Tuesday 25 October 2016

My 1916: History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce, in Death Wish 16

Published 16/04/2015 | 02:30

Rising farce: Damian Corless has reimagined Michael Collins as a 'wide-boy on the make'
Rising farce: Damian Corless has reimagined Michael Collins as a 'wide-boy on the make'

I've just written my first play. It's a comedy in three acts set around the events of the 1916 Rising. It's called Death Wish 16: The GPO and I'm quite sure that not everyone will see the funny side.

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The main characters are Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamon de Valera, Tom Clarke, Michael Collins and Constance Markievicz. Karl Marx famously said: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." In 1916 we had the tragedy. I reckon that at the distance of 100 years, it's time for the farce.

In my re-imagining of that Easter, Pearse is a cross-dressing control freak with an Oedipus complex; Connolly is a gruff thug; Dev is a morose creep and Michael Collins is a wide-boy on the make. Collins and Dev go to elaborate lengths to avoid signing the Proclamation, despite Pearse's insistence that the document needs a crucial eighth signatory for luck. While Pearse, Connolly and Clarke share the death wish of the title, Collins and Dev have no intent to sign their own death warrant.

It is, as I've said, an out-and-out farce, but I put a huge amount of historical research into it, in an effort to make it substantially true to life.

I started out with taking a dim view of Pearse, who appears to have been the main author of the Proclamation. Everything I had ever learned about him marked him out as a loo-lah, a view not improved on discovering that he and his brother Willie, as grown-up men, would often communicate in a makey-up language of small children.

But I couldn't stay mad at Pearse, and by the close of Act III, I felt compelled to show him a measure of sympathy. Having plotted an action that would lead to countless deaths, he seemed genuinely dismayed and sorry for what he'd done. As the headmaster of Saint Enda's school in south Dublin, he was perhaps the most progressive educator in the Ireland of his day, when the motto of many teachers was: "Give me the boy at seven, and I'll flog him to within an inch of his life."

My first awareness of the 1916 Rising was inflicted by teachers who subscribed to the latter approach to education. It was 1966, I was a young child, and my educators became fired-up with patriotic zeal as the 50th anniversary loomed. It seemed that every school lesson concerned some aspect of the Rising, the most feared being music lessons where rousing songs such as 'The Rising Of The Moon' were literally drummed into us, in the case of one teacher with the use of a sawn-off hurley.

My late grandad, who had been 17 at the time of the Rising, would hold court in his Howth living room, smoking Sweet Afton, telling us nippers endlessly about how he had switched a railway line in north Dublin, diverting a train full of British troops on their way to fight the rebels in the city centre. A big, jovial man, my grandad would always have a sixpenny piece or maybe a shilling, dispensed at the end of our visits to send us home smiling, but the one coin that I treasured from my childhood, and which I have kept to this day, was my golden jubilee 10 shilling piece featuring Padraig Pearse on one side with his hero Cuchulain on the flip. Pearse liked to think of himself as a modern-day Cuchulain, making a blood sacrifice for the greater good. Pearse may not have approved that the 800,000 commemorative coins were produced by the Royal Mint in London.

Many who'd fought side by side in 1916 had become bitter enemies within a few years and the early commemorations of the Rising were muted affairs, but by 1966 the State finally felt sufficiently distanced from the insurrection to really paint the town red. In some parts, painting the town was taken literally. As an orgy of pro-Republican and anti-British vandalism swept the land, the residents of Dun Laoghaire woke up one morning to find their streets covered in graffiti. The assortment of republican slogans scrawled around the town centre included 'Hitler was a good fellow'.

English newspapers that were no friends to Irish nationalism had no qualms about cashing in on the party.

The Daily Telegraph serialised the Rising exploits of De Valera while the People ran a pictorial tribute headlined 'Six days to death'. Sticklers for detail pointed out that the British troops featured in the People's souvenir supplement were, in fact, Irish Free State soldiers fighting in the Civil War of 1922-23. And that the People's photo of the Four Courts was actually the Customs House. And that one photograph - captioned "A rebel leader brandishes his revolver as he cries 'To your positions!'" - was in fact from a Michael Collins election rally in 1922.

As Easter Week approached, Kilkee Town Commission voted to make the patriotic gesture of enacting all its business in Irish. One member stormed out protesting: "I don't know a damned thing you are talking about." It quickly emerged that he was not alone. The inaugural meeting as gaeilge lasted 21 minutes instead of the customary two hours.

The aspect of 1966 that most impacted on my young mind was the blowing-up of Nelson's Pillar a few days before Easter by a republican. It was an outrage, and a miracle no one was killed, but crowds partied in the rubble. One garda was heard to say gleefully: "They'll go wild for this in America!"

The pillar was cut in half, leaving a big unsightly stump in the middle of the capital's main street. The stump left the Fianna Fail cabinet in a pickle. The St Patrick's Day parade was one week away, and it would be shortly followed by a huge march down O'Connell Street on Easter Sunday which would form the centrepiece of the 1916 commemorations. Members of the Old IRA were to provide the guard of honour. Thanks to the handiwork of a member of the 1966 IRA, it now seemed likely that the 1916 veterans would be parading past a big pile of rubble, an awkward reminder that the aspirations of the 1916 rebels remained unfulfilled. Something would have to be done.

At an emergency cabinet hours after the bombing, Taoiseach Sean Lemass pressed for the removal of the stump "as expeditiously as possible". The following day he was informed that the pillar was private property, owned by trustees. The cabinet decided that the embarrassment of the stump was too great, and acted anyway.

My dad brought me in to town to see the controlled midnight explosion. Huge crowds watched. It was anything but controlled, smashing shop-fronts. It was unforgettable.

Irish Independent

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