Saturday 24 February 2018

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Taking the side of rebels

Lady Augusta Gregory, playwright and founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin
Lady Augusta Gregory, playwright and founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin

Ulick O'Connor

With the anniversary of the Easter Rising coming up, it is worthwhile remembering how the Abbey Company, under Yeats and Lady Gregory, unashamedly and immediately took the side of the rebels.

The first man to die in 1916 was a leading member of the Abbey Theatre, Sean Connolly. He died leading the second company of the Irish Citizen Army in an attack on Dublin Castle. Abbey actors Arthur Shields and Helena Moloney also took part in the Rising.

After Connolly's death, Yeats wrote:

Who was the first man shot that day?

The player Connolly,

Close to the City Hall he died

Carriage and voice had he.

He lacked those years that go with skill,

But later might have been

A famous, a brilliant figure,

Before the painted scene!

Yeats, of course, openly took the Republican side and wrote what could be called the anthem of the Rising, 'Easter, 1916'. Lady Gregory was a huge supporter. Someone once told me how they saw a little lady shake her umbrella in Abbey Street shouting "Up the webels". It was Lady Gregory with her distinct lisp. Lady Gregory's fine poem 'The Old Woman Remembers' is a wonderful summing up of clear thinking about Ireland and the Rising and her ability to put it into verse.


In Easter Week the wisp was lit

Waked Dublin from her drowsy years;

I moan the battle-anger, yet

What did we ever win by tears?

The ballad singers long have cried

The shining names of far-away;

Now let them rhyme out those that died

With the three colours, yesterday.

Yet who forgives shall be forgiven

It's likely in the Shining Land,

When near the Company of Heaven

The wondering shadow-armies stand,

The barren shadow weapons fall

The bitter battle angers cease;

So may God give to them and all

The blessings of His lasting peace!

Lady Gregory 1852-1932

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