Thursday 22 August 2019

Books: Bringing the Rising to life through ordinary rebels

Fiction: The Scrap, Gene Kerrigan, Doubleday Ireland, pbk, 384 pages, €12.99

Talent: Kerrigan shows a professional historian’s respect for the facts. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Talent: Kerrigan shows a professional historian’s respect for the facts. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
The Scrap by Gene Kerrigan.

Brian Murphy

Gene Kerrigan is a journalist par excellence, but The Scrap is his first venture into the realms of history. For decades, Kerrigan's erudite analysis in the Sunday Independent on politics and news events has informed and entertained the Irish public. Beyond the world of newspapers, Kerrigan has forged a parallel career as an author of accomplishment. In 2012, he won the Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year.

In his latest offering, Kerrigan deploys the full range of his talents, versatility and experience to produce one of the most remarkable and enjoyable books that has been written about the Easter Rising in recent times.

Kerrigan emphasises in the introduction to The Scrap that it is "a writer's work, not an historian's". However, there should be no doubt this book does much to greatly illuminate our understanding of a defining event in Ireland's independence struggle.

The concept for Kerrigan's book is essentially fresh. The story of the Easter Rising through an analysis of the actions and motivations of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation has been told and re-told. Kerrigan chooses not focus on the leadership and instead he zooms in on the rank-and-file - the ordinary rebels - and he gives a classic fly-on-the-wall account of Easter Week through their eyes and experiences.

The main protagonists in this book are not Pearse or Connolly, or even Clarke or MacDonagh, but the previously unheralded Fairview volunteers of the F Company, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade. This book is their true story.

Charlie Saurin, a 20-year-old student in 1916, is not a household name in Irish history, nor is Boss Shields, another 20-year-old, who is employed as an actor by the Abbey Theatre, nor is Frank Henderson, the F company captain. Oscar Traynor, a 30-year-old professional goalkeeper with Belfast Celtic, will one day become a well-known public figure, as de Valera's last Minister for Justice. Another F Company member, Harry Colley, will also one day serve as a Dublin TD and become the father to Charles Haughey's nemesis, the future Tánaiste George Colley. But in 1916, these men are very much the anonymous foot soldiers of the Rising.

The genius in Kerrigan's work is to bring to life the perspectives and vivid memories of an entire company who participated in some of the most vicious fighting in the Rising. Though Kerrigan professes not to be an academic, he shows a professional historian's respect for the facts and his use of primary archival sources is impressive. This stunning narrative of F Company's participation in the Rising is drawn from the voluminous collection of witness statements of veterans of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence compiled by the Bureau of Military History between 1947 and 1957.

In his introduction, Kerrigan notes "if in this story there are tears in a man's eyes it's not made up. If sparks fly from horses' hooves when Lancers gallop on cobblestones, it's not poetic licence. It's there in the remarkable military archives".

This wonderful national historical resource has been expertly excavated by Kerrigan to produce a real page-turner that captures the pathos and patriotism of 1916.

By utilising the surviving testimonies of the ordinary men and women involved in the Easter Rising, Kerrigan takes us beyond many of the myths of unadulterated heroism.

The gripping description in this book of the panic, the terror, the bloody gruesomeness and the indiscriminate loss of life that surrounded the evacuation of the GPO should remind all of us that war is never pretty and that many people paid a high price to help secure the freedom we enjoy today.

Dr Brian Murphy lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He holds a PhD in Modern Irish History

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