Spoils of empire in south London

by Sean Lynch

THIS MAY land me in trouble with the editors of the Irish Democrat but the Imperial War Museum in south London is a place I’d heartily recommend any republican or socialist visit.

The Museum bears witness to 20th century man’s enduring appetite for carnage and mayhem, which turned large parts of the world into a charnel house over the past 100 years. It was on a visit there late last year when I noticed a small collection of republican flags, guns, uniforms and newspapers from the Easter Rising — all neatly displayed and catalogued, incongruously nestling alongside British and German World War One material of a more imperialist bent.

The 1916 rising is a historical event that falls under the radar in Britain but one that had, and continues to have, a direct bearing on events in contemporary Ireland. So what were these items doing in a British war museum? Obviously, much of it was the spoils of war, carried off or impounded by ‘victorious’ British troops in the aftermath of the rising in Dublin and Limerick.

After some inquiries, the museum claimed it didn’t have a record of where much of the material came from, but it would be a good bet that much of it would have been in the possession of British squaddies or officers. A nice souvenir of the day they squashed the Paddy rebellion perhaps.

Since the establishment of the 26–county state little more was heard about Easter Rising trophies held in Britain. In 1965 the National Museum of Ireland sought a permanent loan of some of the material now displayed in the Imperial War Museum. In fairness, the Imperial War Museum has limited powers of disposal — but the only item returned to Ireland was the famous Irish Republic flag which was hoisted over the GPO.

The flag was handed over to the then Irish ambassador in 1966 on the 50th anniversary of the rising. When asked by the Irish Democrat if they thought holding on to and displaying the 1916 material could be construed as triumphalist, the museum replied: “We believe the museum’s existing display on the Easter Rising is a sensitive and balanced summary of an important aspect of Anglo–Irish and First World War history, which we could not represent adequately to visitors, who come from all over the world, without the authentic material held in these collections.”

All very admirable, but the fact remains that the lion’s share of the 1916 “authentic material” is, actually, booty. Booty carried out of Ireland by British imperial forces. The IWM’s “sensitive and balanced” summary should include the fact that the material was, and remains, the property of Phoblacht na hÉireann as declared in 1916 and ratified in the all–Ireland elections which followed. In less flowery language — it belongs to the Irish people. That’s us folks.

Of course it’s a good thing for visitors from across the world to learn about the Rising and the role it played in introducing at least partial independence for our country. The museum is certainly no hotbed of British jingoism. But a public acknowledgement that the material is the spoils of war looted by British troops suppressing Irish attempts at independence would paint a more accurate picture and place the Rising in its proper context — that Ireland was struggling against British colonialism.

Display the 1916 material by all means, for there is a wealth of similar artefacts in Ireland — in December, an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation went under the hammer in Dublin for the princely sum of £270,000 — but acknowledge that it is the property of your neighbours, neighbours you are, mostly, at peace with.

I’ll head off the criticisms now. Yes, of course, there are more important things to be concerned about — the cataclysmic human misery unfolding in south east Asia being a case in point.

Yes, it was a long time ago and, after all, they are only old flags and guns. It’s unhealthy to have some sort of patriotic firearms fetish — but this isn’t an address to a Republican Sinn Féin ard–fheis. The Irish people are well aware of the pain caused by guns. And yes, if the British have yet to return the Elgin Marbles then it looks unlikely that the Easter Rising material housed in south London will be returned to Ireland where, arguably it has most relevance.

Call this the gripe born of a wet, Tuesday afternoon if you will but despite genuine good faith from the Imperial War Museum one is still left with the overwhelming feeling that, as so often happens in history, to the victor go the spoils.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-04-28 15:55:46.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Sean Lynch