Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I'm filling in the gaps of 1916'

Celine Naughton talks to Kevin Curran, the author who believes the events of the Rising can only be told in novel form

Sentenced: Prisoners of the 1916 Rising being marched to barracks by British soldiers.
Sentenced: Prisoners of the 1916 Rising being marched to barracks by British soldiers.
Author Kevin Curran.

Holy Thursday 1916: Harry Colley - later to become father of Fianna Fail politician George Colley - parades with F Company, 2nd Battalion Auxilliary Volunteers in Dublin's Father Matthew Park. Thomas MacDonagh addresses the gathering.

Sunday's manoevres will be most important, he tells them. If any man is not prepared to fight, now is the time to get out; no one will think any the worse of him. Those who choose to fight needn't worry about their dependents; they have friends in America who'll take care of them.

"It was clear the hour had come," Harry recalled in his witness statement in 1966.

Despite the confusion that followed Eoin MacNeill's famous countermanding order three days later, Harry, then 25, and his fellow volunteers remobilised on Easter Monday, after his mother had embraced him and said, 'Go and do your duty to your country.'

And so he did, not only during the Easter Rising, but for decades later as a leading figure in Irish politics.

A century later, his great grandson, Kevin Curran, has drawn on Harry's experiences in Citizens, a new novel that starkly constrasts the idealism of 1916's revolutionaries with the disenchantment of 21st-century youth, marred by unemployment and emigration. A hundred years ago people rose and fought for their country; now they rise and leave their country, many never to return.

"The sad reality is that many of the people for whom I wrote this book are no longer here," says Kevin. "There are 205,000 fewer 20-somethings in Ireland now than six years ago.

"They might have feelings for their homeland, but the tragedy is they were forced to emigrate. What use is nationalism when you have to leave?"

Kevin considers himself one of the lucky ones. An English teacher in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, he's married with two children, Sebastian, nearly three, and Fleur, five months, and still finds time to write. He's been working on Citizens, his second novel, since 2012.

"I used my great grandfather's letters, but as a plot device, I put a Pathé newsreel in the hands of my protagonist, Harry Casey. I wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between his past and the contemporary world.

"The moving image is how we exist today. We talk to each other through devices, and in 1916, the newsreel was the new technology."

Throughout the story, Casey mirrors Colley's movements from Easter Monday to the following Thursday, when Harry almost died. Shot in the ankle as he beat a retreat from the old Imperial Hotel, above Clery's department store, he saw a barricade ahead.

He fixed his bayonet and lunged at a British soldier, but in jumping over the barricade, the soldier lunged back at him, stabbed him and punctured his lung.

Suppressing the urge to cry out in pain, Harry said, "I was not going to let these British soldiers hear me moaning."

A soldier grabbed him by the collar and laid him on top of their barricade as extra cover, and shot over him. A few minutes later he was pushed to the ground.

"I thought my neck was broken," said Harry.

He fell unconscious and woke in the Castle Hospital, where he drifted in and out of consciousness, hearing voices now and then like that of a priest giving him the last rites, and a doctor saying, 'Serves him right, mixing with that lot.'

Six weeks later he was interned in Kilmainham Jail and from there sent by boat to Frongoch Prison in Wales.

After the Rising Harry helped found Fianna Fail in 1926 and held a Dáil seat for 14 years until finally defeated by the young Charles Haughey. He later became a Senator.

His son George followed him into politics and held every office apart from Taoiseach. It was George who coined the phrase, 'Low standards in high places,' referring to the Haughey era.

"I just wanted to tell Harry's story, but while the military history records are fascinating, the language is a bit stiff. I set out to fill in what was left unspoken.

"We know the history of the Rising, but to try and get into the shoes of those involved, to feel what they felt, I think that can only be created in novel form."

'Citizens' by Kevin Curran is published by Liberties Press

Irish Independent

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