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Collecting Ephemera and Rare Books on the Irish Independence

Updated on October 30, 2015

In 1916, on Easter Monday, a group of about a thousand men and women seized a few key locations in Dublin, and proclaimed Ireland's independence from the British rule. They relied on centuries of brewing tensions, but also on the general discontent with the conscription policy of the time, and they were hoping to receive some help from Germany, which had every interest to see Britain torn apart from inside.

The response of the authorities was swift, and the events, which became known as the Easter Rising, came to an end in just seven days. Dublin was left in ruins, and about 450 people were killed. The leaders, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Joseph Plunkett, and 90 others were arrested, tried, and swiftly executed. But the echoes continued to linger: two years later, Sinn Fein won the elections by a landslide, and proclaimed the Irish Republic – ultimately leading to the Irish War of Independence.

For those with Irish roots, and proud of their cultural heritage, memorabilia of the 1916 events are cherished as valuable treasures; for collectors, the Irish Independence provides very interesting opportunities: the Easter Rising is just one chapter in a long series of events, and therefore a collection of items related to the Irish Independence can become quite vast. In addition, the objects are in the same situation as those from World War I: old enough to be valuable, but recent enough to insure a steady supply on the market, so there are still opportunities to discover new treasures – maybe even to find a 1916 newspaper edition at a local garage sale!

Collectables Related to the Easter Rising of 1916

Two flags became the symbols of the fight for Irish Independence in 1916: the green flag bearing the words “Irish Republic”, which was raised on the General Post Office in place of the British Union Jack, and the tricolor, the green, white, and orange flag, also raised on the GPO, but on a lower pole, and which later came to represent the Irish Republic. Both of them survive to this day; the green flag is displayed at the National Museum of Ireland, while the tricolor is in a private collection, with an estimated value of $700,000 (though it failed to fetch the reserve price at an auction held in 2010 in New York, and was subsequently withdrawn from sale).

If you're interested in purchasing memorabilia related to the events of 1916, make sure you don't fall for any scams: the $700,000 tricolor flag is the only authentic one that survives from the Easter Rising.

Other collectables of the struggle for Irish Independence include various medals and armbands, issued by the government on various occasions. The most valuable are those issued for the 25th anniversary of the Easter Rising, in 1941, and awarded to those who took part in the events of 1916. Once again, be aware that the market is flooded with fakes, and, if you check sites such as eBay for a couple of years, you will notice thousands of sales involving such medals. In fact, less than 2,000 medals were issued in 1941 – so make sure anything you buy comes from a reliable source, with a certificate of authenticity.

Printed Materials of the Easter Rising

Printed materials were of the utmost importance during the actual events of the Easter Rising, and they represent priceless sources of information for historians today, as well as valuable collectables. The 1916 newspaper copies provide a unique perspective into the mindset of the participants. The printed word was the main instrument of communication and propaganda, so, when you read a 1916 newspaper, you can actually put yourself in the shoes of a regular Dubliner, and witness a piece of history as it happened – without the interpretation of historians or reporters.

The Proclamation of the Irish Independence

The most important printed text of the Easter Rising is the actual proclamation of independence – so important that even the names of the printers went down in history (Willie O'Brien, Michael Molloy and Christopher Brady). Because the job was done in utmost secrecy, the quality was poor and the fonts uneven (the most famous feature of the document is that the letters es are of a smaller font than the rest).

There is evidence that the leaders of the Irish Independence struggle actually signed the document, but the original does not survive. Most of the copies were destroyed by the British forces in the aftermath of the 1916 events, but about 30 still exist in museums and private collections.

Editorial aspects aside, the text itself mentions a few key principles of a modern society, including universal suffrage and gender equality – neither of which were available under the British rule of the time. Even if the rising failed at the time, the Proclamation went on to shape the Irish independence movement for many years to come.

Postcards and Photographs

Several sets of postcards were printed in 1916 or shortly after, the best known of them being the Powel Press set, which depicts portraits of the leaders of the movement for Irish Independence, the Valentine and the Daily Sketch sets, which present scenes of the city of Dublin in ruins, after the British intervention. The Daily Sketch set includes a few images taken by the photographer in the middle of actual combat scenes, showing sieges, buildings on fire, and the arrest of Edmund Kent. The value of such documents, of course, cannot even be estimated. Postcards were sold separately, as the 1916 newspaper editions could rarely afford to include photographs. Even modern, digitally-enhanced reproductions of such photographs fetch quite impressive amounts today on various auction sites.

Other printed items in postcard format are checkpoint passes, issued in order to allow locals to reach their homes or working places with ease. Checkpoints were a vital method of controlling the city, and most civilian casualties occurred when people refused to stop for verifications. Several such passes survive to this day, some in great condition, as they were preserved and cherished as family treasures by many Dubliners. Their value depends not just on the preservation status, but also on the signatures and other information they depict, as some can be used to shed some light on the whereabouts of the key players from the events of 1916.

1916 Newspaper Copies

The modern reader has access to a wide range of copies that were available on the 1916 newspaper stand, and, more importantly, to the papers that weren't readily available at the street corners, and were distributed by underground networks. It's also interesting to follow the evolution of a 1916 newspaper and see how the tone and the attitude shifted in the following years – in the mainstream publications, of course, since those that took a nationalist stand vanished soon after the Easter Rising, with many of the editors being among those executed.

A 1916 newspaper continues to be published to this day: The Irish Independent, which is currently Ireland's leading daily. It was founded in 1905 by William Martin Murphy, an Irish nationalist, who was actually more concerned about protecting his business interests, than about national and political issues. On the 4th of May, 1916, The Irish Independent called the Easter Rising “insane and criminal”, “a miserable fiasco leaving behind its trail of woe and horror”, and called for the execution of its leaders. The Independent's tough stance was related to the fact that James Connolly, a prominent leader of the rising, had previously led a strike against one of Murphy's companies.

Another pro-Union 1916 newspaper, The Irish Times, referred to the martial law enforced by the British as “a blessing to us all”, bringing “real security of life and property”, and asked its readers to stay indoors and read Shakespeare for the next few days. The Belfast Newsletter openly accused the government of taking part in a “disgraceful and dishonorable act”, linking the Easter Rising to an international plot aimed at ending the US neutrality and getting America involved in World War I.

Over time, the mainstream newspapers have changed their stance about the Irish Independence movement on more than one occasion, and, depending on the current political events, the actors of 1916 were described as national heroes or short-sighted adventurers. Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion came from The Irish Times, in an edition from the 14th of April 1966, which commemorated the Easter Rising: “It has been said ever so often that the Irish should forget their history. This is not true. They should read enough of it to be able to discern truth from propaganda.” And the only way to separate truth from propaganda is to read what both sides had to say, so let's have a look at the nationalist publications as well.

A copy of a nationalist 1916 newspaper is far rarer than that of a pro-Union one, and one can immediately notice the lower quality of the graphics and printing. Such papers were not published regularly, and most were short-lived. Gaelic Press published The Spark, while James Connolly himself edited The Worker's Republic. Fianna Fail survived for just 11 issues – and was written mainly by one person, Terence MacSwiney. Other noteworthy titles were The Irish Volunteer, Sinn Fein, and Eire. The Irish Nation.

Rare Books, Manuscripts and Poems about the Easter Rising

Perhaps the most famous book written by an active participant in the Irish independence struggle is “My Fight for Irish Freedom”, by Dan Breen, published in 1924. Breen was not one of the prominent leaders in 1916, but he was an enrolled Irish Volunteer at the time. Later, during the War of Independence, the British authorities offered a reward for his arrest, but Breen survived and became an important political figure, until his death, in 1969.

A lot of other famous books are considered linked to the Irish independence, even if they were not actually published during the 1916 events, including a 1914 edition of Songs of Sleep and Sorrow, or the works of James Joyce. An interesting and rather unusual piece is a manuscript by John F. Kennedy, commenting on the relations between Ireland and the US, which has been estimated at over $20,000.

Last but not least, the 1916 Easter Rising inspired a lot of poems, epigrams, ballads, and songs, some of which continue to be sung to this day. The most famous of them is, of course, Easter, 1916, by W. B. Yeats, but perhaps a less known author sums up the events even better: Brian O’Higgins and his sarcastic “Row in the Town”.

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    • kgmonline profile image
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      Geri Mileff 4 years ago from Czech Republic

      Thanks :)

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      Steve Mitchell 4 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      Very interesting article. I am amazed someone from the Czech Republic knows so much about early events in Ireland. I look forward to reading more of your work. Good luck and welcome to HubPages.