Lar Joye’s well-attended talk on Weapons in Irish History at the Members Room in the Royal Irish Academy kicked off with a bang, and a screening of the famous Omaha Beach Scene from Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Bullets whizzed, their impact almost tangible. But Mr. Joye, curator of the award-winning Soldiers & Chiefs exhibition at Collins Barracks, dispelled some of the myths that went into the making of the classic: the high death toll came not from a full-frontal assault, as depicted, but from concealed machine-guns capable of covering a far greater distance. It would not be the first time that the fables of film came in for scrutiny: from the faulty aim of duelling pistols, to the tell-tale smoke that made ambush by Brown Bess impossible, from jamming pistols to unreliable grenades, the realities of warfare and its ever-evolving arms race seemed far messier than what we have come to believe from Hollywood.
The battles of the past came to life under Mr. Joye’s expert guidance, which invited audience members to picture themselves as participants in the battles of history, fumbling to load, reload, aim and fire under the incredible stress of war. So often, we think of battles as won by the tactics of generals or the strategies of kings, rather than by a simple innovation in the design of a trigger, an increased cartridge capacity or an assembly line for greater speed of weapons production.
The Collins Barracks collection focuses mainly on the weapons of the British army, as it is always the victor whose history is best preserved while Irish rebels were frequently driven to use and reuse weapons until they literally fell to pieces. Lar Joye screened amusing introductions to 19th century weaponry by fictional drill sergeants, who explained the firing techniques and drawbacks of each rifle, growing more advanced as the century progressed. The weapons of the Irish in a number of key battles were also discussed. Considering the rebels of 1916, who faced the fully professional army of the British empire armed often only with pikes or faulty grenades, the bravery of the men and women involved was clear. A rare opportunity to handle several pieces from the museum’s collection was given to several interested audience members. For me at least, it was a fascinating insight into the way that the tools of history may shape its outcome, the key to an era hidden in its everyday details.
The talk was part of the Expert Workshop series. The next talk ‘Shedding Light on the ESB’s Archives’ by Deirdre McParland will be held on 13th October at 3pm.
By Brigit McCone