Commemorative Art and Material Culture: Reviving the Past in Ireland… and Beyond

Commemorative Art and Material Culture: Reviving the Past in Ireland… and Beyond

Dr Kayla Rose (City University of New York) on Ireland’s need to establish a non-British identity and how this was attempted through a specific version of Ireland’s past.

Commemorative events and the art and material culture associated with them serve as public expressions of identity and belonging. Within the Irish context, romanticised notions of the past have often been drawn upon in commemorative practice, with the Celtic Revival serving as an attempt at rebuilding the nation from within by using recognisable symbols from a “golden age” to assert present and future identities.[1]

Nineteenth-century Ireland (like Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man), saw a growing need to establish a distinctly non-British identity with its own separate cultural, commemorative, and artistic traditions. This coincided with the public display of a number of key treasures from Ireland’s so-called “golden age”, such as the Ardagh Hoard, Tara Brooch, and the Book of Kells. Their unique forms of interlace, triskeles, spirals, and non-anthropomorphic motifs formed the basis of Celtic Revival design.[2] Drawing upon this specific version of Ireland’s ancient past also legitimised a distinctly Irish identity, showcasing through this return to a “golden age” that Irishness was unlike Britishness in profound ways.[3]

Within the context of illuminated addresses, these Celtic Revival motifs, symbols, and designs were manipulated to express civic, regional, and national identities through the vehicles of place, ceremony, the commissioning group or institution, and the achievements of the individual being honoured. As material forms of cultural expression, illuminated addresses are objects that express their intended messages materially, through text and image, and ceremonially, often presented publicly alongside other gifts and tangible representations of respect and esteem.

Materially, the intended message or idea is communicated through the actual written words of the address, while the visual message is conveyed through the use of signs, symbols, and other decorative imagery, such as landscape views and portraits, which are drawn from both the “golden age” and the period in question. As the physical manifestation of a ceremony, an address is intended for public presentation and provides the receiver with a material record of the occasion. Intriguingly, the text recalls more antiquated traditions involving the nobility, such as heraldry and the granting of lands and titles through official documents and ceremonies. Like their heraldic counterparts, the language and context conveyed in the text of an address asserts the receiver’s qualifications and legitimises his or her civic role or political identity. While the tradition of heraldry is characteristically English, it is mainly in their imagery that illuminated addresses provide the link between past and present in Ireland.[4]

Though there exists a multitude of similarities between works created across Irish and British political and religious divides, the majority of the sample gleaned from research in Ireland and Britain had connections to unionists and Protestants, often expressing some degree of loyalty to the British monarchy and the United Kingdom while still showcasing a distinct Irish visual element. That is not to say that there were not an incredible number of addresses completed within nationalist or Catholic contexts – my current research is exploring these much more closely and preliminary examination confirms that, although created for very different individuals within different circumstances, there are similarities in text, image, and ceremonial presentation (with a large number written in Irish). Within the context of the Irish in Britain, examples found in Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow, former industrial cities that had received a large number of Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century, are of both types.

This makes sense given Linda Colley’s discussion of Britain as “a composite structure forged, as France and Spain were forged, out of different cultures and kingdoms,”[5] and this view of a consciously constructed identity seems to fit well within the context of a “four nations” approach. There has been limited research undertaken on illuminated addresses within the context of commemorative material culture and its role in communicating identity across the four nations (and the seemingly unending diaspora). My current research focuses principally on representational practices of identity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Ireland, specifically how constructions of identity and the invention of nationhood is driven through, and reflected by, art and material culture.

Questions arise in my research concerning not only the role of material culture in identity formation, ceremony, and commemoration, but also in regard to which symbols, ideas, practices, and mythologies were brought back – which past, or, alternatively, which version of that past, was being revived? In Irish art historical and archaeological contexts, we always seem to be talking about a “golden age”, but to which “golden age” were the Protestants of Belfast returning in order to assert their identity and the identity of Ulster leading up to partition? To which “golden age” were Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, the Young Irelanders, Alice Milligan, George ‘AE’ Russell, and Seamus Heaney returning? How many “golden ages” are there, and who decides which past best signifies a nation’s identity?

Certainly, this appropriation of the past embodies the belief, as expressed by the Irish cultural revivalist and musicologist Herbert Hughes in Uladh (1905), that “true inspiration must be drawn from the soil.”[6]

[1] Rachel Moss, “Revivalist Tendencies in the Irish Late Gothic: Defining a National Identity?” in Reading Gothic Architecture, edited by Matthew M. Reeve, pp. 123-137 (New York: Brepols, 2008).

[2] Nicola Gordon Bowe, “National Romanticism: Vernacular Expression in Turn-of-the-Century Design,” in Art and the National Dream: The Search for Vernacular Expression in Turn-of-the- Century Design, edited by Nicola Gordon Bowe, pp. 7-14 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1993).

[3] Jeanne Sheehy, The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past: The Celtic Revival, 1830 – 1930 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).

[4] Marguerite Helmers and Kayla Rose. “The Spirit of Ireland’s Past: Illumination, Ornament, and National Identity in Public Art.” In The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making it Irish, edited by Vera Kreilkamp, pp. 27-43 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[5] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument,” Journal of British Studies, vo. 31, no. 4 (1992), p. 312.

[6] Herbert Hughes, “The Celtic Leit-motif,” Uladh, vol. 1, no. 2 (1905), p. 16.

Dr. Kayla Rose is Adjunct Assistant Professor in Art History at City University of New York (CUNY) Queensborough Community College. She has previously worked as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Bath Spa University and Research Fellow in Design History on the AHRC and Design Council project, ‘Bristol and Bath by Design’. Kayla received her PhD from Ulster University in 2014 following completion of her thesis, ‘Illuminating Ireland: Illuminated Addresses and the Material Culture of Irish Civic and National Identity in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’. She also holds an MPhil in Irish Art History from Trinity College Dublin and a BA (Hons) in Art History and Criticism from Stony Brook University (SUNY) in New York.

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