Thursday 14 November 2019

Beyond the grave: voices of bloody revolution still echo

Writer Gene Kerrigan’s Rising book came about by accident, he tells Kim Bielenberg

Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap
Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap
Author Gene Kerrigan: ‘Instead of the stuff about Pearse’s eyes flashing, we see Pearse with his face sooty and swollen from the heat of the GPO, which was burning all round him.’
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Gene Kerrigan has written a monumental account of the Easter Rising, told from the point of view of ordinary rank-and-file participants. But he says he came to the topic totally by accident.

"I had no intention of writing about 1916, because I thought I knew all about what had happened," says the Sunday Independent columnist.

Kerrigan got sucked in by the Rising when he happened to be reading a witness statement from military archives about a later year, 1919, by Harry Colley. Colley was the father of George Colley, who became a Fianna Fáil minister and arch-rival of Charles Haughey.

The older Colley had given his statement to the Bureau of Military History about the Rising and the War of Independence.

Colley fought in the Rising with F company, 2nd Battalion, a group of volunteers based in the Fairview area of Dublin, and was wounded in the fighting.

"I found the details of it fascinating, and then I began to read the witness statements of other volunteers who had joined F company and I was intrigued," says Kerrigan, who grew up in Cabra and now lives in Artane.

Almost 2,000 witness statements about the revolutionary period between 1913 and 1921 were collected in the 1940s for the archive.

For decades, these revealing files were kept locked in a strongroom in Government buildings, and were only to be opened after the last witness died. They were eventually opened in 2003, and more recently they have gone online.

By carefully scrutinising these documents, Kerrigan began to piece together the story of F company.

This group of volunteers were involved in some of the key events during Easter Week - fighting in the GPO and along O'Connell Street, and on Moore Street.

Kerrigan says that in previous decades, we tended to look at 1916 through a distorted lens.

"In the 1960s, when I was growing up, we were required to glorify it.

"Then, in the 1970s through to the 1990s, demean it and demonise some of the people involved.

"If you said something positive about 1916, you tended to be identified as a fellow traveller of the IRA, and there was a feeling that you wanted to bomb people."

Kerrigan found himself delving into the Rising, simply to find out what had actually happened without intent to glorify or demonise.

He brings to his book, 'The Scrap', a thriller writer's panache in telling a story, but is keen to emphasise that it is an authentic account.

As he puts it himself, "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."

The title of the book was a term used by some witnesses to refer to the rebellion - with typical comic understatement.

Kerrigan fitted a number of different accounts together to form the narrative.

"Where the memories of witnesses differed, I cross-checked accounts and made judgments about the sequence of events.

"You find that one man might think something happened on the Thursday when it actually happened on the Wednesday, but I was able to check these facts against other accounts."

The book follows the Rising through the eyes of men from F company like the Abbey Theatre actor, Arthur 'Boss' Shield, and the student Charles Saurin.

Kerrigan has an eye for the telling detail, and seems to capture the mood of unreality. When 'Boss' Shields arrived for the uprising at Father Matthew Park, he asked his superior for permission to go to the Abbey Theatre, because he thought he might be needed for a matinee performance.

He also wanted to collect a rifle hidden under the stage.

Kerrigan says the witness statements dispel some of the idealised images.

"Instead of the stuff about Pearse's eyes flashing, we see Pearse with his face sooty and swollen from the heat of the GPO, which was burning all round him."

Some of the participants in the Rising later tried to boast in their accounts how they fought a glorious fight for Ireland, but according to Kerrigan, others were clear-eyed and sharp.

"They remembered every little incident, the same as you remember the day your child was born."

When he looks back at the history he was taught in school in Cabra, Kerrigan notes what was left out.

"We were taught about the Rising, but it was like cowboys and Indians. All I learned about the War of Independence was that it took place, and the Civil War was not mentioned at all."

Irish Independent

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