Musings on Public History


A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to win an ‘Impact Award’ for ‘delivering research which has a demonstrable impact on society, culture and people’. The award was for my Public History work, and specifically for several museum and heritage projects I’ve been involved with.

The award, alongside Andrew Adonis’ ill-informed comments implying that academics luxuriate in a three month summer holiday (if only!) set me thinking about why I got involved with Public History. The ever-present REF is certainly one reason. For academics in the UK the REF has ensured that we all think a lot about impact and engagement. In addition to teaching, researching, grading, administering and writing, we are now supposed to be actively involved in public engagement and have a meaningful and (most importantly) measurable impact on society. It’s a tall order (and doesn’t leave much time for swanning around during the summer ‘break’!)

Public History is a very vague term, and one that has been subject to much debate. Robert Weible has concluded that ‘the discipline’s practitioners are educators who neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves’ . That, combined with Lucy Worsley’s take on it which is ‘if history is “finding what happened in the past”, then, public history is “telling lots of people about it”’ seems a pretty good definition to me.

Like so many things I don’t recall making a conscious decision to go down the rabbit hole that is Public History. A combination of my inability to say no, curiosity and the opportunity to get behind the scenes at some fascinating historic sites has meant that over the past three years I’ve been working (sometimes simultaneously) on three separate projects – Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse, Fortress Spike Island and Nano Nagle Place. I have also become increasingly aware that much excellent academic work lies largely unread on library shelves (or worse yet in inaccessible library stacks). Eventually the research does filter down through generations of academics and ultimately forms a part in changing, altering, clarifying or confirming our view of the past and helps to inform our present and our future. But it’s a slow process and there’s very little interaction between author and reader – very often it’s a couple of reviews that appear several years after the book has been published.

In universities there is an increasing emphasis on retention, not just making sure that students stay to finish their degree, but also encouraging graduates to become postgraduates. Most of those leaving university with a degree or degrees don’t pursue an academic career. Some may go into related fields – law, journalism, heritage, museums, teaching – but many don’t. We teach our students all sorts of transferable skills relating to research and writing, and these are valuable tools in any workplace. But sometimes it’s nice to learn things in a non-traditional ways that can change our perception of the world and for me Public History can help do that. Incorporating elements of Public History into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching is key to this.

I remember visiting Kilmainham Gaol as a small child and being completely enthralled by the story of Anne Devlin’s incarceration there in 1803 (I remember being horrified when I learnt that she had been kept in a basement cell with only a sliver of light seeping in through the tiny window a few inches above the ground. Imagine my disappointment when I learnt years later that we don’t actually know what cell she was held in). I was also fascinated by the story of Grace Gifford’s marriage to Joseph Plunkett hours before his execution in 1916. Those stories combined with the chill of the narrow corridors and the being able to stand inside the tiny cells before being brought outside to see the stonebreakers’ yard where the executions took place left an indelible mark on me and certainly fueled my interest in becoming a historian. It also left me with an abiding interest in visiting site-specific museums (and an enduring fascination with ‘Dark Tourism’). As a teenager I went on a walking tour of Dublin and the guide pointed out the beauty of the city’s buildings if you look beyond the ground floor. And it’s true. Dublin (and O’Connell Street in particular) is plagued with horrible shop signage, but above the plastic there are wonderful buildings to be seen. A decade ago, on my first visit to Chicago, I went on an architectural tour on the Chicago River which changed my perception and understanding of modern architecture (and at least partly inspired the writing of Blood Runs Green). Those three tours were wonderful when I took them, but they’ve had a much longer impact and on an almost daily basis I look beyond shop signs, pause to read a plaque on a wall, or consider the history behind a street name. Admittedly these are not things that fascinate everyone, but those three tours have greatly enriched my life.

All of which is a rather rambling way to say I think Public History is important and potentially has a greater impact than the academic articles sitting in the library or on JStor (though they are also a key part of the historian’s job as expertise is necessary when trying to distill complex histories into 150 words of panel text for an exhibition). When I was approached to be involved with the redevelopment of Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse I jumped at the chance, and then when another project involving a prison (and a fort) appeared it seemed to make sense to do that too (and given that that one was on an island in the middle of Cork Harbour I really couldn’t resist the opportunity). The final project was rather different – the redevelopment of an eighteenth-century convent in Cork City. Part of the development included a new heritage centre that would tell the story not only of Nano Nagle, the founder of the Presentation Sisters, but also the story of the nuns as they spread across the globe.

My job on all the projects was historical consultant. On site-specific projects (as opposed to purpose-built museums) it’s important to have a good imagination, for the site that you visit at the start of the project will bear little resemblance to the one that visitors will see on opening day.

These are before and after photos of (from the top) Nano Nagle Place, Fortress Spike Island and Kilmainham Courthouse. The process of getting from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’ photo will be the subject of another blogpost.

Fortress Spike Island


I returned to Cobh on Friday and took a boat out to Spike Island for the launch of the Spike Island guidebook. My co-authors Simon Hill and Gerry Moore were also along for the event.


The island has been transformed since my first visit there about 18 months ago. Then it was hard to imagine the changes that were to take place. The before and after images below give some idea of the work that was undertaken. There were some information panels dotted around the island before we began work, but now the history of the island is told through information panels, reconstructions, film and soundscapes. Many of the buildings have been restored (and there’s now an excellent coffee shop too!)

At the ceremony to launch the guidebook there was also the handing over of the Spike Island chalice. This had been first used on Spike in the mid-1840s and was later used by Chaplains in Mountjoy Jail for many years. Simon and I visited Mountjoy Prison Museum when we were working on a project at Kilmainham Gaol and Courthouse and by chance came across both the Chalice that had been made for Spike Island, and a set of prisoner records detailing prisoners being sent from Mountjoy to Spike in the mid-nineteenth century. The Irish Prison Service agreed to return the Chalice to Spike Island so it can now be displayed in its original home.


There was a lovely ceremony to both welcome the Chalice back and to launch the guidebook – though clearly I hadn’t got the dress code memo!

launch of guide book

I know I’m biased, but the trip to Spike Island is well worth it (and the guidebook should definitely be picked up too!) Indeed it’s not just me that thinks the island is worth visiting – it has been nominated as one of Europe’s leading tourist attractions and is up there with the likes of the Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum!


A job!


This might be of interest to anyone who fancies 6 months in Liverpool and can teach Irish History. I’m on sabbatical from next January and we need someone to step into my shoes for 6 months. The students are great, my colleagues are great and Liverpool is great (and I’ll be around to show whoever gets the job the ropes) before I hide away to write a book about a spy (among other things!)

More information about the job can be found here: LJMU Job

The American Southwest

I took several weeks away from teaching, researching & writing to take a jaunt around the America Southwest.
3000 kilometres driven, 5 states, 7 National Parks, 2 National Forests, 1 Monument Valley, 45 degrees heat, 230 kilometres hiked, countless litres of water drunk.


Neon Junkyard, Las Vegas


Interior of the Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas


The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park


Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon, Utah


Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon


Bryce Canyon


Arches National Park, Utah


Arches National Park


Canyonlands National Park, Utah


Mesa Verde National Park


Monument Valley


Antelope Canyon


Grand Canyon

Flagstaff, Arizona

Route 66

  Flagstaff, Arizona

Grand Canyon

Route 66

Après nous le déluge

EUREFFriday was a miserable day.

I was firmly in the Remain camp. There wasn’t one single Leave argument that I found compelling. Yes, the EU requires reform, but leaving rather than staying to try to fix the problems doesn’t seem a sensible (or honourable) solution.

So much has been said, and will be said, about the consequences of this vote. So much of that is speculation. The term ‘post-factual’ is being bandied about. There seems to be an aversion to speaking plainly – ‘post-factual’ generally just means ‘lies’ The Leave campaign lied about the £350 million, they lied about the NHS, they lied about immigration figures, they lied about Turkey being about to join the EU. Whether people believed those lies and voted accordingly is hard to know, but what is certain is that the political parties are so far from their grassroots that they have no idea what they believed, or felt, or wanted. The Remain campaign wasn’t much better. It was weak and patronising and very poorly managed. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party have failed their members. To a very large extent this vote was a vote against the establishment. This was a vote against, a vote against the establishment, a vote against the political elite, a vote against the EU a vote against immigration…

It’s not a vote for anything. Business will suffer, education will suffer, healthcare will suffer, infrastructure will suffer. I fear for what this may mean for Northern Ireland. This is a negative vote. It achieves nothing. There are no glory days to return to. There is no Empire any more to prop up this island on the edge of Europe. The island is itself divided, not just into Scotland who voted to Remain and England and Wales who voted to Leave. Urban and rural Britain is divided. There are no positives here at all.

In the spirit of hope over expectation I’ll spend the afternoon watching Ireland play France in the hope that at least one result this week will be a good one.

[Edit: disappointed, if not surprised, that Ireland lost…am clinging to the faint pleasure I got in the fact that both Dublin and Westmeath won in the Leinster football championship…very small pleasures in the grand scheme of things!]

Thinking aloud

FullSizeRender (1)

This isn’t usually a forum for any political commentary. However, the current political climate, not just in Britain, but much more broadly, makes it hard to stay silent. I’m researching and writing about the growth of nationalism and terrorism in the late nineteenth century at the moment and the rhetoric of the 1880s is depressingly similar to that of today. Discussion of the superiority of one nation, one colour, one creed over another is sadly familiar. The lack of empathy, the inability to see that another’s difficulty could be your difficulty, but for luck and circumstances. Then and now there should be room for more kindness, generosity, compassion, understanding, sympathy and empathy. The ferocious desire to identify as being part of one group, one tribe, one nation leads to an inability to see the richness, value and importance of all other groups.

The papers are full of ‘experts’ citing ‘facts’ in favour of Leave and Remain. Every day more referendum literature pours through the door, much of it inciting fear, anxiety and hatred of the ‘other’. There has been no debate. It’s a case of who is shouting loudest. I’ve seen very little rational discussion, but a huge amount of anti-immigrant rhetoric. As an immigrant in Britain (and one of the few entitled to vote) I find much of the debate on immigration and the value of immigrants deeply offensive. There is little nuance in the debate and it’s generally aimed at the lowest common denominator. When I have pointed out to those arguing in favour of leaving the EU that I too am an immigrant I’ve been repeatedly told that I’m ok, it’s the ‘others’ that are the problem. I’m not sure what that is meant to mean, but I’m assuming I’m ok because I’m white, I speak English and I’m well-educated and pay quite a lot of tax. Whatever is meant it is offensive.

There has been scare-mongering about the economy and sovereignty and security with little but invented statistics to back it up. The EU is far from perfect. No one could argue that it’s a utopian ideal, but it’s far, far better than the alternative. For many voting next week the second world war and the Europe that emerged from its aftermath was never a lived experience, but one they know only from newsreel footage and history books. The Cold War too is fast becoming a distant memory. The Leave campaign has been harking back to distant glories, but the past is always rose-tinted. The reality was never quite so charming.

Even the Mail on Sunday, a paper I dislike, has come out in favour of Remain. Many voters will base their decision on what public figures say they should do. Even at that most basic level I fail to see how anyone could vote Leave because Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove suggested it was a good idea. As far as I’m concerned there shouldn’t be a referendum. This feels like an internal Tory party struggle that got out of hand. It’s a contest between Cameron and Johnson, something that begin in the school yard that has morphed into something that has the potential to have a detrimental impact on millions of lives.

A Vote Leave pamphlet came in the door last week implying the imminent entry of Turkey, Albania and Montenegro into the EU. What nonsense. Even if Turkey did succeed in meeting the criteria (and it’s nowhere near doing so at the moment) Britain (and the other EU states) have a veto over new members, so this is a completely pointless argument to raise. The implication that the money that currently flows from Britain to the EU would be spent on the NHS, Libraries, the Arts is a nonsense.

I could rehash the reasons for staying in the EU, but others have done so much more articulately than I can. The EU offers far more protection to individuals than being outside. In a world that seems increasingly influenced by ideals that last came to the fore in the late 1930s we need the EU to stand up against the ideology of the Far Right. Edmund Burke is unlikely have coined the phrase  often attributed to him: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, but it seems apposite now. There are good people voting Leave for reasons they believe are valid, just as there are good people who will vote for Trump as President, but I think these voters are misguided. I’m glad I live at a time where people are free to vote and I hope they do use their vote, but I sincerely hope that more people will vote for Remain, and more people will vote for Clinton and the world will tilt ever so slightly back to a place where commonsense and decency will prevail.

It’s an uneasy and uncertain world these days. The prospect of Trump triumphing in America seemed laughable, a dystopian nightmare, only months ago. Now there’s a chance he could be the next President of the United States. The murders in Orlando, the attacks in Belgium and France, the atrocities being carried out daily in Syria and elsewhere, the murder of Jo Cox not 70 miles from where I sit is disturbing and depressing. It breeds fear and fear leads to negative actions. The Guardian published an editorial the day Jo Cox was brutally murdered calling for her memory to be honoured. An honest debate about democracy, immigration and the future of Britain would be one way to do it. So far I’ve seen little of that.

On 23rd May I will honour Jo Cox’s memory by voting Remain.











The paperback version of Blood Runs Green will be officially out in the US tomorrow, though my spies in Chicago tell me that it’s already available in shops there. My friend Ellen sent me this photo of it in the wonderful 57th Street Books in Hyde Park.


The book will be available in Ireland and the UK from 23rd May.

A timely review of the book by Peter D. O’Neill is published in Irish Studies ReviewO’Neill concludes that ‘Blood Runs Green offers a fascinating account of time and place for both academic and general readers alike: well written and paced, it sheds valuable light on a key moment in Irish American history that has until now remained mostly overlooked’.

The recent newsletter from the Cushwa Center at the University of Notre Dame recently published an account of a lecture I gave for the Center back in September. It seems appropriate to include it here to mark the publication of the paperback.

Hibernian Lecture Kicks Off Cushwa Center’s 40th Anniversary Celebration With a Gilded Age Murder Mystery


The fall 2015 Hibernian Lecture, held on September 11 in the McKenna Hall Auditorium, featured a presentation by Gillian O’Brien on the deadly underworld of late 19th-century Irish Chicago. O’Brien’s lecture, cosponsored by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, was based on her book Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago, published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. The book examines the murder of Chicago physician and Irish nationalist Patrick Cronin in May 1889, placing the doctor’s death and ensuing legal developments in the context of Gilded Age urbanization and the transatlantic campaign to secure Irish Home Rule. O’Brien is a history department faculty member at Liverpool John Moores University in England and past recipient of the Cushwa Center’s Hibernian Research Award.

O’Brien’s presentation was the first in a series of events during the 2015-2016 academic year designed to celebrate the Cushwa Center’s 40th anniversary and honor the scholarly contributions of each of its three past directors. The lecture’s focus on the Irish urban immigrant experience paid tribute to founding director Jay P. Dolan, who oversaw the Center from 1975 to 1994 and was in attendance for the presentation along with his wife, Patricia.

After an introduction by current Cushwa Center Director Kathleen Sprows Cummings, O’Brien spoke about how Dolan’s embrace of social history revolutionized the study of Irish-American immigration and religion. She described how Dolan’s research on parish life in the Midwest had aided her own scholarship, and noted that she assigns Dolan’s book The Irish Americans as required reading for students in Liverpool.

Humbled and “more than a little daunted” to have been asked to present a lecture in Dolan’s honor, O’Brien began her narrative by describing how, during fellowship research at Chicago’s Newberry Library, she happened upon newspaper articles from 1889 discussing the Cronin murder. Intrigued, yet knowing nothing about the case, she searched for a book on the murder– only to realize that while six works were published for popular audiences in the crime’s immediate aftermath, no scholarly studies of the case had been completed in the intervening 120 years.

Gillian O'BrienGillian O’Brien

“As I read more about it,” O’Brien recounted, “it struck me that there were a number of ways in which this was more than simply a murder case.” Revisiting the Cronin case, she argued, offers a new avenue for exploring four key developments in Victorian society.

First, the Cronin story illuminates how Chicagoans triumphantly rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871, transforming their city into a “place of opportunity, of hope, and of expectation.” Cronin and his contemporaries lived during the period when the balance of power in Irish America shifted from East Coast cities toward Chicago, O’Brien explained, making the rebuilt metropolis into a center for Irish revolutionary activities and organizations such as Clan na Gael. Clan members cultivated a close relationship with Irish-born Chicago Archbishop Patrick Feehan during the 1880s, while local chapters of the Clan, referred to as “camps,” sprang up across the city.

The Cronin murder and its legal aftermath also coincided with a British judicial inquiry into allegations that Irish Home Rule champion Charles Stewart Parnell had supported the 1882 assassination of two British officials in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. News of the Chicago physician’s death thus reverberated well beyond the Midwestern United States and carried the potential, along with coverage of the Parnell Commission, to shape public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic concerning Irish revolutionary violence. O’Brien noted that even Welsh-language newspapers published in Wales carried news of the Cronin case. The fact that the Chicago physician’s death occurred months after London was convulsed by Jack the Ripper’s unsolved killings only added to public interest in the Chicago case.

Third, coverage of Cronin’s murder in U.S. newspapers quickly became exaggerated and contradictory. The case “occurred around the time that newspapers are taking on sensational crime and wanting to write about it,” O’Brien observed, adding that this coverage often made cases into “more than they really were.” Even so, she continued, the Cronin murder was by all accounts a “special murder.” Unlike most murders in Gilded Age Chicago, which usually stemmed from either drunkenness or domestic abuse and thus were quickly solved by the police, Cronin’s death featured a mix of conspiracy and corruption.

O’Brien identified these “layers of corruption” as the Cronin case’s fourth significant feature. Chicago judicial and police officials came under fierce criticism for their incompetence as well as for, in the case of detective Daniel Coughlin, their alleged involvement in the murder.

Having outlined the historical importance of the case, O’Brien next profiled Cronin and his chief antagonist, Alexander Sullivan. Both men were members of Clan na Gael, an ostensibly secret organization committed to advancing Irish freedom through political agitation and violence. Clan na Gael grew out of the Fenian movement, O’Brien continued, living up to the adage that “once you set up an Irish secret revolutionary society, the first thing on the agenda is the split.”

After moving to Chicago in 1873, Sullivan steadily moved his way up Clan na Gael’s leadership ranks even as members remained sharply divided over whether he was a true Irish patriot or simply “a great opportunist.” Cronin, who moved to Chicago in 1882, fell into the latter group and soon after arriving in the city he began to clash with Sullivan.

O’Brien then summarized the Clan’s anti-British activities between 1875 and 1889, which included sponsoring the daring rescue of six imprisoned Irish revolutionaries in Australia and efforts to design a submarine capable of attacking British merchant shipping. She also explained Clan na Gael’s ciphers and hailing signs, neither of which prevented spies from infiltrating the organization and disrupting many of its efforts during the mid-1880s to set off bombs at prominent London locations.

Simmering tensions within Chicago’s Clan organization exploded in the wake of this failed “Dynamite Campaign.” When $100,000 in relief funds earmarked for the families of dead and jailed dynamiters vanished, Cronin accused Sullivan of embezzlement. Cronin was subsequently expelled from the Clan and accused as a British spy, while Sullivan was declared not guilty during an internal Clan inquiry.

On May 4, 1889, the dispute between Cronin’s defenders and Sullivan’s allies culminated when the physician was summoned to an icehouse located four miles from his home, ostensibly to treat an injured worker. The doctor entered the waiting buggy and rode off, never to return.

Chicago’s newspapers kicked into overdrive after Cronin’s friends reported him missing. Various articles explained that Cronin had fled Chicago because he had performed an illegal abortion or was heading to testify to the Parnell Commission that he was a spy. One of the most popular—and outlandish—explanations for the doctor’s disappearance, O’Brien recounted, stated that Queen Victoria had ordered four Neapolitan brigands to murder the Chicago physician.

Two weeks after Cronin’s disappearance, his body was discovered in a sewer north of Chicago. Daniel Coughlin, a Clan na Gael member and the police detective first put on the case, was later arrested for the murder along with four other suspects.

The murder’s mix of conspiracy and police corruption created brisk business for some Chicago entrepreneurs. Wax reproductions of Cronin’s body were displayed in the city’s dime museums. O’Brien also explained that the married couple who owned the cottage where the murder was believed to have occurred charged visitors a 25-cent entrance fee. For another 25 cents, visitors could take home a piece of the cottage’s “bloodied” wood (which the owners had soaked in ox’s blood). The cottage’s visitor log featured entries from nearly every U.S. state as well as Ireland, England, and Canada.

U.S. publications outside of Chicago also drew attention to the Cronin case. Judge, a satirical magazine published in New York City, featured an illustration that linked Cronin’s murder to the Dublin Phoenix Park killings. An illustration in Life similarly referenced the Cronin case, displaying a figure holding a Clan na Gael flag refusing to be stirred into the American “melting pot.” These references to revolutionary activity, O’Brien argued, underscored Gilded Age audiences’ “incredible literary and political awareness” of transatlantic developments.

The murder’s international fame ensured that almost all potential jurors were already familiar with the case and had formed opinions about it. The challenge of trying to seat a neutral jury turned the Cronin trial into the longest-running case in U.S. jurisprudence up to that time. 1,115 Chicagoans were summoned between August and October 1889 before enough jurors, none of whom were Irish, were finally selected to decide the fate of the five suspects.

Alexander Sullivan, however, was not one of the five. Cronin’s friends continued to accuse Sullivan of orchestrating the murder, O’Brien noted, and he had initially been arrested and bailed, but the charges against the Clan leader were dropped before the case went to trial.

In December 1889, the jury announced its verdict. Three of the accused were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, since one of the jurors objected to the death penalty on religious grounds. The city’s newspapers, in contrast, called for blood. Reporters denounced the jury’s decision as a “travesty” of justice, arguing that only the death penalty provided suitable punishment for such a heinous crime.

O’Brien argued that Clan na Gael’s political and social standing in Chicago collapsed in the wake of Cronin’s murder. The split between pro-Cronin and pro-Sullivan Clan factions lasted until 1900, and the two sides only reunited after agreeing to never again discuss Cronin’s murder. Other members, who had previously viewed Clan na Gael as a fraternal organization designed to help them find jobs, were repelled by the violence and left the Clan in droves. Archbishop Patrick Feehan also condemned the organization.

The Cronin case, O’Brien continued, also influenced Chicago’s police force and newspaper industry. Many officers were suspected of corruption and dismissed from the force, while newspapers embarked on “a whole new era of sensational reporting.”

O’Brien finished her lecture on a mysterious, and ironic, note. After Cronin’s death, she explained, supporters raised $5,000 to erect a monument in the physician’s honor at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois. Today, however, only a small marker identifies the location of Cronin’s grave. So who lined their pockets at the project’s expense? “For a man who died largely because he exposed corruption,” O’Brien concluded, “something happened to the money that had been raised to honor him.”


Reflections on 1916 in 2016

I finally got around to putting pen to paper about the 1916 centenary commemorations which was published yesterday on the AHA blog. You can find the original post here: AHA Blog: Easter Rising 1916: One Hundred Years On

The text of the article is below:

Easter Rising 1916: One Hundred Years On

By Gillian O’Brien

On Easter Monday morning, April 24, 1916, about 1,600 Irish republicans seized control of a number of buildings in Dublin. Their headquarters was the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street where, close to midday, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the rebellion, read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. This marked the beginning of an insurrection against British control of Ireland.

RDS Relatives' Event

Hopelessly outnumbered, the rebels held out for six days, and on April 29, they surrendered. While the rebellion was initially unpopular with the general public, the British reaction swiftly changed that. They arrested over 3,500 people—many of whom had not been involved in the Rising. The British also secretly court-martialed 187 rebels and executed 15. It was these arrests, courts-martials, and executions that turned public opinion. As the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “all changed, changed utterly.” The executed leaders were seen as martyrs; some who were imprisoned became leaders of a vibrant revolutionary movement, and the general election of 1918 showed overwhelming support in Ireland for those who had supported the 1916 Rising. Electoral victory was swiftly followed by the Irish War of Independence that took place between 1919 and 1921, ultimately resulting in the establishment of the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland.

The Rising in 1916 had been set for Easter weekend, partly because of its religious significance, but also because the holiday weekend meant many British troops usually stationed in Dublin would be away from their barracks. Previous commemorations of the Rising have always been marked according to the religious holiday rather than the actual date. Keeping with this tradition, the Republic of Ireland commemorated the centenary of the Easter Rising not on April 24, 2016, but on Easter weekend, March 26–28.


I have both a professional and personal interest in the commemoration of the Easter Rising. Professionally, I’ve been the consultant historian for museum and heritage projects connected to the 1916 Rising, and I teach a module on Ireland and commemoration at Liverpool John Moores University. On a personal note, my great-grandfather, Jack O’Brien, fought in the Rising as a member of the Irish Volunteers in County Wexford, one of the few centers of rebellion outside the capital city.

The Irish government’s plans for the centenary commemoration were initially beset by controversy. A short film, Ireland Inspires, was launched in November 2014 to mark the announcement of the government’s commemorative program. Despite its clear connection to the centenary, the film—a corporate production focusing on Ireland as a great place to holiday and do business—failed to make any mention of the Rising. It was dismissed by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter (University Coll. Dublin), a leading historian and member of the government advisory panel, as “embarrassing” and “unhistorical.” Individuals in the Irish government also misguidedly suggested that members of the British Royal Family be invited to the official commemoration. Given that the Rising was about breaking the connection with Britain and the Royal Family, this suggestion was generally derided in the press. A few other missteps included the unveiling of a huge banner in the city center that appeared to link the Easter Rising with constitutional nationalists—some of whom had actively opposed the rebellion.

Because of my great-grandfather’s participation in the Rising, I was invited to the Relatives’ Event and also to the Easter Sunday commemoration ceremony and parade on O’Connell Street. The Relatives’ Event was to involve a speech by President Michael D. Higgins followed by a concert detailing Ireland’s history through music and song. I found it odd for relatives of the participants in Easter Rising of 1916 to receive special treatment at the centenary commemorations. I’m very proud of my great-grandfather’s part in the Rising but I can claim neither credit nor blame for any of his actions.

Volunteers - Easter Monday

As a child in the 1980s I grew up less than an hour from the border that divides the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. I knew nothing of my great-grandfather’s participation in the rebellion, however, and the 1916 Rising was never discussed. During my childhood, militant republicans had claimed sole ownership of the legacy of the Easter Rising. As a result, official celebrations tended to be low key and the Rising was often commemorated more by paramilitary organizations that held rival parades and ceremonies than the Irish government. Indeed, for a time the government suspended the usual state military commemoration, fearing that it would in some way imply approval of the IRA’s military campaign.

Despite my reservations, I attended several of the events. I was curious to see first-hand how the state commemorated the Rising. Would political parties engage in a point-scoring exercise? Would there be an attempt to rewrite the Easter Rising as a military success? None of those things happened. The public outcry that followed the official launch of the commemorative program led to a change in focus. John Concannon, the newly appointed director of the government’s 2016 program, refocused the centenary plans to reflect a more complex, sensitive series of events. The new slogan was “remember, reflect, reimagine.” The events I attended were dignified, inclusive, and nonpartisan. There were speeches, solemn wreath-laying ceremonies, and a military march past the GPO. Higgins talked about the great diversity of backgrounds and aspirations of those who took part and charged the Irish today “to take on our own responsibilities in imagining and building a Republic in the fullest sense, institutional and experiential, one of which our founders would be proud; truly representative of a nation rooted in courage, vision and a profound spirit of generous humanity.”

Away from the official ceremonies the centenary has generated massive interest. Bookstores’ shelves groan with the weight of books about the Rising, souvenir shops stock everything from commemorative fridge magnets and jigsaws to mugs, hip flasks, and candles. Easter Monday saw Dublin city center taken over by “Reflecting the Rising”—a multi-venue festival of public events including talks, recitals, and musical and theatrical performances. Over 750,000 people wandered the city guided to venues by volunteers dressed in period costume. The huge range of lectures and talks didn’t shy away from the complexity of the Rising. The story of the Easter Rising has long been dominated by the leaders of rebellion. That is no longer the case. A much more nuanced, multi-layered history is now available. For the first time this Easter weekend it felt as if the Easter Rising had been re-claimed by the majority of the people.

Professor Anne Dolan (Trinity Coll. Dublin) recently asked, “When has commemoration ever truly been about history?” Commemoration often reveals much more about the present than it does about the past. It forces us to consider where we are at a particular moment. Previous governments had been fearful of commemorating the Easter Rising because they might be seen as approving the use of violence. There was a value judgement—the violence during Easter 1916 was justified and legitimate whereas the violence during the “Troubles” was regarded as terrorism. In 2016 there is time to reflect on the Ireland that had been fought for a century ago. Today’s Ireland is a more peaceful, but still divided island. It’s also an Ireland beset by all sorts of problems including homelessness, poverty, and high unemployment. The introspection brought on by the commemoration of a significant event often reflects an image we don’t want to see. But if the language of inclusion, if the discussion of a complex, conflicted, and divided past leads us to take steps to a more positive future, then looking back to the beginning of the foundation of the state can be a very good thing indeed.

O'BrienGillian O’Brien is reader in modern Irish history in the history department at Liverpool John Moores University. She is the author of Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago (2015). She can be found on Twitter @gillianmobrien.

– See more at:

I’ll post more considered reflections on the commemoration of the 1916 Rising soon but here’s a short photo essay of the weekend.

There was a very early and wet start to Easter Saturday. I was on O’Connell Street before 8.00am to talk to Nick Robinson for BBC 4’s ‘Today’ programme. It was damp, noisy and brief (and sadly I didn’t get to keep the umbrella). That evening we were off to the Relatives’ event at the RDS. I have some issues with the fact that a relatives’ event took place but the evening itself was lovely. President Higgins gave a stirring speech (marred slightly by the fact that he seemed to think the Rising only took place in Dublin) and Comhaltas’ performance of Macalla 2016 was marvellous

On Easter Sunday we went along to the parade on O’Connell Street.

Liberty Hall was the site of an event on Tuesday morning – James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army were the focus.

It was impossible to avoid the centenary. Images wrapped buildings, shop fronts were themed, ads in newspapers, on billboards, in trains all had one theme. The tourist shops were full of commemorative memorabilia and there was a brisk trade in Irish flags outside Trinity College when I passed.


Everything from bread to a hip flask has been branded!



1916 in 2016

1916 Commemoration

inviteI’m sitting in Liverpool airport waiting for a delayed flight to Dublin. Fingers crossed it’s not a long delay as I’m up early tomorrow morning to head to the GPO to chat about 1916 (what else this weekend!) For those that are up bright and early I’ll be on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme around 8.50am. The ‘Today’ show is available here: Today Programme

My weekend is definitely 1916-themed. Radio on Saturday morning followed by a trip to the RDS for the State Event for 1916 Relatives. At that event President Michael D. Higgins will give a keynote address and Comhaltas will preform MACALLA 1916. On Sunday I’m off to the Commemoration Ceremony and Parade on O’Connell Street.

It seems odd to give relatives of those that took part in the Easter Rising of 1916 special treatment at the centenary commemorations. It makes sense to acknowledge those that took part in the Rising, but I’m not convinced that their relatives should be given preferential treatment. I’m very proud that my great-grandfather took part in the Rising but I can claim neither credit nor blame for any of his actions. I can’t speak for him. I have no idea what he would think of the events that have been organised to commemorate his role in the creation of a new state. The men and women who fought in 1916 fought to create an Irish Republic – a place where, at least on paper, everyone would be equal. A place where there would be no aristocracy, where a blood link conferred no special status, where positions weren’t inherited by an accident of birth. The reality was, of course, quite different. Eldest sons inherited lands, daughters inherited little. A small number of families (not all connected with the 1916 Rising) came to dominate Irish political and economic life. That may be the reality but it wasn’t the ideal and in some ways prioritising the families of those who fought seems to run counter to the ideals of the Republic.

Continue reading