Friday 18 October 2019

My 1916: 'I was nearly Padraig Pearse'

The actor and comedian Patrick McDonnell was born into a household where the Rising was a vivid presence

Childhood: Patrick McDonnell hero-worshipped Pearse and his 13 disciples like footballers
Childhood: Patrick McDonnell hero-worshipped Pearse and his 13 disciples like footballers

I was born on the first day of February 1969 in Dundalk, Co Louth, against a backdrop of violence in the North and marital strife at home. That was the year when the Troubles exploded, after igniting in 1968. As I grew up in the sleepy village of Dromiskin, my mother constantly reminded me that it had been her intention to christen me Patrick Pearse McDonnell after the author of the 1916 Proclamation.

My father vehemently refused and he won the day. I was christened Patrick Peter McDonnell instead. I am sure that as a Patrick Peter rather than a Patrick Pearse I have been spared many an embarrassing explanation in job interviews or squeaky-bum moments at police checkpoints in the North, but I often wonder how different my life would have been if my mother had gotten her way.

My parents constantly fought over politics and as I grew, it dawned on me that bad things had happened and attitudes had been forged in the distant past that had wrenched them apart politically, if not romantically.

My mother was a republican of the Blaney-Haughey mould. My father was the polar opposite - the son of an ex-British army serviceman, who insisted we watch the Queen's speech on Christmas day and idolised Conor Cruise-O'Brien. Known as 'The Cruiser', he switched from nationalism to become a southern unionist.

As Minister for Posts & Telegraphs in the mid-1970s he introduced Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which banned spokespersons for Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA from the Irish media. When the prospect of a second Irish television channel became real, O'Brien wanted BBC1 to take the space instead of giving it to RTE.

In fifth class I developed an obsession with Irish history, which happened to coincide with the 1980 broadcast of Robert Kee's Ireland, A Television History, the landmark series broadcast simultaneously on RTE and the BBC.

I remember the title sequence so clearly; all those haunted-looking faces, like victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. My father felt strongly that RTE should not have raked up the past this way.

I can see his point now; Kee wanted to explain the situation to the British public but in so doing unwittingly reignited old enmities here. I witnessed the Civil War being re-fought by my parents every single arduous night over those long months in 1980.

That May, one of my brothers visited Kilmainham Jail on a school tour and brought back some booklets featuring little pictures of all those who had been executed after the 1916 Rising. It looked to me like a page from a Panini football catalogue, featuring a squad of players ready to do their best for their country: the Bradys, O'Learys and Stapletons of their day.

In my imagination they were gods: Padraig Pearse and his 13 disciples, without a single doubting Thomas or Judas among them. My mother told me that all the Judases had survived and formed the Free State Government, and that a few St Peters (who had in their own way denied the saviour) had gone on to inherit their mess.

I also became aware that my paternal grandfather and several grand-uncles had fought in the British army during the Great War, that they had followed John Redmond's order to fight for Home Rule and had come home, never speaking of their experiences, and had received fairly generous pensions from the British army.

They were traitors in my eyes. My mother told me that these men, including my grandfather, had marched with the British Legion every Armistice day through Dundalk wearing their poppies with pride.

Their bravery was of no interest to me and I looked to my mother's family history for an obvious hero. A story circulated in her family that her republican father may had burned down the British Legion hut near their home.

She also thought that her father might have been present at the Howth gun running incident in 1914. May and might were no good to me and my interest in the era abated soon after.

Little did I know where my hero would emerge.

Before she died in 2000 - six months after my father - my mother told me that my father had a relation on his mother's side who had fought in the GPO. I now believe that both of them had kept this quiet for their own selfish reasons.

A few years back, long after they had both died and the civil war in my head long put to rest, I searched the Bureau of Military History website for evidence of this forgotten hero. When I entered the word Dromiskin, the only mention was in the transcript of a Patrick Rankin, who turns out to have been a first cousin of my grandmother and then a resident of Newry.

His account was fascinating. He had attended a talk given by Roger Casement in Philadelphia, came back to fight, was welcomes into the GPO by Tom Clarke, almost hit by a sniper's bullet as he stood as a sentry on top of the building, was interned in Frongoch Camp, later went on hunger strike in Wormwood Scrubs prison, was sent to hospital, but absconded and returned to Ireland to fight on. On the Saturday night before the Rising he had stayed in my grand-aunt's house in Dromiskin, a cuckoo in a Redmondite nest, at a time when his cousins from the village, my father's idols, were most likely stationed with the British army in Europe. Snuck away in a panoply of British war heroes was my Cuchulainn. I'd found my hero, in the wrong place and 30 years too late.

In 1915 DW Griffith released his epic The Birth of a Nation, a revolutionary film for the time but whose portrayal of African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan now makes us cringe.

I got a sense that this country's birth was like most others - an awkward, messy affair, and in our case the head most definitely wasn't properly engaged; more like The Breech Birth of a Nation. And perhaps the birth analogy isn't apt. Might the Treaty have represented the separation of bickering conjoined twins with shared limbs and organs? I'm currently making a short film about the birth of this Republic entitled My Life For Ireland.

I can only speculate how Patrick Pearse McDonnell may have processed all that has happened since 1969 or the discovery of a republican hero in his family. He might have been radicalised and inspired to another calling.

All I know now is that Patrick Peter McDonnell has affection and sympathy, tempered with a soupcon of abhorrence, for both his parent's traditions.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News