Wednesday 26 October 2016

How books can teach our children about the Rising

Published 21/01/2016 | 02:30

'Friend or Foe', by Brian Gallagher.
'Friend or Foe', by Brian Gallagher.
Morgan Llywelyn's '1916'.
'Rugby Rebel', by Gerard Siggins.

The history of Easter Week 1916 is well known - but what was it like to be a child or young adult as Dublin city went up in flames? Was it exciting? Frightening? Horrifying? How did friends and neighbours react when some families had sons fighting for Britain in the Great War, while others had sons fighting for the rebels against the British?

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As the key moment in Irish history, the Easter Rising has featured in books, plays and poems. And much of the storytelling has been from the viewpoint of the men who fought bravely on both side. Now, however, attention has been given to the women and children who were also participants, spectators - and sometimes tragic victims of the Rising.

For many years their stories went unheard, but today Irish children can read gripping fiction that explores life during that turbulent period. These stories have been told by writers like Gerard Whelan (The Guns of Easter), Siobhan Parkinson (No Peace for Amelia), Morgan Llewellyn (1916), Gerard Siggins (Rugby Rebel), and more recently by Brian Gallagher (Friend or Foe) and Patricia Murphy (Molly's Diary). There's even been a graphic novel about the Rising by Gerry Hunt (Blood upon the Rose).

With such a diverse selection of exciting books now available, young Irish readers can journey back in time and imagine what life was like for their great-grandparents. And while history gives us the facts, stories tell us more than mere facts, and allow us to experience how people felt.

Looking at the statistics today, it's shocking to find that the losses of British soldiers, Dublin Metropolitan Police, Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army members - even when combined - were fewer than the number of civilians killed. These circumstances make for highly dramatic storytelling, and young readers can learn a great deal about the past while being entertained by gripping, yet thought-provoking writing.

Against the backdrop of the Rising a wide range of topics is covered by Irish fiction. Siobhan Parkinson has a Quaker friend of Amelia, her main character, becoming a soldier, despite religious reservations, Morgan Llewellyn has her youthful characters being educated by Padraig Pearse in St Enda's, and getting drawn into the conflict in spite of their age, while in both Friend or Foe and The Guns of Easter characters have to grapple with divided loyalties.

In Molly's Diary, Molly finds herself in the unusual situation of tending to the wounded on both sides, while One Good Turn, the forthcoming Irish entry in World Book Day, tackles the Rising and its aftermath from the unusual viewpoint of a young looter.

Dublin today is a far cry from the war-torn city that was part of the British Empire back in 1916. But today's young readers can travel back in time and see exactly how their counterparts lived. All they have to do is pick up a book, open their minds and let the magical journey begin.

Brian Gallagher

Irish Independent

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