Friday 17 November 2017

Stage: Here is your seat, Sir - and here are your guns

Rebel rebel: Usherette Nellie Bushell stored amunition in the Abbey theatre box office.
Rebel rebel: Usherette Nellie Bushell stored amunition in the Abbey theatre box office.

Maggie Armstrong

Spare a thought for Nellie Bushell this Easter centenary. For more than 40 years she worked as an "usherette" in the Abbey Theatre, but she knew a lot more than just the seating plan. See the determination in those flaring eyes and pointed eyebrows? How tightly sealed her lips are? That is the look of a woman with a secret she won't tell.

Fearghal McGarry's new book, The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution, tells the inside story of the "seven rebels" attached to the theatre who participated in the Rising. Their modest plaque was unveiled in the Abbey during the 1966 commemorations. It's easily missed.

They were two actresses, three actors, a stage hand and prompter, and this enigmatic usherette. The rebels were working-class and forgotten in what McGarry calls the "Yeatsian" and "Catholic" narratives of remembrance that followed. Women, you won't be surprised to hear, were pushed to the edges in that manful tale of martyrdom as it was passed down.

So who was Nellie? Sarah Ellen Bushell was born in 1884 and raised in the working-class Dublin neighbourhood of the Liberties, today a haven for hipsters. The 1901 census shows her at 17 living on Lower Clanbrassil Street with her father, a silk-weaver, and her 20-year-old stepmother. By 1911, she had moved a few paces up the road to Newmarket Street - where she was 26, single and a silk-weaver herself.

In fact, she had worked in the Abbey from its opening night in 1904. One patron remembered her as "but a slip of a girl… daintily clad". Nellie had grown up working unwaged in amateur theatre societies. By night she sold tickets at the box office, by day she did poplin-weaving.

Her skill as a weaver brought her into nationalist circles when members of Fianna na hÉireann found she could make the traditional Irish cloaks then in vogue among Irish-Ireland groups. During the years of fermenting cultural nationalism, Nellie opened her home to Abbey actors after the shows, serving stout and sausages. She let members of Na Fianna hold meetings in her house, which took a decidedly political turn.

When the Volunteers formed, Nellie made kilts and bandoliers to hold bullets for the boys taught by her friend Pádraig Pearse at St Enda's, the fabric paid for by Roger Casement. From 1913, she was enlisted as an auxiliary member of F Company, 4th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade. Nellie became adept at stashing guns and ammunition in her house.

When the Rising started, she was 31 and ready to risk her life for her country. But women were not welcomed in the garrisons. "I was rambling around trying to get in somewhere… It was all confusion and sorrow," she later told the Military Service Pensions Board. She was demoted to carrying "whiskey and first aid" in her pockets for injured rebels, getting caught in crossfire in the rush home. Through Easter week she ran in and out of Jacob's factory carrying bundles: despatches and ammunition, rashers and margarine. At Jacob's, she was spotted by police and watched. Still, in the weeks after the Rising she sheltered rebels - "country fellows" - leaving a key on her window ledge. When the British army cracked down, Nellie escaped arrest but her house was raided so frequently she had to move, and settled up the road in Inchicore.

We don't know how she felt when her fellow comrades were executed. We do know she stayed on with the Volunteers, her house now used for army conferences.

Back in the Abbey, she led a double life between dutiful ushering and terrorism with the anti-Treaty IRA. She worked behind the scenes on Michael Collins's infamous campaign of assassination on the streets of Dublin, minding weapons for the killers. During one Black and Tan raid, she smuggled Collins out of the Abbey. Another time, she stored "a cartload of guns, bombs and ammunition" in the cloakroom. When the performance started, she carried the arsenal through the foyer and outside to where an ass and cart was waiting, stashed them and flung cabbages on top.

The directors of the Abbey let on they knew nothing about her involvement. But she was a marked woman. The Black and Tans "smashed up her home", leaving her homeless for five weeks. She had never married.

These years had a possibly traumatic effect. By 1922, "my health had broken down pretty badly". She resumed her genteel role in the Abbey, working there until shortly before her death in 1948 from heart disease. Granted the lowest military pension, she died in poverty and is buried in Mount Jerome.

Nellie almost never spoke about her activities, and had been airbrushed from history until McGarry's book, which has retrieved her life. Was she a deranged firebrand who turned her strategically located workplace into an arms depot in some blood-thirsty fling with freedom, getting off Scot-free because she was a woman?

Maybe, but maybe it broke her heart to do it in her theatre. One friend recalled how her "deep-rooted love of the drama world could be expressed as intelligently as any astute critic".

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