Friday 23 August 2019

Bringing the Rising back to the streets

Arts organiser John Stephenson plans to bring the rare oul' times back to life in a part of Dublin that's seen better days, he tells Celine Naughton

Plan: John Stephenson.
Plan: John Stephenson.

In between tales of Rob Roy and Kidnapped, John Stephenson's dad captured his son's imagination with bedtime stories of a far more heroic kind. They were John's favourites - tales of his grandfather's real-life adventures in 1916.

Stories like the day leading up to Holy Week when the then 21-year-old Quartermaster Paddy Joe (PJ) Stephenson accompanied Michael Staines in moving a cache of rifles and ammunition to Inchicore on a pony and cart. Staines told the driver to turn left at the Old Man's House, occupied by the British Army, and past the sentries at John's Road gate.

"For God's sake, Michael, are you out of your mind?" said the driver. "We'll be pinched, guns and all. Don't you know this place is lousy with Tommies?"

Staines replied: "Go on, smile, and drive past those soldiers as if you were going to the Strawberry Beds at Lucan."

When they reached their destination unscathed, he grinned and said: "What did I tell you - the more openly you do it, the less you'll be suspected!"

John and his brother held their breath and begged for more. Well then, continued their father Noel, on Easter Monday PJ and his peers in D Company of the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, thinking they were on a route march, came to a sudden halt outside the Mendicity Institution when Commandant Seán Heuston turned right about, faced his men and shouted: "Company left wheel, seize this building and hold it in the name of the Irish Republic."

"At once our pent-up feelings of bewilderment and frustration sought relief in yells and cheers and with a wild rush, we went in through the open gates, up the stone steps and in the front door," wrote Paddy Joe in his lyrical and detailed recollections of 1916, a legacy that the family treasures to this day.

In his account, he describes standing by the window inside the Mendicity building and seeing "the round top of the helmet of the first Tommy as he jumped across the front gate like a rabbit", followed by many more.

"How many of those rabbits hopped across that opening I could not tell. They seemed to be innumerable."

The following night, Seán Heuston ordered PJ Stephenson and Seán MacLoughlin to go to the GPO, report to Connolly and bring back food for the hungry garrison. Before they returned, however, the Mendicity was surrounded and Heuston had surrendered.

Fast forward 75 years and John, PJ's grandson (and nephew of the acclaimed architect Sam Stephenson), was at the forefront of the commemorations of 1991. An arts organiser by profession, he mobilised Dublin Bus-sponsored 'poet mobiles' to take people on a tour of garrison points around the city, with readings of works by poets of 1916.

Michael D Higgins, along with Anthony Cronin, Eilís Dillon, Brendan Kennelly and others read their own works at the GPO and in the evening the Chieftains, the Hothouse Flowers, Donal Lunny and other musicians performed at Kilmainham Gaol. The event took a huge amount of time and effort to organise and, though the happy memories linger still, John decided to take things a little easier for the centenary. At least, that was the plan.

"I thought I'd keep it simple, just focus on where my grandfather fought," he says. "I wanted to get a feel for the place, so I walked around the area on a kind of reconnaissance - and couldn't find it! I asked a passer-by for directions to the Mendicity Institution.

"'What happens there?' he asked. 'They feed the homeless,' I replied. 'Ah, de Mendo!' he said and pointed me right to it.

"For an area that was once the industrial hub of Ireland, with distilling, brewing and linen manufacture all along the stretch from the Brazen Head up to the Guinness Brewery, it's very run-down now. I thought, 100 years on, is this the best we can do? What have the people who live here got to celebrate?"

Through networking in the relatives' association, he joined others in forming the Mendicity Garrison Relatives Group, which has traced descendants of combatants and got permission to erect a plaque in their honour. But John wanted to do more.

"We can't simply put up a plaque and walk away," he says. "These residents have a rich history and heritage; they shouldn't have to walk through a derelict site. I contacted local service providers and other interested parties, and we're planning a major community-based project involving a garrison re-enactment, installations, cultural and arts events and lots of exciting stuff.

"When the 50-year anniversary was marked in 1966, nobody involved the ordinary rank-and-file relatives, only those of the leaders. Yet over 2,500 people took part in the Easter Rising." (The official figure is 2,558 on the rebel side, according to the Military Pensions Archive).

"We were ignored for two generations, but now we're finally getting recognition and being consulted for the centenary commemorations.

"In 1966, I was 15 and full of the romantic notion of the heroism and patriotism of the whole thing. Now I see the Easter Rising as the founding moment in our modern history and it's important not to lose sight of it, because it's only in learning from our past that we can re-imagine our future."

Irish Independent

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