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Entries in History (1)


Conjugating Irish identity


Today, in my role as Chair of the Board of the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (GradCAM) I introduced the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí, to launch the conference Object Matters: Making 1916 at the Wood Quay Venue in the Civic Offices of Dublin City Council. Here's what I said.

Six days that shook Dublin… that shook Ireland… that shook Britain… that shook the world? Or perhaps not. While the Easter Rising of 1916 certainly shook up the city it did not necessarily have the support of Dublin citizens at the time, with public opinion remaining opposed in its aftermath:

Regardless of their political outlook, most people responded to the end of the rebellion with relief. The streets of Dublin remained dangerous, with snipers continuing to fire from rooftops well into the following week, as people struggled to purchase food, collect pensions and wages, and return to everyday life (McGarry 2010).

Supporters of Redmond's Home Rule party even believed it to be a dastardly German plot (Lee 1989). Yet, we now recognise those six days as pivotal in Irish history. Writing in The Irish Times in 1996 Garret FitzGerald notes that as a result of the Rising:

Two years later, in the 1918 election, the tiny proportion who in 1914 had favoured separation of Ireland from Britain rather than Home Rule had jumped almost tenfold to half the electorate.

The historical, political, economic and social impact of those Easter events almost one hundred years ago has been well documented in the intervening years.

Today and tomorrow, however, we are gathering to examine how they have shaped our understanding of ourselves; to unpick what has become so much a part of our being that we don’t even see it any more. Material and visual culture is at the heart of identity and the really interesting thing about identity is how fluid and malleable it can be at particular times.

I am particularly interested in the concept of identity formation as a process rather than a single act. I have heard it described as:

the conjugation of identity.

That idea is tantalising and it explains the power of identity – as it resonates with repetition and rhythm – until the habit is internalized and becomes subconscious. It carries on unnoticed becoming part of who we are. It is the everyday experience of living that informs this process. A process that is shaped by what we see around us, what we hear, the tools we use – the world of the senses: through which we absorb information almost without being aware of it and perhaps with a less conscious critical evaluation.

It is the very ordinariness of existence that shapes us. But, of course, that experience is most difficult to impart. Many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers in particular spend their creative lives interpreting the ordinariness of existence. Paradoxically, in that act of creativity they make the ordinary extraordinary. So it is with history. Events that may well be ordinary at the time of living become significant later on. This theme is explored with insight in Brian Friels’ 1989 play 'Making History', in which he explores the conflict between the participants and the historians: those who make history and those who wish to Make History.

Over the next two days we will hear about such diverse matters as the forgery of official documents, the impact of fashion on identity, the sense of place, memory and forgetting, the power of military uniforms, flags, and craftwork made in prisons.

It promises to be very interesting.