Thursday, June 23, 2016

How we learned so much from an exhibit that's not open yet

(NOTE: This post was adapted from what I first published on our program's blog, Murray State Irish Literature Study Abroad.)

I've heard about so many amazing things to do and see in Dublin that sometimes I forget the details. In our first lecture of the program, an Irish historian, Mary McAuliffe, told us about a special exhibit opening up about the 1916 Easter Rising that would be different than all the other museum displays around the city because it focuses on the 77 women who played key roles in the rebellion but were almost forgotten by history. I thought it would be an ideal starting point for Elizabeth to get into the Easter Rising history.

I might have forgotten that Mary McAuliffe said the exhibit didn't open until June 27. 

The yard at the jail where the Brits executed the rebels.
All I did have stuck in my head was that the exhibit was at the Richmond Barracks, so I took Elizabeth and my fellow graduate student on the trip, Mary Hays, there on Tuesday. The Richmond Barracks sit a half-hour bus ride away amid the Inchicore neighborhood – one hill over from the Kilmainham Gaol (jail), where the British executed the Rising’s leaders.

We had a little trouble finding it (one wrong turn from the bus stop), but eventually located the long building that used to house troops and served as the holding pen and courtroom for rebel leaders after the Brits crushed the Easter week rebellion 100 years ago. 

When we reached, the door, we saw the sign that said it opens June 27. I tried the door anyway.

It was locked, but a woman with sandy hair and big smile opened it up and asked if she could be of help.
She turned out to be Eadaoin Ni Chleirigh, the energetic and enthusiastic executive chair of the 2016 Richmond Barracks exhibition, and graciously gave us a tour.

“You’re from Kentucky? Well if you’re from Kentucky, you must come in,” she said.
Eadoaoin Ni Chleirigh points to the Countess Markievicz panel on the quilt at the Richmond Barracks exhibit.
The main chamber of the barracks, where the 22 rebel leaders were taken after their capture Saturday, April 29, now features displays detailing the contributions of many of the women who helped carry out the rebellion, such as Rose McNamara (who became vice-commandant at the rebels’ outpost at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery), Winifred Carney (top aide to Joseph Connelly) and of course Countess Markievicz, who was a catalyst for the Rising and is the most well-known of the women involved.

A French paper snapped Markievicz being taken by ambulance to the jail.
In all, 77 women are honored on squares of a quilt that hangs in the back of the barrack’s main room.

“Some of these women only had a sentence or two written about them before this,” Chleirigh said.

That made researching them difficult. Chleirigh initially drew Bridget Hegarty to investigate. That meant tracking down family members. It turned out they knew little about her role in the Rising but became so intrigued that Hegarty’s grandniece then took over the research and design of Hegarty’s quilt square.

“When the family discovered what she’d done,” Chleirigh said, “they were so proud of her.”

Many of those stories would have been lost to history had it not been for McAuliffe, the professor who gave us our first history lesson here. She literally wrote the book on them. Much of the information she found through military pension applications the women submitted to the government – sometimes unsuccessfully for decades. That's how McAuliffe learned that her own grandmother served in the 1921 War for Independence, she told us.

The Richmond Barracks display not only features the women but also the stories of the leaders who were held and tried in the barracks before being marched up to the Kilmainham jail where 14 were executed. 

Chleirigh showed us letters written on scrap paper by the father of Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the rebellion's leaders whom I specifically studied. Plunkett's parents, who had nothing to do with the Rising, were held in the Richmond Barracks for about a week, and his father was asking his daughter to bring supplies, including food and specifically butter.

The view from a window in the barracks after the war for independence as the British troops leave and the Irish troops move in.

She also showed us the rest of the barracks, which were used as a Catholic school for part of the 20th Century.

Elizabeth and Mary check out one of the digital displays.     

Yes, Ireland really is this magical place of hospitality in which even when I screw up and show up at the doorstep of an exhibit that isn't yet open, they welcome us in and give a private tour.

So as they say here in Dublin: Thanks a million!

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