Wednesday 22 November 2017

Books: Ten titles that reflect the spirit and the legacy of the Rebellion

Inclusivity was central to the 1916 ideology. This is reflected in the range of titles released to mark the centenary

Literary works detail the lives of the men and women of 1916, recently portrayed in the RTE series Rebellion.
Literary works detail the lives of the men and women of 1916, recently portrayed in the RTE series Rebellion.
Countess Markievicz

Hilary A White

The inclusive spirit of the 1916 Proclamation is one of its fundamental ideologies that we should be most proud of. Twelve years before full voting rights were passed for women in the UK, the revolutionary document, addressed to "Irishmen and Irishwomen", sought to establish a society that fostered equality in all senses of the term.

A handful of the vast array of books on the subject this centenary year nicely reflects this (even if the wholesale egalitarian spirit of those signatories has yet to be fully implemented).

It feels fitting, therefore, to read a foreword in The 1916 Irish Rebellion (Cork University Press €29.95) by Mary McAleese. The former Uachtaran describes Briona Nic Dhiarmada's prestigious chronicle as "an attempt to go beyond what has long been a strictly insular approach".

An initiative of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, this lush accompaniment to the Liam Neeson-narrated RTE series is richly adorned with archive photos and images. There is much contextual analysis with an eye on America, continental Europe and "the British Imperial project" but also, vitally, first-hand accounts from both sides of the divide.

At Home in the Revolution (Royal Irish Academy €25) delves into the actions and behaviours of women during that week, focusing on a variety of individuals from all backgrounds and how they negotiated what author and US academic Lucy MacDiarmid calls the "male-dominated revolutionary space". In what is a scholarly volume, MacDiarmid zooms in to examine other facets of female interaction with the Rising - the homestead, the bedroom, the white-hot street battle.

Marita Conlon-McKenna executes a more pacey game plan with just three key protagonists - Grace, Muriel and Nellie Gifford - in Rebel Sisters (Transworld €19.50). All three came from lofty roots but were determined to roll up their sleeves amid the revolutionary spirit sweeping Europe and were duly thrust into the Rising's vortex. Conlon-McKenna - who has form in the historical-novel field with the ubiquitous Children of the Famine trilogy - weaves romance, pathos and youthful idealism into the streets of 1916 (where they surely belong).

Inclusivity, of course, also applies to children and it can be tricky to give younger readers a sense of the Rising without them feeling they're being taught a school lesson.

A recent No 1 in the children's bestsellers chart, Patricia Murphy's Molly's Diary (Poolbeg €7.99) brings history to life through the journal of a 12-year-old girl whose family gets caught in the crossfire. Molly is as impressive a character as you could hope for - strong-hearted, gutsy, kind, capable and concerned. Murphy, an award-winning documentarian and children's author, nails this character's voice and, importantly, doesn't patronise the intelligence of her youthful target readership (9-12 years).

Young ones will also quickly ingest Padraig Pearse and the Easter Rising 1916 (Poolbeg €4.99). Part of Poolbeg's In A Nutshell series, it sets out to tell the fate of the totemic leader for six to nine-year-olds. What makes this particularly useful as a primer at home or in the classroom is how author Rod Smith gently folds in the key punctuation marks while inserting cameos by Connolly, Markievicz and Cumann na mBan. It doesn't glamorise nor does it paint the British forces as pantomime villains. Derry Dillon's sedate and evocative illustrations are a central factor in its dignified semblance.

Also small in dimension is A Pocket History of the 1916 Rising (€4.99 Gill Books) by Tara Gallagher, Fiona Biggs and Fionnbarra O Duibhir, which packs a mighty punch in its ability to bring the newcomer up to speed without being a dummies' guide. Starting in 1798 but cleverly using the recent marriage equality referendum as the Rising's ideological conclusion, it is a handy, full-colour rundown of facts, figures and bite-size biogs of all the relevant players over that epoch - from William Gladstone to Sean O'Casey. An ideal gift for an overseas friend or relative.

Kevin Curran's 2013 debut Beatsploitation suggested a writer of real perception and sensitivity. In Citizens (Liberties €13.99), his second outing, he pulls off that rare trick of framing the Rising within a modern narrative by oscillating between the two eras. A disillusioned twenty-something can't wait to join his girlfriend in Canada and escape the economic graveyard of 2011 Ireland. His plan is delayed when he is given his great-grandfather's 1916 memoirs and he is faced with a Brooklyn-like dilemma between the old country and new. The Balbriggan author always brings an edge of hard-won resolve to his tales while keeping mindful of broader social issues.

Gene Kerrigan (of this parish) brings his typical journalistic nous and novelist's pulse to The Scrap (Doubleday Ireland €16.99). Kerrigan used eye-witness evidence from the Bureau of Military History to close in on the lot of F Company, 2nd Battalion rebel unit. The result, at once gripping and measured, belongs to that school of narrative that uses a particular corner to explain the contextual horizon ("a small band of mostly young men and women challenged an empire that comprised a fifth of the world's population - and lost. And then won").

First published 26 years ago (in which time it has sold some 50,000 copies) and wisely reprinted for this year's centenary, Peter de Rosa's 1916 Rebels (Poolbeg €12.99) remains a classic of Easter Rising literature and one that seeks to tell the story with balance, sophistication and sweeping drama to readers who may not necessarily be bound up by Irish heritage.

For such audiences on foreign shores, de Rosa's book performed a similar service to Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger in introducing Ireland's place in world history as one of breadth and far-reaching resonance.

There is an iconic feel to 1916: Portraits & Lives (Royal Irish Academy €30) that makes it an essential inclusion in the Easter Rising bookcase. Besides its lived-in title font and the immediacy of the edition's black-and-white palette, there are the striking cinematic plates by scraperboard artist David Rooney.

Editors Lawrence White and James Quinn set out to compile a collection of 30 individuals, all taken from the RIA's Dictionary of Irish Biography, whose lives were defined by 1916. Bit-players and Civil War icons such as de Valera or Collins are omitted in favour of a more pronounced cast list (such as pacifist radical Francis Sheehy-Skeffington or the Irish-born British officer John Bowen-Colhurst, whose brutality to five prisoners garnered much sympathy for the insurgents).

All these releases share one thing: They understand that the story of that Easter week lies not just with the fallen martyrs but also with men, women and children from Ireland's many strata.

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