The 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy is a County Wexford attraction that satisfies - the patriot in remembering the heroic dead of Wolfe Tone's ill-fated rebellion, the historian in the way it manages to avoid any unnecessary sentimentality and presents a balanced picture, casual visitors in making the whole exhibition accessible and exciting. So hats off to the 1798 Centre, one of Ireland's finest museums.
1798, Wolfe Tone and Vinegar Hill
The rebellion of 1798 was instigated and led by the United Irishmen and Wolfe Tone and aimed at creating a modern, all-inclusive, secular and democratic Ireland. The leaders of the rebellion, that would have been a revolution, had their work cut out. But they did not go into the fray all alone - after an abortive attempt two years before the post-revolution French government supported the Irish rebels with arms and even troops. Not out of pure altruism, it may be remarked.
Aspects of the 1798 rebellion often forgotten are the major role played by Protestant intellectuals in the upper echelons (indeed the song "Protestant Men" remembers those Irish patriots) ... along with the fact that some of these held French commissions and came with an invading foreign army, thus making trials for treason somehow a foregone conclusion.
After some initial successes, notably in Mayo and Wexford, the 1798 rebellion ended the way basically all rebellions up to the Anglo-Irish War ended: beaten Irish rebels rounded up and imprisoned or summarily executed by the Loyalist victors. In the Irish South-East the turning point of the campaign came at Enniscorthy, in the streets of the town and on nearby Vinegar Hill. British (and Loyalist Irish, the distinction is not always easy) troops broke the rebels and it went further downhill from there.
What better place than to build a commemorative centre and a museum?
The 1798 Centre - More than a Museum
Now the "museum" moniker might not readily apply to the 1798 Centre. If you see a museum as a repository for artefacts. Frankly, not many artefacts survived from the rebellion and the few cherished blunderbusses and pike-heads are of dubious provenance. Documents are not all that exciting, so the main focus of the museum went onto interpretation.
And haven't they done it well ... walking through the exhibition is like taking a course on Irish (and European) history in the revolutionary times of the late 18th century, from Polish insurrections via the Bastille straight to Vinegar Hill. There is nothing parochial about the exhibition, the wider context is strongly brought to the attention of the visitor and the often usual hero-v-villain attitude is avoided. The rebels are not lionised, neither are the Loyalists roundly vilified.
The use of visual aids and multimedia is simply stunning - having been to many museums and interpretative centres around the world, I had yet to see the whole background to be explained by the use of a ballroom-sized chessboard, the main players reduced to playing pieces and the whole brought together by audiovisual means. Abstract, yet eerily fitting.
Those of a more conventional persuasion might like the grand finale of the visit better ... you climb up a representation of Vinegar Hill, see the rebel position and then get treated to a representation of the important battle, using filmed snippets of a re-enactment and some special effects. Which doesn't really tell you a lot beyond the fact that it is never a good idea to start a war, even less finishing up on the losing site. But it is somehow exciting and brings the final stand on the hill (which actually is visible from the town) to life.
Who Should Visit the 1798 Centre
Anybody with an interest in Irish history, or the revolutionary period in Europe just before Napoleon started another version of modernity. Even if the fare of the 1798 Centre does not include generous helpings of hackneyed stereotypes and tearful eulogies of the patriotic dead. Then again, the balanced approach is the real strength here. The centre displays a certain pride in the efforts of the United Irishmen and the mass of less-educated rebels they led, but it never gets too carried away with it.
To be blunt: even a died-in-the-wool English monarchist may visit here without feeling obliged to make amends for the deeds of his forefathers.
As the 1798 Centre is within reasonable distance of Dublin, you might like to combine it with a visit to Wicklow Gaol and some hours in the excellent exhibitions at the National Museum in Collins Barracks, which will pick up the strands of Irish military history and the numerous rebellions. Another tour de force through Irish history is the Irish National Heritage Park further to the south, though its time-frame ends in the Anglo-Norman period.