Friday 18 October 2019

From actors and poets to Indiana Jones

Joe O'Shea rounds up the novels, films, plays and other art inspired by the events of 1916

The Birth of the Irish Republic, by Walter Paget.
The Birth of the Irish Republic, by Walter Paget.
Mario Vargas Llosa's 'Dream Of The Celt'.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
Roddy Doyle

WB Yeats may be the literary figure who towers over the Rising, still asking as late as 1938 "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?" But the great poet was hardly alone when it came to artists and writers caught up in, or inspired by, the events. The rebel ranks were full of men and women whose minds were on higher matters than mere military manoeuvres.

Educationalist and poet Patrick Pearse was just 17 when he founded the New Ireland Literary Society. Influential novelist Erskine Childers landed the Howth Mausers later used in Dublin and the journalist, poet and pioneering human rights activist Roger Casement was captured after landing from a German submarine in Kerry, just three days before the rebellion.

Casement's extraordinary life would later inspire the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to write The Dream of the Celt (2010) - his first novel after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Amongst the seven signatories of the Proclamation, four (Pearse, McDonagh, Plunkett and Connolly) had published poetry. James Connolly even wrote a patriotic play, titled Under Which Flag. The actor who became the first man to both kill and be killed on the first day of the Rising, Citizen's Army officer Seán Connolly, had played the lead role in the play at Liberty Hall just one week before he fell to a sniper's bullet at Dublin Castle. There is a story that the tricolour he was trying to raise when he was shot was the same flag that had been used in the play.

Stagehand Peadar Kearney actually jumped ship from an Abbey Theatre tour to England to take part in the Rising and fought at Jacob's biscuit factory, making his escape as the rebel contingent there was taken into custody.

Some who took part later put down the gun only to take up the pen. These included Ernie O'Malley, the young Dublin medical student who impulsively joined the fighting and later wrote the classic On Another Man's Wound. The Oxford professor of Irish history, Roy Foster, has said of O'Malley's memoir of rebellious youth; "Tom Barry's Guerrilla Days in Ireland and Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom have their charms, but there was no Herzen or Trotsky capable of distilling the Irish revolutionary mentality and experience into a classic memoir: except for Ernie O'Malley".

If romantic nationalism, inspired by the art, music and literature of the Celtic Revival, played a significant part in "sending out" the men and women of 1916, the events of 100 years ago have continued to echo in high and popular culture, sometimes in the strangest of ways.

From giants of Irish literature to South American Nobel laureates and hack Hollywood scriptwriters, 1916 has inspired art that ranges from the brilliant and baffling to just banal. There are the greats, the likes of Yeats and O'Casey who were there at the time. O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy starts (in the order of events, at least) with The Plough and the Stars, set around 1916 and ends with Juno and The Paycock and the Civil War.

Many Irish and foreign writers have used the events of 100 years ago as a backdrop to their stories, often sweeping epics. Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry (1999) follows the early life of Henry Smart, from childhood in the slums of Dublin to his involvement in the Rising and later on, the Tan War.

Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way evokes both the horror of the greater war in Europe as well as the confusion and conflicted loyalties of events in Ireland, while Iris Murdoch's The Red and the Green focuses on an Anglo-Irish family on the sombre, rain-soaked streets of Dublin. Others who found inspiration in the Rising include Liam O'Flaherty (Insurrection) and Jamie O'Neill (At Swim, Two Boys).

In the visual arts, perhaps the most popular and re-produced painting to follow in the aftermath of the fighting was Walter Paget's dramatic The Birth of The Irish Republic. The English artist had actually been pencilled in to illustrate the first Sherlock Holmes mysteries, to be published by The Strand magazine. But due to a secretarial mix-up, that job instead went to his brother Sidney who went on to create the classic illustrations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. In yet another connection to the Rising, Conan Doyle led the campaign to have the death sentence on his friend Roger Casement commuted.

Paget's vivid depiction of the GPO at the height of the fighting - with flames everywhere and James Connolly on a stretcher as Pearse and Clarke direct the defences - became a very popular print in 1918.

The Irish artist Robert Ballagh returned to Paget's epic image in 2012, reinterpreting it for a limited edition print that was sold to fund the refurbishment of a graveyard plot for volunteers who died in the Rising.

The Anglo-Irish artist Kathleen Fox was actually in Dublin that Easter and, like many, went in to the city-centre to see what all the fuss was about. She recognised a woman being arrested outside the Royal College of Surgeons and made a quick sketch of the scene. Fox later worked the sketch, of Countess Markievicz, into a painting titled The Arrest which is now in the Niland Collection in Sligo. It is virtually unique, being an eye-witness image of the events. Fox was so moved by the scene, she included herself in the painting as an onlooker.

In more recent, popular culture, the US TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles devoted an entire episode to our youthful hero landing in Dublin on the eve of the Rising. He meets up with Seán Lemass and hangs out with a struggling young playwright called O'Casey. The dialogue is pretty hilarious, featuring gems along the lines of; "Hey Shaun! Why don't you call it after that flag? The Ploughy, starry one over there!"

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News