Friday 27 April 2018

My 1916: 'A sense of shame, cloaked in silence'

Civil War tensions were still palpable in the Wexford village where writer Orna Ross grew up, she tells Celine Naughton

Orna Ross in Sligo where she launched her double book, Secret Rose, at the Yeats Summer School. Photo: James Connolly.
Orna Ross in Sligo where she launched her double book, Secret Rose, at the Yeats Summer School. Photo: James Connolly.

When Jo Devereux discovers her granny was once an Irish freedom fighter who hid arms under her clothing, she sees the tiny, frail old woman she grew up with in a whole new light. It's one of a host of family secrets that come spilling out on the pages of After the Rising, Orna Ross's bestselling novel that brings events of the 1916 Rising and subsequent Civil War to life in a way that history books often can't.

Both this story, and its sequel, Before the Fall, deal with the consequences of that pivotal era on relationships between families, friends, neighbours and entire communities. In many cases the repercussions continue right up to this very day.

The inspiration came from Orna's own family history and upbringing in a small Co Wexford village. Ireland at that time was full of such villages where, she says, "some families drank in one pub and others in another and never the twain would meet. Whole generations didn't speak to each other. Even as children, we knew which kids we should and shouldn't hang out with, and nobody told us why. We were just born to it."

For a child growing up in the 1960s and '70s, the community's self-imposed segregation was bewildering, and explanations were neither proffered nor sought.

"That generation was kept in place by silence," she says. "There were things you just didn't talk about - like anything to do with sexual politics, women's reproductive rights, unmarried pregnancy, domestic violence…"

And the war. Especially don't mention the war.

"For me, the Rising and the Civil War are interconnected. You can't talk about one without the other. But while the Rising was portrayed as a glorious event, people were ashamed by what followed six years later."

Dublin may have dominated the action during Easter week 1916, but it wasn't the only place to rise against British rule. Just 80 miles south of the capital, Wexford rebels concentrated their efforts in Enniscorthy, where they seized the town for five days and blocked the roads and railway line to prevent troops getting through to Dublin.

"My grand aunt - whose proud boast was that De Valera once stayed in our house while visiting Wexford in 1932 - had been in Cumann na mBan and during the Civil War she was on the side of the 'Irregulars,' as those against the Treaty were known. It was only after her death I discovered her brother had been shot by his best friend during the Civil War. That shocked me! How could two men who'd been close friends growing up and comrades in the War of Independence become sworn enemies?"

She turned to her father, but he had no answers. "The older generation had told him nothing. There was a sense of shame, cloaked in silence.

"My father inherited the mantle of Fianna Fáil, until the Haughey era, when he became disillusioned and gave up on the party. From my perspective, I could never see a difference between either side. It was a divide that shouldn't be, a waste of political energy.

"I rejected it all, but when you reject something, you're not indifferent, so later I had to explore what it was I was turning my back on. I always knew I'd write about it. Even at 14, I told a friend that one day I'd write a book about that time in history and how it affected us all. I saw at first-hand how divisive the legacy of that era had become and how it filtered down through generations.

"The Rising was theatre, it changed hearts and minds, while the Civil War was an absolute tragedy. To quote WB Yeats, one of my heroes, 'great hatred, little room, it maimed us from the start'."

After The Rising became an international bestseller and launched Orna's career as an author, poet and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors. She's now rated by The Bookseller magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in publishing in the world.

"I was part of the fight for women's rights in Ireland in the '80s. It's the same drive towards autonomy that fires my work for indie authors," she says. "And, indeed, that created the Easter Rising in 1916. People have this right to express themselves and to my mind, self-expression is a right for all, not a privilege for the few. The stigma that exists around writers who self-publish doesn't sit well with me."

This month she launched the crowd-funded publication of Secret Rose, a special commemorative double-book containing Orna's latest novel, Her Secret Rose, about the turbulent relationship between WB Yeats and Maud Gonne, and The Secret Rose, his talismanic short stories.

"His publisher back then mutilated The Secret Rose!" says Orna. "Yeats had meticulously laid out the sequence of stories in the order he wanted them, and the publisher Arthur Henry Bullen removed the final two, which eviscerated the whole meaning of his book."

A member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in his earlier years, Yeats had distanced himself from nationalist politics by the time of the Rising, and only released his powerful poem Easter, 1916, four years after the event.

"Yeats and Lady Gregory became part of a cultural revolution as opposed to a political one," says Orna. "To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, I wanted to pay tribute by putting his stories back together as he originally intended them to be read in 1897, alongside my own novel, all bound in a cover replicating his first edition."

Secret Rose, After the Rising and Before the Fall by Orna Ross are available as ebooks on Amazon, iBooks and Kobo. A special, limited edition (500 only) hardback gift book of Secret Rose is available exclusively from

Irish Independent

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