The mutations of martyrdom in Britain and Ireland c1850-1920

Wolffe, John (2013). The mutations of martyrdom in Britain and Ireland c1850-1920. In: Kelly, James and Lyons, Marian eds. Death and Dying in Ireland and Europe: Historical Perspectives. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, pp. 349–368.



Kilmainham Gaol on the outskirts of Dublin - between 1966, when it was restored and opened to the public to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and 1986, when it was taken over by Heritage Ireland - was a focus for "proud and unapologietic" Irish nationalism and republicanism. Voluntary guides would stand on the spot where the leaders of the 1916 Rising were shot by the British, and speak with quasi-religious earnestness of how these men sacrificed their lives for the cause of Irish freedom and should inspire later generations to continue their struggle until the six counties were reunited with the twenty-six. By the 1980s, such language had become alienating for Irish people with less confrontational political attitudes, let alone the occasional British visitor. It was, however, a striking and persistent example of how the language and rhetoric of martyrdom, with its Christian roots, could be seamlessly translated into a secular and contested nationalist context. This essay explores something of that historical process, weaving together an analysis that spans the Irish Sea. The underlying hypothesis is the paradoxical one that the very way in which the "terrible beauty" of martydom divided Protestant and Catholic, British and Irish, reveals substantial underlying cultural and religious commonalities. Oviously this took on a new form at Easter 1916, but pace W.B. Yeats, this was not so much a birth as a mutation.

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