Sunday 8 December 2019

It's taken 100 years, but at last we have a version of 1916 with room for alternative, marginalised histories

Artist Frances Noel Duffy outside the GPO with his portraits of 1916 women Maud Gonne MacBride and Elizabeth O Farrell. The centenary of the Rising has seen an upsurge in interest in the female revolutionaries. Photo: Liam Mulcahy
Artist Frances Noel Duffy outside the GPO with his portraits of 1916 women Maud Gonne MacBride and Elizabeth O Farrell. The centenary of the Rising has seen an upsurge in interest in the female revolutionaries. Photo: Liam Mulcahy

Martina Devlin

The "dead horse-centred, GPO-centred" version of events, as academic Lucy McDiarmid describes it, is how Ireland has tended to pass on the Easter Rising story to each successive generation.

It's a compelling narrative, of course, hypnotic in its right-overcoming-might simplicity. But it's not the only account.

And some 100 years have had to elapse before we could admit that. However, at least we made a start, during this centenary year.

There are pockets of silence still - the failure to cherish all the children of the nation equally, along with wilful amnesia about partition - but the monocultural, single-gendered way in which national identity was shaped has been acknowledged at last.

The 1916 programme, cornerstone of a decade of centenaries, aimed to strike an inclusive and non-triumphalist note. And it was largely successful, with official events choreographed in a dignified way.

But more interesting than those set-pieces was widespread popular sentiment towards the Rising - the wholehearted way people engaged with it. From families talking about indomitable grannies with their Cumann na mBan uniforms in the attic, to children pinning a not-so-distant ancestor's medal to their anoraks, to the Tricolour flown from the roof of homes, the people reclaimed the Rising from the formal programme.

The celebration became community-driven as opposed to State-led.

Such an intense level of participation was something the Government could not predict, but the people's endorsement made a success of the centenary year. Some public figures had warned it should be a commemoration as opposed to a celebration, but the people brooked no such ambiguity. Spontaneously, a current of elation took hold.

People had a hunger for alternative and marginalised histories, too, rather than the single, overarching narrative of previous years. While the iconography of 1916 remains potent - those "dreamers turned fighters" as Eva Gore-Booth called the Proclamation signatories - space was made for other stories. Disregarding them had been an injustice.

Mind you, previous generations are not alone in failing to make space for the female voice. The Abbey Theatre's failure in this regard led to a mini revolution during the year, in the Waking The Feminists campaign.

Elsewhere, attempts were made to recognise the women of 1916 who had been relegated to the shadows. For example, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Elizabeth O'Farrell - the latter delivered Padraig Pearse's unconditional surrender, wearing a Red Cross armband and carrying a white flag - appeared on a postage stamp together.

Famously, O'Farrell is absent from the surrender photograph in which a weary Commandant Pearse has handed over his sword to Brigadier-General William Lowe. She told later of stepping back as the camera shutter clicked.

Theo Dorgan gave a voice to her resistance in his poem, 'We Carried It To Here As Best We Could': "I saw no reason the enemy should have my image:/I held myself out of their history, to make my own," he has O'Farrell say. This was one of a series of poems for 'The Poet's Rising' commissioned by the Irish Writers' Centre. Such work, by a variety of poets, will live on after wreath-laying ceremonies are forgotten.

Elsewhere, historians have been labouring for decades to offer a more complete overview of events surrounding 1916. Margaret Ward's pioneering 'Unmanageable Revolutionaries' was published in 1983, followed by Sinéad McCoole's 'No Ordinary Women' 20 years later. But it has taken until the present day for those stories - about a generation of women who mistakenly believed independence for the State would lead to independence for women - to gain traction. There are further accounts in a collection of engrossing essays just published: 'Women Writing War' edited by Tina O'Toole, Gillian McIntosh and Muireann O'Cinnéide (University College Dublin Press).

It is clear that women were committed activists during this revolutionary period - three pregnant women were even on record as active in the Rising, while Margaret Skinnider was wounded in the fighting and mentioned in despatches.

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Other silences have been breached belatedly, such as the disservice done to men who fought as soldiers on the British side in the Great War, some enlisting to feed hungry families and others because they believed Home Rule would follow.

Interest in this diversity of experience - not a conveniently all-embracing narrative, after all - has heightened during the year, fed by documentaries, books, scholarly articles, newspaper supplements and panel discussions.

What struck me about any public debates I participated in was the scale of previously unheard accounts. Members of the audience shared family details, a rich seam of social history, sometimes producing photos of participants in their slouch hats and makeshift uniforms - the "vivid faces" to which historian Ray Foster refers.

They were proud of their relatives, part of an exceptional, idealistic generation, many of whom received no recognition for their sacrifices, and were allowed - sometimes forced - to melt into obscurity.

One of the year's most imaginative initiatives was Proclamation Day, helping children to view the Proclamation as a living goal rather than a museum piece. The words in that statement of intent never lose their vitality: it was inspirational to hear them spoken aloud so often in 2016.

A non-government group, among many community programmes, which fostered engagement with our founding history was the DLR 1916 Rising Committee. Composed of volunteers, it organised a series of public lectures about key figures such as Roger Casement, born in the local area (Sandycove, Co Dublin).

An informal event at his birthplace was held on the centenary of his execution, August 3, attended by Casement's relatives. While Patrick and Anne Casement, who live in the family seat in Antrim, also took part in formal events organised by the State, a sense of inclusivity was fostered by seeing them standing outside an inconspicuous redbrick house, elbow-to-elbow with locals.

Particularly heartening about the DLR group is that its lifespan extends beyond 2016 - it has reformed into a committee planning an annual symposium in Dún Laoghaire to discuss Casement's humanitarian achievements. A public artwork is also being commissioned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, proof of reinvigorated interest in his legacy.

Inevitably, as we approach centenaries connected with the Civil War and partition, the national debate may become fractious. But a solid job of work was done in 2016. Not least because events surrounding the State's foundation, subject to a certain mythmaking previously, are now accepted as more complex than the David and Goliath interpretation.

That David and Goliath story is still a cracker, all the same.

Irish Independent

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