In May, 1916, Louisa Hamilton Norway went to see the GPO. Her husband was Secretary of the Post Office in Ireland, so he had an office there. She went to find the things that her husband had kept locked away in his safe. She went to find the possessions that she couldn’t bear to lose. A search produced “three little brooches that F. had give me on various birthdays when a wee boy. He always went out with his own sixpence, and nearly always returned with a brooch, which I used to wear with great pride. How glad I was to see them again.” F was Fred, her 19-year-old son. He was killed on the Western Front in July, 1915.
She had kept the things he owned, the things he had given her. But now with only some charred broaches left, she wrote, “F. and all his precious things are gone.” Possessions can be measures of wealth, class, taste, ambition, status. They can show us the kind of lives people desired or hoped for, the kinds of lives they were expected to live. Possessions tell us what people could spend their money on, and how much they had to spend. They show us what was stylish, essential, even frivolous, what promised health, happiness, even respectability in other people’s eyes. What is harder to know is why a sixpenny brooch could mean the world entire.
Our relationship with the things we possess is complex, hard for historians to ever fully understand. We can try too hard to interpret what acquisition, possession might mean. Did looters in the Rising loot because they could? Or does the fur coat or the piano or the cricket bats taken tell us of a life the looter coveted, the life they imagined other people lived?
For all those who gained and lost economically in war and revolution, life went mundanely on in the things they bought and sold. Advertisements for all kinds of goods tell us about lives lived regardless of war and revolution, that rheumatism would still need Sloan’s Liniment, that solutions were at hand for poor nerves, bad breath, and every kind of superfluous hair, that a simple black velvet frock could be worn in three stunning ways, and let civil war do its worst. This is a world of bicycles and movement, mobility at a cost which more and more could afford, even if the bicycle was secondhand and paid in pennies by the week. This was a world of fashions and bargains, of health and self-improvement.
It was a world where so many things might make life better. Well, at least that was the message the advertisements sold.
Advertisements bring to life a world of possible distractions from war and revolution. But some advertisements also appeal to a world caught up in its midst. Waverly Cigarettes were always in the firing line, as smiling soldiers testified, while Fry’s likened it’s pure breakfast cocoa to a tank, fit to surmount all obstacles, assuring housewives that they now had the armoury to deal with any truculent child. Tonics and wines and electrified belts promised all sorts of cures for neurasthenia, while Sunlight soap ran its “ Simple Stories of Sunlight Street,” where Jack drops his anchor when home from the fleet and wonders at his welcome from all Sunlight Street.
This was a world of happy smiling faces back home from the war, far from an Ireland that seemed to be closing itself off from the world and retreating into an Irish Ireland mentality, For all the products that bore the promise of made in Ireland, other advertisements mark an openness to all that was novel and exotic.
Gramophone and record sales, film and theatre listings show how eagerly American and British entertainment was consumed. The swashbuckling heroics of Douglas Fairbanks, the comedy of Chaplin thrilled Irish as they thrilled every other audience. Sold-out seats at the La Scala in Dublin, at The Royal in Belfast, all the people piled into makeshift and impromptu showings in the smallest places tell of the hunger for cinema’s pleasure and its escape. The thrill of life lived bigger and brighter, the possibility of having and wanting more was part of war and revolution just as it was part of peace.
Whatever hopes of more the quieter aspirations of many are found in the lists of situations wanted and situations vacant in every day’s press, whether war or revolution raged. In a few words, life’s ambitions were proffered. “Young girl wishes situation. To be trained as kitchen maid. England preferred.” In a few words, life’s ambitions were brought down to earth. “ Wanted. General maid. Gentleman’s small house. Country.” In a world of maids and barmen, harness makers and grocers’ assistants, in jobs sought and jobs wanted are a whole host of people just doing their best to get by. Did war and revolution happen around them as they just muddled on in its midst?