology of the period and wartime censorship, plus the dangers inherent in standing in an exposed spot, the fighting during the six days of the uprising itself was largely unphotographed.  Once the rebels had surrendered and the immediate dangers were over, however, there was a concerted effort to document the damage, which was extensive, and highlight the ham-fisted treatment of the ringleaders which appalled a population that had been to a large extent indifferent to the uprising itself.

The introductory panel refers to the role photography played after the uprising ‘in evolving a set of archetypes – the martyr, the hunger-striker, the rebel, the traitor, the spy – which paved the way for Irish independence and helped to shape the nationalist narratives that informed the Irish Republic.’  In particular there was a religious undercurrent underpinning the uprising, notably the idea of martyrdom for the executed leaders, who achieved fame after death to an extent they had not had while alive.  The images assisted a political transition from the previous emphasis on Home Rule by constitutional means to extra-parliamentary Republicanism.  The ascendency of Catholic influence in the movement is displayed in a photograph of a well-dressed group, those at the front on their knees and Irish flags in evidence, captioned ‘A crowd reciting the Rosary during the Irish Conference at Downing Street 1922’, reminding any who sought the establishment of a secular Republic, with Church and State separated, that they were going to be disappointed, and there are references to the way women in general were discriminated against in the 1937 Constitution.

In a video interview, curator Luke Dodd consistently refers to the rebels as insurgents so it is not difficult to see where his sympathies lie, and this is not an even-handed display – one wall has even been painted green to set off the photographs of the uprising to better effect.  The show couldn’t have been more partisan if selections from the James Connolly Songbook were playing on a loop.  One would be forgiven for thinking when reading the captions that ‘England’ was united in its desire to exploit the Irish, ignoring the fact that large sections of the working class in Britain, both rural and urban, also experienced extreme levels of poverty.

Similarly crude in its analysis, the exhibition pretends to cover both sides of the religious divide but material dedicated to Loyalism is fairly sparse, notably a couple of albums commemorating Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers.  One might be forgiven for assuming that the Protestant population outside the industrial North-East consisted entirely of wealthy landowners, and one certainly won’t learn anything here about the ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the Free State.  There are 20,000 images in Sexton’s collection, so this must be a very thin slice of what might have been shown.  It is enough to make the desired political points, certainly, but a more nuanced context would have been welcome.  That would have gone some way to reducing the sense, walking round the gallery, that the propaganda surrounding Easter 1916 in Dublin is still deemed to have currency in 2016 in London.

The exhibition opened on 22 January and runs until 3 April.  I doubt if there are any plans to transfer it to Belfast.