Saturday 21 April 2018

My 1916: Rewriting Mná na hÉireann back into the century's history

Irish women were victimised in the aftermath of 1916. But what if it had all been different?

Maud Gonne, a revolutionary and feminist who fought for Home Rule
Maud Gonne, a revolutionary and feminist who fought for Home Rule
Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the House of Commons (Sinn Féin)

Darragh McManus

The great tragedy of 1916 wasn't the Rising. It was what came after.

It's fashionable nowadays to decry the rebellion as terrorism, to damn Pearse and the rest as quasi-fascists acting without mandate. The contention, explicit or implied, is that this should never have happened.

I don't agree with that; it's all a bit self-hating, really. The Rising was as morally justifiable as just about every other military action in history. A necessary evil, to throw off an imperial power: that's reasonable, isn't it?

My beef is with the aftermath. As the Proclamation famously states, this was intended to be for the benefit of everyone - particularly, for my purposes here, both sexes.

The document opens by addressing Irishmen and Irishwomen: you can't get any clearer. There are references to "equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens", "the suffrages of all men and women".

Women were centrally involved in Irish political and cultural nationalism at the time, especially the redoubtable Constance Markievicz who fought in Stephen's Green. They shared in the struggle, and should have shared in the spoils.

As we know, that didn't happen. In what was essentially a non-military coup d'état, the fledgling nation was hijacked by Catholic conservatives who yanked Ireland backwards, socially and culturally, by decades - and ground Irish women under a misogynist boot-heel for decades more.

Our women were victimised, stigmatised, ostracised, crucified. And for what? The dictates of a prehistoric Middle Eastern sect which had taken root on this island, purely because of historical happenstance. If there's a more exquisite betrayal of everything Irish nationalism should have stood for, I haven't heard it.

And yet, history often turns on the merest quirk of chance. What if it had turned out differently? What if we were now living in an alternate 2015, about to commemorate the centenary of 1916 - a different 1916, a different century.

I'm working on a script for a young Irish director, based on that very idea. It's only in its early stages, but we have the premise, and our opening scene. So picture this:


OPEN ON: Two women finishing their dress for some big occasion. Sitting at a mirror in an old, plush room; lots of warm, dark woods, etc. We don't see them fully, just close-ups: ear-rings fitted, lipstick applied. Let's call them Aoife and Ann-Marie.

CUT TO: a mixture of newsreel footage and dramatic reconstruction. We're in the past, a century ago. In voiceover, we hear the women (middle-aged, neutral accents). They begin to wonder. Thinking aloud, speculating, inventing an alternate timeline.

AOIFE: What if that outbreak of cholera hadn't happened in Dublin at Easter 1916, and the rebellion had taken place as planned?

ANN-MARIE: Imagine! If Pearse and his troops had attacked the Four Courts and other locations, and there'd been days of fighting, and finally they were executed.

AOIFE: And a few years later we had a Civil War, and Michael Collins was killed. Imagine! If a group of inward-looking, fundamentalist men, spiritually led by DeValera, seized control of the state and set up a de facto Catholic theocracy? Just imagine!

ANN-MARIE: Ireland might have been a backward, women-hating hell-hole for decades. No contraception until, say, the 1980s…

AOIFE: And even then you had to be married, ha ha!

ANN-MARIE: No divorce until, oh, say the 1990s. And no abortion at all. We might have had thousands of Irish women going abroad for abortions. Even still, today…!

They continue discussing the actual history of 20th century Ireland as if it was hypothetical. Then they talk about how Ireland (in this alternate history) really is.

How, later in 1916, with the Great War going against them, Britain agreed to full independence in exchange for greater Irish support. How DeValera, on some point of principal, disagreed and went into exile. How Ireland became independent after Germany's defeat, held elections, and its first Cabinet included two women - Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne - one of whom led the government. How both helped bring Ireland in a radically different direction - more egalitarian, secular, inclusive. The theocracy never happened.

CUT from the newsreels and reconstructions

SCENE: Back in the warm-wood dressing-room. We see our characters rise as a government official sticks his head around the door. He asks are they ready; they are. He leaves. We hear him, off-screen, announcing their names as part of the centenary celebrations for the 1916 Accord between Britain and Ireland, guaranteeing Irish freedom.

OFFICIAL: ...warm welcome for Ann-Marie Gonne and Aoife Markievicz, the great-granddaughters of our first two Taoisigh, but also remarkable women in their own right…

The women pause at a photo: Constance and Maud with Collins, other Irish politicians and foreign dignitaries. They both smile.

ANN-MARIE: Ye did alright, girls.

They leave.



Irish Independent

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