Archive for May, 2016

Commemorating Easter 1916

By Timothy G. McMahon

On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, nearly 1,500 men and women in Dublin launched what came to be known as the Easter Rising, the prelude to the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21. Over the ensuing days, several hundred more in counties Galway, Louth, Meath, and Wexford joined in this effort to create an independent republic. Plans had called for even more to participate, but a series of events—including the failed landing of an anticipated arms shipment from Germany and a countermanding order from the chief of staff of the paramilitary group being used surreptitiously by the rebel leaders to carry out their design—thwarted that larger enterprise. Nonetheless, the rebels held out for six days before surrendering.

Among the factors that led to greater retrospective sympathy for them, three stood out. The first was the harsh response from the United Kingdom leadership, which was understandably shaken and angered by such an event on the home front while the country was embroiled in the Great War: Rebel leaders faced courts martial and execution, while nearly 3,500 others—many of whom had had nothing to do with the Rising—faced arrest and periods of imprisonment that lasted from a few weeks to nearly 15 months. The second was the recasting of the executed leaders as martyrs, aided in part by the glossing over of their often radical (if not fully anti-clerical) pasts by a new generation of leaders


An original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on display in Dublin.

who appealed to the Catholic strain that had motivated many Irish nationalists of the pre-Rising period. And the third was the breadth of their political idealism, expressed in their Proclamation of the Irish Republic, drafted by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly and read outside of the rebel headquarters in the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin at the start of the Rising. Its call to “Irishmen and Irishwomen” and its promise to cherish “all the children of the nation equally” seemed a far cry from the traditional politics of the island. What is beyond question is that the move to a more independent Irish state than had been on offer prior to the Great War began in earnest that April Monday.


Little wonder, then, that the Republic of Ireland determined to mark this year’s Easter weekend (27-28 March) with a spectacular series of public events in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. I had the great good fortune to attend as an invited speaker at two venues on Easter Monday and as an interested spectator for the rest of the weekend—because these events conveniently coincided with Marquette’s long spring break this year. Falling in the middle of what Irish people are calling the Decade of Commemorations (or Decade of Centenaries), these events featured everything from solemn wreath-laying ceremonies at sites redolent with echoes from the Rising (such as the prison exercise yard where the leaders faced the firing squad) to the opening of new museum exhibits, and from the holding of public concerts to the presentation of more than 100 panels that explored aspects of the Rising from various academic perspectives. (Depending on the venue and time, panels included historians, literary scholars, sociologists, or political scientists.)

72342_10153406024515308_1948023962092155836_nThe central public action was a parade that wound through the center of Dublin and past a reviewing stand of dignitaries that included the elected President (Michael D. Higgins) and Acting Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Enda Kenny. Along the route, giant viewing screens enabled the assembled crowds—estimated at well over half a million people—to watch a live feed of the parade broadcast on the national television network, RTÉ. In the middle of the parade, the marchers paused so that a member of the Irish Defense Forces, wearing the uniform of the Irish Volunteers (the paramilitaries at the time of the Rising), came to the front of the GPO to read the proclamation. A band struck up the national anthem (“The Soldier’s Song,” in Irish “Amhrán na bhFiann”), which the assembled crowds along the parade route joined in singing. What made that moment particularly poignant for me, as a historian of the Irish-language revival, was that the 40-50,000 or so gathered on College Green where I stood sang the Irish lyrics to the song spontaneously. At what was a particularly solemn moment of commemoration, they chose to use the first national language, a language that all had been taught as a school subject but that a relatively small percentage use on a regular basis, yet it was that language which—for whatever reason—expressed their collective sensibility at that moment.

In addition to witnessing the parade (albeit with an obstructed view, thus my own reliance on one of the aforementioned big screens), I will relish four particular memories. First, visiting the newly opened “Proclaiming a Republic” exhibit at the National Museum of 12321263_10153402990215308_1031891175934311784_nIreland’s Collins Barracks location. This superb and extensive collection of items from the revolutionary period includes an original copy of the Easter Proclamation (owned by one of the women prominent in the revolution, Dr. Kathleen Lynd), as well as the flags flown by the Volunteers atop the General Post Office and that of the Irish Citizen Army, which these labor activists raised above the Imperial Hotel as a particular act of defiance against the hotel’s owner, William Martin Murphy, whose conflict with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union led to the creation of the ICA.


Liam McMahon exploring the Gaelic League HQ.

Second, my family’s tour of the present headquarters of the Gaelic League, the organization at the heart of my work on the language revival, with its present archivist Cuan Ó Seireadáin. I had visited there years ago doing research, but what made this two hours completely enthralling was that the building at No. 6 Harcourt Street was, during the revolutionary decade, the headquarters of the Sinn Féin party and the republican women’s organization Cumann na mBan. Cuan pulled out all the stops, including having my children read from witness statements from Ireland’s Bureau of Military History about raids on the room we were


The author (blue sweater, right of center) speaks at the Royal Irish Academy.

standing in—which just happened to have been Michael Collins’s office. Third, having the chance to speak at events on Easter Monday, including a talk in the Royal Irish Academy sponsored by the Digital Repository of Ireland and the Inspiring Ireland digitization project. That talk highlighted the part played by Bulmer Hobson in reinvigorating the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood. It also underlined the irony that his opposition to the Rising led to his being held over Easter weekend in 1916 by his former comrades. In the audience that day were descendants of Mortimer O’Connell, one of the IRB men who kept Hobson at bay. Meeting them at that moment was extraordinary. And fourth, attending a roundtable on the historical legacies of the Rising that featured an address by President Higgins and talks by leading scholars in my field, including Mary E. Daly and Diarmaid Ferriter of University College, Dublin, and Kevin Whelan and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada of the University of Notre Dame.


Needless to say, I had much to share with graduate students in my seminar on Memory, Commemoration and Material Culture when I returned to the USA, but the experience also enhanced what was already shaping up as an amazing experience with my undergraduate students in Irish history. They were participating in a special interdisciplinary program that I had planned out with my colleague Dr. Leah Flack from the Department of English.

Knowing that people would be commemorating the Rising and reflecting on its impact over time, we hoped to ask questions such as “What creates revolutions? How do people process what is happening around them? How do they reflect back on those experiences as they build a new state and society?” With Leah scheduled to teach her course on Irish literature during the same term I would run my course on Modern Irish History, we proposed to do things: first, we would link our courses to focus on the period surrounding the foundation of the modern Irish Republic (me) and on the poetry, short stories, novels, and plays that interrogated the revolution’s impact throughout the twentieth century (Leah); and second, we would host a series of public lectures and in-class discussions featuring major scholars in the field whose works would be among the readings we used in our classes. We, therefore, applied for a Mellon Grant from the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to fund this interdisciplinary look at the Irish Revolution that we called “Reconsidering the Rising.”

We launched our “reconsideration” in January with the College’s endorsement. I led off the lecture series in early February with a look at the role of land agitation from the 1870s through the early 1920s. Professor Mary Trotter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert on Irish theater and literature, visited in early March, discussing the important role of women as cultural and political revolutionaries. Professor Brian Ó Conchubhair of the University of Notre Dame, who publishes widely in Irish- and English-language publications on the Gaelic revival in language and sport, came in early April. Later that month, Professor R. F. Foster of Hertford College, Oxford, addressed questions about the expectations and hopes of the revolutionary generation, as well as their disappointment with aspects of the independence achieved in the 1920s. And Leah concluded the series with a wide-ranging discussion of literature from James Joyce through Seamus Heaney to Colum McCann.

Individually, each talk addressed a different aspect of the revolutionary era; collectively, they raised numerous issues for our students to consider, especially about the importance of taking interdisciplinary approaches to questions as profound as what leads to revolution. Of course, every answer raised further questions, including what constitutes a revolution and whether or not what occurred in Ireland between 1916 and 1922 constituted a revolution. (I am of the opinion that a revolution did occur, albeit not the one that the planners of the Easter Rising anticipated, but I recognize that such questions remain fiercely debated.) Bringing them up with our students—alongside scholars noted for their innovative readings of the period under review—was truly exciting. Watching Marquette students asking our visitors about their evidence, about their methodology, and about the stumbling blocks they had to overcome in the research process was one of the highlights of my fifteen years on campus. So too was reading their final papers and examinations, which provided ample evidence that they had incorporated insights from our visitors into some of the most sophisticated reading of sources and argumentation that I have seen from undergraduates.

Since coming to Marquette in 2001, I have tried to remain cognizant of the strong tradition of Irish scholarship here, and I have sought to extend that line in my work, always with the support of colleagues in the department, the College, and the Graduate School. This spring carried that support to a new level, such that those few days in Ireland in March, coupled with the “Reconsidering the Rising” program, made Spring 2016 one of the most intense, challenging, and delightful terms of my career.

Tim McMahon is associate professor of history at Marquette, the author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse, 2008), and editor of the memoir Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork, 2000). He is currently writing a monograph tentatively entitled Éire Imperator: Ireland’s Imperial Ambivalence .


“May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art”: Schooling and Graduation, (Really) Old School Style

By Jenn Finn

As we approach the last days of the semester and the traditions that surround commencement ceremonies, it seemed a propos to take a deeper look into the ways that these modern conventions have evolved since the ancient and medieval periods. Formal

Sumerian King List

The Sumerian King List, a popular tablet for copying in early Mesopotamian schools. Image courtesy of The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

systems of education began very early, almost as soon as the first invention of writing. In Mesopotamia (approximately 3500 BC to 323 BC), children might receive a standard education in copying cuneiform tablets; we even have a very early composition in Sumerian relating to the experience of being a student of cuneiform. It reads very much like a description of a school day for a modern young student (the translation is from Samuel Noah Kramer’s famous 1949 article “Schooldays:”

Schoolboy, where did you go from earliest days?’

‘I went to school.’

‘What did you do in school?’

‘I read my tablet, ate my lunch,

prepared my tablet, wrote it, finished it; then

my prepared lines were prepared for me

(and in) the afternoon, my hand copies were prepared for me.

Upon the school’s dismissal, I went home,

entered the house, (there) was my father sitting.

Later on, we are told that the schoolboy has performed his duties well, and his teacher duly praises him:

‘Young man, because you did not neglect my word, did not forsake it,

May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art, achieve it completely.

Because you gave me that which you were by no means obliged (to give),

you presented me with a gift over and above my earnings, have shown me great


may she show favor to your fashioned reed,

may she take all evil from your hand copies.

Of your brothers, may you be their leader,

of your companions, may you be their chief,

may you rank the highest of (all) the schoolboys.

There were different levels of schooling even in ancient Mesopotamia, but only the most talented would continue on into a more formal school system that would train them to become scribes in the employ of the king.

A more defined system of education (paideia) evolved in Ancient Greece, focusing on all aspects of the student’s life, including the study of philosophy, reading, writing, and physical fitness. For wealthier members of Greek (in particular, Athenian) society, education would continue into their teenage years, with a new focus on the physical and cosmological sciences. As in Mesopotamia, only a select few would receive the highest levels of education, which would include advanced military education as well as instruction in the Classics of Greek literature (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey being the most popular). And, also as in Mesopotamia, a premium was placed on knowledge because of its ability to produce productive members of society and government: this is the basis of Plato’s argument in The Republic (Book VI), where he defines the Philosopher-King as the most fit to rule the state because his knowledge is based in many years and many steps of the educational process.

Roman stages of education were similarly sophisticated, but in Rome, the ability to participate in a declamatio was the utmost sign of one’s ability to function in a highly competitive political atmosphere. Very few students would learn the art of the declamatio following the last formal stage of education, in which a young boy would study with a grammaticus in order to perfect his skills in reading and interpreting literature (especially poetry). The declamatio consisted of two types: the suasoriae and the controversiae. In the former, the individual was expected to persuasively argue about a theme arising from a historical circumstance: for instance (as Juvenal i.16 tells us), one possible theme was whether or not Sulla should have resigned his dictatorship; Seneca (Suasoriae) gives several more options for possible topics, including whether or not the 300 Spartans should have remained or fled from the famous battle of Thermopylae. These were the “amateur” argumentations; the second and more sophisticated level came with the controversiae, where students were asked to argue on themes based on a thorough knowledge of Roman legal institutions.

While there was no formal “graduation” per se from these higher levels of knowledge, the acknowledgment in the Greco-Roman system that one could become a master of their discipline was a prerequisite for the standards of the school system that were set up in the Renaissance period (when, consequently, Europe experienced a revival of Greco-Roman literature and institutions). Some of the first universities were founded in the 11th and the 12th centuries, with the universities of Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) being the oldest. At these earliest “formal” universities, the arts course would last from 4-6 years. There were BAs and MAs, just like we have now, but to teach in a university one would have to acquire an MA, which could take up to 8 years. They also had PhDs, which could take 10-15 years to complete. That means that a potential course of study from the BA to a PhD could total 20+ years!

It was only in these later periods of history that some of the more familiar formal institutions of graduation began to appear. Academic dress began to be worn during the Medieval period—but not for the reasons you might think. We are told that during this period, most of those who attended universities were of the clerical orders, and thus

All Souls Quad

All Souls Quad at the University of Oxford, courtesy of

already wore long robes (complete with hoods!), which were useful in the university buildings that lacked heating capabilities. It later became the official graduation garb of academic scholars, and became standardized, at least in the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, by the reign of Henry VIII (16th Century). The accompanying mortarboard hat that we still use today probably also derived from clerical apparel (the biretta). The traditional “hat toss” is a more modern invention, originating at The United States Naval Academy in 1912. Before this year, Navy midshipmen were required to maintain possession of their hats until they could become officers (approximately two years after graduation). This policy changed in 1912, allowing the midshipmen to serve in other capacities besides midshipmen or cadet directly after graduation, so they were then free to toss their caps in the air without a care.

So for those of you who will graduate from Marquette in the next few weeks, know that you are in a long line of historical tradition. And most importantly, Congratulations!

Jenn Finn is assistant professor of history at Marquette University.  She is nearly finished with her first book manuscripot, Much ado about Marduk: Texts and the Limits of Authority in First Millennium Mesopotamia.

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