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Bullets, ballots and a flu pandemic: Life in Ireland was very turbulent 100 years ago
The National Library of Ireland has launched its latest exhibition, which will run until May 2019.

From Ballots to Bullets 2 NLI NLI

A CENTURY AGO, Ireland experienced two very turbulent years. 

Now a new exhibition run by the National Library of Ireland (NLI) delves into those interesting times and looks at everything from Irish democracy to feminism to a terrifying flu pandemic.

From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-1919 opened yesterday at the NLI’s National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, being launched by Senator Ivana Bacik, chair of the Oireachtas Vótáil100 Committee.

From Ballots to Bullets charts two turbulent and defining years in Irish life – 1918 and 1919 – which included the end of World War I, the suffragette movement, the global flu pandemic and the first meeting of Dáil Eireann.

The NLI says:

While the exhibition recounts the difficult birth of the nation, it also strives to demonstrate how daily life also just had to go on.

The exhibition also shows the depth of the NLI’s collections, telling the story through photographs, newspapers, posters and postcards. It includes a focus on six unsung revolutionary lives. These include Lily Mernin, a typist in Dublin Castle – who was also a spy; Kathleen O’Brennan, who spread the republican message across America; and Fr Michael O’Flanagan who rebelled against the British and his own church.

From Ballots to Bullets 3 NLI NLI

‘We can’t all be Countess Markievicz and Eamon De Valera’

Director of the NLI, Dr Sandra Collins told “There’s [already] been a lot of focus on some of those really historic moments in the two years, like suffrage and first Dáil. We wanted to put it in context and swing a broad arc across the time period.”

The exhibition looks at, for example, the rise of Sinn Féin and the shift in the voter demographic. “There was a very forward-looking approach by Sinn Féin to engage women voters, to empower women voters and really target them in the posters, the fliers and the electioneering.”

“We see the unsuccessful parts of the two years,” she added. “Then we see the start of the democratic tools of government, the establishment of a judicial system including that women can be judges, the start of the national police force and so on.”

Collins said that the NLI particularly wanted to focus on the life of ordinary people in the exhibition. “There were big events, but equally the ordinary person is living their life – going to the theatre, going to matches… and because our collections include all the ephemera and newspapers, we can show ads, tickets, menus, posters and other such things.

“I think that’s really important because we can’t all be Countess Markievicz and Eamon De Valera, but I think what we’ve tried to capture in the exhibition is the idea that ordinary people have a part to play in shaping our democracy as well.

“I hope that people can feel that same sense of ownership and responsibility today.”

From Ballots to Bullets 1 NLI NLI

She hopes that the photos used in the exhibition will help people connect with “the sense of people’s hopes and dreams” during those two years. “There was so much vested in what the country was trying to do in trying to be a free state sovereign nation,” said Collins. 

Truth and fake news

What can looking back at 100 years ago teach us about today?

“I think there’s a message which is equally important for us to reflect on today, which is the part we all play in shaping our democracy and our responsibility in seeking the truth and trusted information. That is the bigger message we would like to share from NLI,” said Collins.

“Which is – when you have these amazing collections and archives, people can look at them and form their own opinion on ‘fake news’. Once you are very much immersed in it, you’re asked to draw your own conclusions.”

She said that the exhibition also teaches us about the role of women in Ireland over the past 100 years. “What’s really clear in these two years is the foundation of a complete, equal, new sovereign country, so women are voting – though it’s not 100% equal because of the restrictions [on voting for some women].”

“They could be in the judiciary, they could stand in elections. We see our first [Irish] female MP to Westminster.”

NO FEE BALLOTS TO BULLETS 6 Marc O'Sullivan Curator Nikki Ralston, Senator Ivana Bacik and Director of the NLI, Dr Sandra Collins at the launch. Marc O'Sullivan

Overall, the exhibition shows there was a “huge amount of hope there for equality between the two genders”, said Collins. “But I suppose the question you would ask yourself, is have we lived up to that early promise, and have we let ourselves down as a country when we look at equality and policies across the years?”

Another fascinating part of the exhibition is the look at the Spanish flu pandemic.

“We got three waves of that in Ireland over those two years and more than 800,000 people caught the flu, and more than 20,000 died,” said Collins. “Research about the period shows it wasn’t what you’d expect – the frail or elderly or very young, but the biggest mortality was in young fit 20 – 4o year olds. That was a source of fear or anxiety for people at the time.”

To try and ward against the Spanish flu, people would turn to foods and supplements. One of the ads featured in the exhibition is for Oxo, which promises to “fortify the system” and claims to come recommended by a doctor.

Collins said she also hopes that Junior Cert history students will use the exhibition as a jumping-off point to engage with archival sources, and learn about the value of such material in looking at the past. 

“Hopefully we will draw a new younger age of researchers into the library, where if they get started they get hooked and they use all our resources,” said Collins.

From Ballots to Bullets: Ireland 1918-1919 is at the NLI’s  National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar and is free admission. It is open seven days a week, Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm and 12 noon to 5pm on Sundays. The exhibition runs until May 2019. Follow the NLI on Twitter @NLIreland, Facebook National Library of Ireland, Instagram @NationalLibraryofIrelandFlickr on the Commons  and YouTube.

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