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Are commemorations more than they seem?


The 1916 Rising, an armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland which took place over Easter week, has become a symbolic event in Irish history. Its commemoration has been used to convey cultural and societal values and to underpin contemporary political and economic positions.

Approaching the centenary of the event, Roisín Higgins, Reader in Modern History at Teesside University, set out to encourage conversation around commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, to provide a framework for understanding historical memory and create space for greater public empathy and understanding.

The Research

Higgins' research shows that the significance of Easter Week 1916 lies more in its symbolic capital than in the literal reading of events. Commemorations are best understood as multi-layered processes that enable communities to make sense of the present through engagement with history.

The initial focus of Higgins' work was on the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising. It demonstrated how, in 1966, the commemoration was used to showcase Irish modernity and as a platform for debates over the future direction of the Irish economy and society. However, 1916 commemorations also became spaces for socialists, feminists and republicans to challenge the authority and policies of the state.

In tracing patterns of remembrance across one hundred years, Higgins' work shows how rituals and material objects have been used to suggest that the original event was being 'recaptured' in annual observance. Higgins instead argues that each act of commemoration reshapes and reimagines the event that is being remembered.

Working with public institutions such as Dublin's GPO Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Higgins played the role of historical consultant on the 'Commemoration' zone of permanent exhibition GPO: Witness History. Her work on historical memory also informed her role as presenter on National Treasures, a television programme broadcast on RTÉ in 2018, encouraging audiences to share their interpretations of the past through their personal possessions.

The Impact

This project played a pivotal role in introducing the public to new ways of interpreting commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising and deepened understanding of how historical events are used to create meaning and conversations in the present. Higgins' works empowered audiences, from local groups to those with Irish heritage across the world, to share memories and exchange ideas, illuminating and challenging their assumptions about past events.

Landmark partnerships with cultural institutions, community groups and the media were influential in providing a framework for understanding historical memory, inclusive of diverse traditions.

At the opening of the €10 million GPO Museum, the Irish Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht described it as one of the flagship projects in the Centenary Programme. The museum welcomed over 180,000 visitors in its first year and won both the best Cultural Experience at the Irish Tourism Industry Awards and the European Museum Academy Luigi Micheletti Award in 2017.

The four-part television series National Treasures was extremely popular and received a 25 per cent audience share, increasing to 30 per cent by the end of its four episodes, far exceeding the typical 15 per cent viewership in the same slot.

“The [GPO] Centre is a perfect example of 20th century history in retrospect, dealing in an even-handed way with a very emotive subject, which would have been impossible even a decade ago. It is an extraordinary achievement, an historical challenge with has been transformed into a reconciliation centre which also poses questions for the future.”

Luigi Micheletti Award judging panel

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