Monday 17 June 2019

My 1916: In what other war did the heroes take over a post office?

Learning about the Rising at school left comic Paul Woodfull wondering why the rebels didn't have a better plan

An image of the fighting in the GPO during the rising
An image of the fighting in the GPO during the rising

The topic of 1916, unfortunately, brings back a flood of unpleasant memories of my school days with the Christian Brothers.

Mere mention of the Rising is one of those anxiety triggers, like the modh coinniollach and the green catechism. Much of my childhood in the 1960s comes back to me through a 1916 prism. For instance, I learnt how to play the guitar through strident patriotic songs like 'The Merry Ploughboy' and 'A Nation Once Again'. And the indoctrination didn't stop there. My abiding memory of elocution lessons was being made enunciate to a poem about Kevin Barry in prison awaiting execution, and watching the clock through the whole torture as it moved painfully slowly - something which was heavily sanctioned if we were caught doing it.

I often feel that much of the punishment dished out by teachers was in relation to the Irish language, as though our failure to grasp it was an affront to, and a betrayal of, the lads back in 1916. Every classroom in our school had a plaque featuring Padraig Pearse's profile. Because he was only ever shown in profile, I imagined him to be hideously deformed on the other side - kind of like Two Face in Batman.

And, of course, we couldn't play football, which we weren't even allowed to call football because the GAA laid claim to that name for their game, which involved the hands as much as the feet. We had to call the Gaelic handball game 'football', and were forced to call proper football 'soccer'. Even then it was a relief to get out of the classroom to play GAA, or 'Gaah'. If a Gaelic match was going on when noon struck, play was stopped and all the players had to pause where they stood to say The Angelus. The Brothers were so obsessed with stamping out the 'foreign' game of soccer that if a team or a player didn't pick up the ball often enough, the opposing side was awarded a free kick. In our school, if a pupil togged out for a game wearing, say, a Man Utd shirt, to the teachers it was as bad as turning up in a Nazi uniform. Actually, it was probably worse.

One thing I always wondered about 1916 as a kid, and which I addressed much later in life with Ding Dong Denny, was why the rebels of the Easter Rising decided to take over a post office and a biscuit factory? Sure, that wouldn't bother anyone in Ireland - I mean, maybe nowadays, because you wouldn't be able to get your dole. But as a child it didn't fit in with everything I knew about war from the movies on the telly and the English comics like The Victor, The Hornet and The Hotspur.

I mean, in what other revolutions or wars did the rebels target a post office or a biscuit factory? The whole idea seems very half-hearted, and, even as a kid, it seemed to indicate a lack of ambition, a failure to see the Big Picture. Imagine if when the Allies finally invaded Germany, their plan consisted of capturing all the post offices and biscuit factories - job done! No, it wouldn't be job done. Padraig Pearse was no General Eisenhower, that's for sure.

And it's not that it needed a genius to come up with a better plan. I mean, if the insurgents had moved a few days earlier and taken over some of the bigger sweet factories, they could have stirred the Irish people into a strop of angry rebellion over a shortage of Easter eggs. That could have been stage one of a two-pronged attack which would also involve taking over the breweries and distilleries. The plain people of Ireland would have risen up, lashing out at the English for letting this happen. And the beauty of this alternative plan was that when the Rising failed, as it was doomed to do, and the rebels were rounded up, they could just plead that they were very drunk, and full of remorse, and won't do it again. Like: "Sorry, Corporal … I did what?"

I hate to say it, but growing up I couldn't help but blame the events of 1916 for a lot of stuff missing from our lives as Irish kids. A load of exotic sweets advertised on UTV couldn't be found anywhere in the Republic. There were no Milky Bars, Mars Bars, Spangles or Topics.

Where our house was, we couldn't get a decent signal for the BBC, which would come and go. This was a tragedy. It meant I had to wait a week longer than everyone else to see David Bowie for the first time because we couldn't get Top Of The Pops.

The UTV reception was better and I saw him there on Lift Off With Ayshea. And we couldn't enter any of the competitions on the back of the Corn Flakes box, and the free gifts with the comics never made it across the Irish Sea: "Offer does not apply in Eire."

Today, I think I've softened a bit on 1916. I used to hate that the flat complexes and roads in working-class areas were all named after Irish Rebels. Now I wish there were more of them - because we so badly need more Social Housing. The "ourselves alone" idea has failed and we can watch whatever we want. No Daithi Locha, but Better Call Saul. And when the Irish people voted for Equality for Gay people, I felt a real warmth from being proud to be Irish.

And, let's face it, if we were still under British rule we'd have a Tory government, and bad an' all as we are, we've little as bad as that.

A member of the Irish Pictorial Weekly team and co-writer of the hit musical I Keano, Paul Woodfull is the creator of the comedy character Ding Dong Denny O'Reilly, a republican balladeer steeped in the lore of the Easter Rising.

Irish Independent

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