Tuesday 27 September 2016

RTE stars as you've never seen them before

RTÉ's top presenters step back in time to launch Reflecting the Rising, a series of events on Easter Monday to commemorate 1916. Passionate contributor Joe Duffy tells our reporter why we should never forget those who died in this turning point of our nation's history

Meadhbh McGrath

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Time warp: (Clockwise from left) Kathryn Thomas, Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, Marty Whelan, Liz Nolan, Marty Morrissey, Joe Duffy, Sean O’Rourke and Miriam O’Callaghan, at Howth Castle, Co Dublin.
Time warp: (Clockwise from left) Kathryn Thomas, Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, Marty Whelan, Liz Nolan, Marty Morrissey, Joe Duffy, Sean O’Rourke and Miriam O’Callaghan, at Howth Castle, Co Dublin.
Joe Duffy: it's important to include civillians in the narrative.
Joe Duffy: it's a great tragedy that 100 years on, we still don't know all the names of those who died.
Sean Foster
John O'Connor
John Kirwan
Bridget McKane

Arriving to Howth Castle on an overcast morning is like stepping back in time to 1916… Until RTÉ pundit Marty Morrissey's moustache blows off in the wind, that is.

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The national broadcaster's stars are all here: Miriam O'Callaghan is surrounded by children on the carousel, kitted out in midnight blue taffeta (complete with boned corset, she later reveals), Marty Whelan poses in military dress aboard a tram built in 1886, and Kathryn Thomas arranges the skirts of her ivory gown (on loan from the Abbey Theatre) to hide a glaringly modern pair of runners. A springer spaniel named Fergal is on patrol as the castle watchdog.

We're all here today for a photoshoot to launch RTÉ's Reflecting the Rising, a series of events that will take place across Dublin on Easter Monday.

Radio presenter Sean O'Rourke - also donning a fake moustache today - recalls observing the marking of the 50th anniversary of the Rising as a 10-year-old boy. "It was seen as a very solemn occasion," he says. "I get the sense that this year is going to be a happier one, as much a celebration of what we are, what we've become and what Ireland has achieved as a commemoration."

That's the idea behind Reflecting the Rising, a day-long citywide programme of events that hopes to offer moments of both reflection and celebration with live music, exhibitions, talks, debates, poetry and drama.

For its launch, RTÉ decided to recreate a slice of 1916 with the eye-catching photoshoot taking place today. Adding to the backdrop of Howth Castle are vintage vehicles from the National Transport Museum, which is based on-site. Henry Noonan, a retired architect from Wexford, and his wife Mary have also travelled up for the day with their 100-year-old Dodge, one of their 20-strong collection of vintage cars.

A tram - which bears an advertisement for Dublin's famous Olhausen Sausages - came out of service in 1920. Bill Garry, vice-chairman of the National Transport Museum, explains that it had been converted into a mobile home and, with the help of the museum's tram team, he restored it by building the vestibule, the stairs, and all of the seats - by hand.

Inside the tram, Joe Duffy, in the guise of a down-at-heel worker, is reading a copy of the Irish Independent from 1916 and fiddling with yet another false moustache.

Later on, in the rather cushier setting of RTÉ's offices in Donnybrook, the always dapper Joe visibly cringes when reminded of his costume for the shoot. "I showed my wife the photographs and she said, 'Mother of god, why didn't they dress you up in something decent?' I said: 'It's Abbey Street, not Downton Abbey Street!'"

The Easter Rising is a subject that the Liveline host is passionate about. For the past few months, Joe has been kept busy visiting schools to speak about his best-selling book, Children of the Rising, an account of the 40 children aged 16 and under who died violently during Easter Week 1916.

"I go to primary schools, and people say 'six-year-olds will not be interested', but a six-year-old came in with the book! She got it at Christmas, and then they start talking about it in class. What they're interested in are the stories," he says.

On his iPad, he has a slideshow filled with images of the children who died: 12-year-old Paddy Fetherston, who was killed while playing in a boxcar ("That would have been your Batmobile or your Starship Enterprise," Joe tells the kids); John Kirwan (15), who was shot in the face while buying a stuffed elephant in Elverys, and Bridget McKane (15), whose scrapbook offered Joe an invaluable insight into the lives of children in 1916, and which he compares to today's Facebook.

"What's struck me at the schools I've visited is their curiosity," says Joe. "They are living history, and I say: 'We call them the children of '16, but you are the children of '16. You're connected to all of them. It doesn't matter where you're from. Keep their memory alive, and make sure you keep your family's memory alive.' It doesn't matter if you're from Nigeria or Newry or Navan, we are all human and we are all connected."

When Children of the Rising was published last October, it shot straight to the top spot on the bestsellers list. Now, as we approach the Easter commemoration, the book is more resonant than ever, and Joe can't believe its success.

"I really am struck by the reaction the book has got. This is a book I could not get published," he recalls.

He first started work on the project in 2012, when the Jack and Jill Foundation invited him to decorate an Easter egg that was to be displayed at the Gresham Hotel and then auctioned off at a fundraiser. He decided to use the egg to commemorate the lives of children lost during the Rising.

He soon realised there was scope for a much larger project. "When I first started, I remember Anna McHugh from An Post ringing me out of the blue," he says. "All we ever did with An Post was fight with them on Liveline, but she came to me and said, 'What can we do to help?'"

From there, he says: "It just got bigger and bigger. It grew out of people contacting me and saying: 'What about our Paddy? How come no one remembers our Bridget?'"

Joe notes that the pivotal moment came in 2014, when he organised an ecumenical memorial service to honour the children who died. He had noticed that among the relatives were a vicar and a priest, so he asked them to come, along with Frances Fitzgerald, then the Minister for Children.

"About 60 relatives turned up, and what they all said to me was: 'Their names are nowhere. They've been completely forgotten. We just want a memorial to them, be it their names or their stories. We just want them written into history.' That's what the book became." Joe had a clear idea of what he wanted: a sturdy hardback with photographs, something that grandparents could pass on to their grandchildren. It needed to have an index, a bibliography and endnotes, which can be expensive to produce. He was also determined to keep the price of the book to €20 or less. He spent a year talking to publishers, trying to convince them to get on board with the book. "That was a big ask," he says. "I know it's a little bit unwieldy - you won't be buying this at the airport, but it does stand by itself."

The book offers a narrative of Easter Week, and includes far more than just the details of the children's tragic deaths - it also gives details about their families, and what happened to them after the loss of their loved one.

Sadly, two of the 40 children remained unidentified. Although Joe found their death certificates - which simply state 'boy, unidentified' and 'infant, unidentified' - despite his best efforts he could not unearth any further information about who they were. "I feel terrible, God knows I tried. That's one of the great tragedies: 100 years on, we still don't know the full names of all the people who died."

In the book, Joe writes: "When I look at the map of where those children died in 1916, I feel a profound connection with them." Six children were killed in the area around Church Street where Joe's father was born in a tenement - in the very same room Joe's grandmother Agnes had been born and where she lived during the Rising. Joe remembers his grandmother as a stern woman, who didn't speak about the events of 1916. At the time, she was 13 years old, and her brother Christopher had been killed in the trenches while fighting in France.

Growing up in Ballyfermot, Joe's father would take him and his three brothers to the Easter parade every year, a tradition he remembers with glee. "The Easter parades were the highlight of my year - all the trucks and the soldiers and the guns and the artillery!" However, in March 1966 - the year of the 50th Easter Rising Commemorations - Nelson's Pillar opposite the GPO was destroyed when renegade members of the IRA planted a bomb. Joe's father decided it wasn't safe to attend the parade, so Joe spent the day at home watching RTÉ's drama series Insurrection.

Nearly 50 years later, he found himself trawling through RTÉ's archives from 1966, and discovered not a single mention of the civilian deaths. He speaks with passionate force about how those killings had been ignored in almost every account of the Rising, sometimes referring to the 40 children as "my kids".

"If the seven signatories Pearse, Plunkett, Connolly, Clarke, Ceannt, MacDonagh and Mac Diarmada are the fathers of our nation, then the children of the Rising are our brothers and our sisters. They are part of our history, and that was my aim: to try to write them into history. It doesn't matter what you think of the Rising or what you think of politics, what party you support, everyone says, 'They are part of our history, let's include them and the other civilians in the full narrative.'"

This Easter Monday, Joe's triplets Ellen, Ronan and Sean will turn 21. When asked about his children's interest in the Rising, Joe chuckles: "They are interested, but they slag me over it. We're on a Whatsapp group in the family. I asked if anyone wanted to come to Collins Barracks for an event about 1916 - it was no, no, no, and then Sean, my son who is over in Holland studying, texts back saying: 'That's the place you brought us every Sunday growing up, give us a break!'"

Joe's celebrations with his children will have to wait for another day - he'll be working on Easter Monday, joining the rest of RTÉ's top presenters for their packed schedule of events. But for Joe, it's about so much more than one day of commemoration.

"Writing this book has absolutely given me a new perspective on 1916. I think it's part of a big push to include the civilians in the narrative, because they are part of our history. That's what's connecting with people."

'Children of the Rising' by Joe Duffy is published by Hachette at €19.99. For details of Reflecting the Rising, see rte.ie/1916

Photos: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Children of the Rising

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Sean Foster: On Easter Sunday 1916, Katie Foster went for a walk with her sons, Sean (2) and Terence (17 months). As she approached Church Street, shots rang out, and she rushed with her pram in search of refuge. She was caught in the crossfire, and Sean was struck by a stray bullet that killed him instantly. He was the first of 40 children who died in the Rising.

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Bridget McKane: In 1916, the 15-year-old was working in a "fancy box" factory, and kept a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and transcribed poems. The 11 members of the McKane family occupied two tiny rooms in a house off Moore Street, and it was in this house that Bridget was killed by a bullet to her forehead - the same bullet that had already passed through and wounded her father.

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John Kirwan: The 15-year-old lived in a tenement house behind Westland Row and was working as a messenger boy. On Easter Monday, he went to Elverys, the sports shop then located on Sackville Street, just 50 yards from the GPO, to pick up a toy elephant for his baby sister Lily. John was not seen alive again. His family believe he sought shelter in the shop but could not escape the gunfire.

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John O'Connor: While walking home from St Laurence O'Toole Church, John was shot in the head by a sniper and killed. His family believe he was 16 - making him the 41st child killed in the Rising - although his death certificate gives his age as 17, which put him outside the age range of Joe's research.

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