Books: Depicting a very different Strumpet City
Fallen Lia Mills Penguin Ireland, tpbk, €14.99, 280 pages
This book marks the beginning of a war – the War of the Commemoration of 1916. If Myles Dungan's recent History Show on RTE is anything to go by, it will be a bitter conflict.
Even before the programme was broadcast, its title alone – Is James Connolly an Overrated Icon of Irish History? – provoked a storm of protest. It was revisionist, anti- national, even treacherous. How dare Dungan dump on a saint of 1916 (he didn't)?
Lia Mills' tremendously passionate, vivid and humane novel about the Rising will also enrage the deep-green patriots. For one thing, Connolly isn't in it. Nor is Padraig Pearse. The reason is simple: the heroine, Katie Crilly, has never heard of them. Her mother, too, is puzzled: she wants to know, "Who are these people? What do they want?"
The Crillys live near the GPO, in Rutland (now Parnell) Square. Daddy is a solicitor. Mummy wants to move to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) – "The neighbours would be more to her liking." She is mortified that one of her daughters is married to a Protestant, albeit a surgeon. Another son, God help her, is an actor.
And Katie? Mummy has banned her from staying on at university to do a master's degree. A real master – a husband – is what a 22-year- old girl should really be looking for. Fortunately, Katie is quite presentable, unlike her friend Frieda who has a birthmark on her face. That, Mummy says, "would put off the paying customers".
However, she does have a son of whom she is hugely proud. Liam is Katie's twin, and as the book opens, in August 1914, he is setting off to France to fight with the Dublin Fusiliers.
Meanwhile, Katie manages to find part-time work as a research assistant with a couple who are writing a book about the monuments of Dublin. Dorothy Colclough and May Wilson have a house on the other side of the city, in Percy Place, near Mount Street – the geography is important.
It doesn't cross Mrs Crilly's mind that Dorothy and May might be lesbians. How could it? Such people didn't exist back then, and the pair are scandalous enough as it is: they want the right to vote.
In 1915, Liam is killed. By then the atmosphere of dear old dirty Dublin – the filth and stink of poverty pervade this book – has become nightmarish. Thousands of Dubliners have died on the Continent and in the Dardanelles and, "every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband".
Liam's blood-stained belongings come back from the Western Front. Katie starts reading his letters obsessively, then she meets one of his comrades, Hubie Wilson. Most of his hand has been blown off and he is almost deranged with fury against the war.
Despite this, he still sees some of the conflict as justifiable. The Battle of the Marne, for instance, stopped the Germans from taking Paris. And he hasn't become a pacifist. As he says: "I may well kill a man, again. But, if I do, my reasons will be my own."
This intense conversation with Katie takes place late in the book, after the Rising has broken out. But readers only catch glimpses of the fighting. Instead, what we see in scarifying detail are its effects.
Some of this is bizarre – in Sackville Street, women dressed in looted feathers sit on a dead horse drinking whiskey from a bottle. And much of it is also horrible: a woman whispers a prayer for a dying man but where his ear was the bullet has left only a bloody hole.
A lot of this has previously been historically documented, but until now untouched by the imagination of a creative writer.
This is especially true of the biggest battle of 1916, which involved Sherwood Foresters repeatedly charging across Mount Street bridge straight into rebel fire.
Many of these soldiers were teenagers who had never fired a gun in their lives. Twenty-eight of them were killed and more than 200 seriously wounded. But while Katie observes the battle from Percy Place, she doesn't give us a bodycount – Lia Mills is scrupulous in letting her characters speak only of what they see or hear.
Mills has to marshal a large cast of characters through the events of Easter Week. It is a formidable task, but she does it brilliantly by treating Katie like a camera and shuttling her back and forward between Percy Place and Rutland Square.
Mills has an exquisite eye for the telling image and, as she showed in In Your Face, the book she wrote about her own oral cancer, she certainly understands suffering.
Fallen can be compared, favourably, to James Plunkett's Strumpet City. But it is, most unusually, too short. A good scriptwriter would – and I expect will – expand its over- condensed characters and storylines in a television series.
One way or another, the deep- green patriots won't like it. They want the commemoration of 1916 to be all green glory. If they don't get their way that will be due, partly, to the powerful voice Lia Mills gives to ordinary people.
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
BRIAN LYNCH'S NOVEL, 'THE WOMAN NOT THE NAME', IS PUBLISHED BY THE DURAS PRESS