Monday 20 May 2019

An explosion of writing on 1916 - the Rising in words and pictures

John Spain and Maurice Hayes on some of the many books published to mark next year's centenary

The ruins of Liberty Hall in Dublin after the 1916 insurrection.
The ruins of Liberty Hall in Dublin after the 1916 insurrection.
Joe Duffy's 'Children of the Rising'.

This year has seen an explosion (!) of books on the 1916 Rising in advance of the centenary next year. They have included overall histories, individual accounts and coffee table books full of pictures, documents and memorabilia, four of which are reviewed on the opposite page by Maurice Hayes. Any of these would make a good Christmas present for someone with an interest in history and the foundation of the state.

The bestseller by far has been broadcaster Joe Duffy's Children of the Rising. Although this deals with a collateral aspect of the Rising - the 40 children who died in the crossfire during Easter week - it is a reminder of their tragedy, what life was like for ordinary people in the city at the time and a welcome antidote to the usual tightly-focused narratives of patriotic glory.

Frank Shouldice's Grandpa the Sniper (reviewed on page 24) is the story of what the RTÉ journalist uncovered about his grandfather Frank who, like many of those who fought, rarely spoke afterwards about the events of 1916. An account of one individual's role that brings the wider story vividly to life.

Gene Kerrigan's The Scrap does the same so effectively that it's almost like being there. This is a novelised account, but accurate in every detail, of the experiences that week of the Fairview volunteers of F Company, 2nd battalion, Dublin Brigade. So instead of this being yet another book centred on Pearse or the other leaders, it is a true story of rank and file rebels, compellingly told as only Kerrigan can.

For those who want the full life stories of the individual leaders, the O'Brien Press series of new biographies, 16 Lives, referring of course to the 16 men who were executed, adds up to a substantial body of work. Fourteen have been published so far, with the final two (Patrick Pearse and Thomas Kent) due early next year, completing what will be an impressive collection which many homes and all libraries in the country will want to have.

To Speak of Easter Week by Helene O'Keeffe is a large format book that offers more than the usual retelling of the 1916 story. Instead it gives a new perspective on the events and the aftermath (very difficult for some families) through the oral testimonies of relatives and descendants of both leaders and ordinary volunteers. One man, John O'Connor, who had been part of the Four Courts Garrison, remembered being marched from Richmond Barracks to the North Wall on the Sunday night after the surrender. He remembered the "hostile crowds around Inchicore" and being glad of the "continuous line of British soldiers who stood close together with bayonets fixed... those British soldiers saved us from our own people... getting on the ole cattle boat was quite a relief."

Trinity in War and Revolution 1912-1923 by Tomas Irish is another large format book, just published, that offers a different perspective. The idea of Trinners - where the gates were locked and potshots were taken at passing rebels from the rooftops - having much to do with the glories of the 1916 Rising may seem faintly comic. The college, already a supplier of officer material for the First World War, became a staging point for British reinforcements and artillery brought up to put down the rebellion. But of course the story is far more nuanced than is often portrayed and this book, with one chapter on the Rising, accurately places the events in the wider context of sentiment in the city in the decade after 1912.

Three history heavyweights, Tim Pat Coogan, Diarmaid Ferriter and Ronan Fanning all had new books this year. Ferriter's A Nation not a Rabble is the most substantial, setting the Rising in the wider context of the 1912-23 period and straining to show that the aftermath of 1916 was more a nation coming of political age than an accidental result of British stupidity.

Coogan's book 1916 - The Mornings After is an entertaining read, an assessment of how we developed morally as a nation in the centenary since the Rising. And Fanning's book, Éamon de Valera: A Will To Power, steers a mid-course between the earlier biographies by Coogan (negative) and Ferriter (positive) and offers new insight into the Long Fella when we thought we had heard it all. As the title suggests, Fanning highlights Dev's lust for power, calling him "the most divisive figure in the history of modern Ireland" and with good reason given his self-serving behaviour over the Treaty which Fanning says he rejected even though he knew that compromise was inevitable.

From UCD Press this autumn came Years of Turbulence, a collection of essays by historians, edited by Diarmaid Ferriter and Susannah Riordan. Of interest mainly to people who already know the history of the time and want new perspectives, perhaps the standout essay is Tom Garvin's The Making of Irish Revolutionary Elites which is a portrayal of Jack (who became Seán) Lemass and his career.

One other new biography deserves a mention, Owen McGee's Arthur Griffith, who, unlike the dreamers and poets who made up much of the 1916 leadership, was a working class Dubliner (a printer) who had a more grounded view of events particularly in relation to the economic future of the country. This was in stark contrast to Dev's later vision of dancing at the crossroads and a rural people happy in their cottages with their "frugal comfort" while the reality became mass emigration.

A similar tone is evident in A Woven Silence by Felicity Hayes-McCoy which was inspired by the story of her relative Marion Stokes, one of three women who raised the tricolour over Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916. Using her own family history she looks at how the ideals for which Marion and her companions fought were eroded, resulting in an Ireland marked by chauvinism, isolationism and secrecy. Nothing to do with Dev, of course.

There were many other new books this year on 1916 - some bookshops have gathered them into displays that also include the earlier standard works by leading historians. Coogan's biographies of de Valera and Collins have both been reissued in paperback with new introductions for the centenary.

One that appeared this year in paperback that is particularly interesting is Inside the GPO: A First Hand Account by Joe Good, a volunteer from London who was in the GPO and became close to Collins and in 1918 was one of the handpicked team sent to London to assassinate members of the British cabinet. He died in Dublin in 1962 and wrote this journal in 1946 for his son Maurice, who edited it for publication.

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