Wednesday 21 March 2018

1916 in Bloom - translating commemoration into a Bloom show garden

To commemorate the 1916 centenary, Weekend launched a competition asking readers to send in reflections, memories, stories and poems about the Rising that could be translated into a show garden at Bloom. Here, our reporter meets the five finalists and unveils the winning design

The Irish Independent Bullets and Boiled Sweets garden design by Fiann O Nuallain, artistic rendition by Ciara Flynn
The Irish Independent Bullets and Boiled Sweets garden design by Fiann O Nuallain, artistic rendition by Ciara Flynn
Winner: Jacinta Sullivan at her home in The Strand, Walshestown, Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Marian Connolly, Kinvara West, Kinvara, Co Galway, a finalist in the Bloom Irish Independent competition. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.
1916 Bloom competition finalist Peg Lang (84) pictured with the season's first rose from her garden, at her home in Raheny. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Irish Independent Bloom competition finalists Eve and Angela Mahon at home in Fenagh, Co. Carlow. Photo: Karl Mc Donough
Irish Independent Bloom competition finalist Mary Gwendoline Brennan. Photo: CJ Nash.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

When we asked Weekend readers to take part in a competition to imagine a 1916 Commemoration Garden at Bloom, we couldn't have anticipated the response. The number - and standard - of entries was unprecedentedly high and the judges, including garden designer Fiann Ó Nualláin and Bloom show manager Gary Graham, had their work cut out for them.

"The entries were phenomenal," says Fiann, who will be bringing the winning entry to life in an installation at the garden festival. "They ranged from the poetic to the poignant and to say some were tear-stained after the reading is no exaggeration. Irish people just have a way with words which is really a way with emotion."

After whittling down the entries to five finalists, the judges eventually chose a winner that looked at the Rising from the perspective of children. "It wasn't about the martyred tragedies but the excitement of Dublin kids to the hullabaloo, to the news that a sweetshop was on fire and the treasures of it were strewn outside," explains Fiann.

"It was hard to pick a winner when so many stories and memories were poignant and heartfelt, but this one stood out for me," adds Gary Graham. "It was a reminder of ordinary life, daily struggles and victories, the spoils of war, the loss of innocent life and historical facts that are often forgotten. This story provided a context for a thought-provoking space full of contrasts and colour."

Written by Jacinta Sullivan, the piece is the inspiration behind the Irish Independent's 'Bullets and Boiled Sweets' commemorative show garden, which will be unveiled at Bloom 2016. The festival, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, takes place in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, from Thursday June 2 until Monday June 6. Here Jacinta and the four other finalists tell us about their entries…


Entry: Jacinta's entry 'Rising Reflections' is the inspiration for the Irish Independent's 'Bullets and Boiled Sweets' 1916 Commemoration Garden which will be unveiled at Bloom

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Winner: Jacinta Sullivan at her home in The Strand, Walshestown, Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Being announced as the winner of our 1916 Commemoration Garden at Bloom was bittersweet for Jacinta Sullivan (59) from Mullingar in Co Westmeath. She lost her beloved husband "very unexpectedly and very prematurely" in November.

"We went to Bloom last year," she recalls, "and I remember walking with him through the Phoenix Park and he said 'next year we'll do such a thing…'

"When I saw the competition, something just said to me: 'put down your ideas because part of your grieving process is writing and the creative process.'

"He was always at me to write little bits," she adds. "He was very encouraging in that way. I suppose there's divine inspiration coming through somewhere!"

Jacinta's winning entry tells the story of the Rising in diary-format from the perspective of two adults and two children.

"We changed tack and raced quickly towards Ryan's sweetshop, having heard that there were bullseyes and gobstoppers and sweeties we could only dream of for the taking," she writes in one of the pieces.

In another vignette, she imagines twin boys, aged 12, hearing the gunfire. "We all wanted to be soldiers, with real guns, fighting for Ireland. The shooting continued and dusty smoke and pink flames rose in expanding pockets as we sneaked along alleyways and skulked along the wall bases…"

Jacinta says she finds it easy to write from a child's point-of-view. "I've been a schoolteacher for nearly 40 years," she explains. "When you teach children, you know what they're thinking.

"I had no problem writing the piece," she adds. "It was knitting the information into it, along with the metaphors of rooting and growing, that I found difficult."

The winning garden, by garden designer Fiann Ó Nualláin, recreates "a cobbled Dublin street - using authentic Dublin cobble - and a barricade of period furniture and paraphernalia".

"The planting that surrounds the street scene is a kaleidoscope of colourful and brash plants," explains Fiann, "echoing the riotous eruption of rebellion but also the fizz of excitement from poverty-stricken children who braved the crossfire to nick a sweet."

The cobbles in Fiann's installation will be strewn with bullet casings and some bullseyes and boiled sweets. "There is a poignancy to that," he adds. "As there is a poignancy to the stories of the children who experienced Easter week, the casualties of war and the survivors of it."

"It's a wonderful thing to contribute to," adds Jacinta. "And it just shows that love never dies..."


Entry: 'Sailing Into History'

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Marian Connolly, Kinvara West, Kinvara, Co Galway, a finalist in the Bloom Irish Independent competition. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure.

Rural Irish life in the early 1900s is beautifully illustrated in Marian Connolly's story about her grandfather who lived in the small coastal village of Ballinacourty, Co Galway. Patrick Holland was a fisherman who "often ferried provisions and residents in and out of the local island (Island Eddy)".

It was a time when people had to rely on their wits, says Marian (62), from Kinvara West. She explains how the islanders would "light a bonfire to signal when help was needed and it also acted as a guiding light in darkness".

Her grandfather was 25 when he became involved in the Rising and began using his púcán boat to transport rifles around Galway Bay. "Moving guns by sea was safer than transporting them by road," writes Marian in her entry.

"People were used to seeing him sailing around the bay so no one took any notice of him as he went about his normal activities.

"He would collect his guns from one area and hide them on the boat. At the quay they would be put into his hand cart with some seaweed on top and taken down the boreen to the land. There they would be hidden under a cairn of stones until needed.

"When the tide and weather were suitable, he would transport them back again on the cart to the boat and he would set sail across the bay, often sailing under a full moon."

Pat occasionally discussed his involvement in the Easter Rising with his wife. The family gleaned the finer details from his application for a military pension.

Marian remembers her grandfather as a very quiet man. "He wasn't a great talker," she says. "He liked to spend time fixing nets and generally looking out over the tide.

"My mother and my granny used to say that he would very seldom talk about 1916. If you brought it up he'd almost prefer that you didn't. It seemed to be part of that era - they didn't really talk about what they did."

Pat Holland's secret history as a gunrunner was passed down through the women in the family. Pat told his wife, who told her daughter who told Marian. Marian has since shared the story with her own daughter.

The Irish Independent's judges were keen to find real-life stories about ordinary families doing extraordinary things during 1916. This one fits the brief perfectly.


Entry: 'Five Blooms for Michael Mallin'

1916 Bloom competition finalist Peg Lang (84) pictured with the season's first rose from her garden, at her home in Raheny. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Peg Lang's entry honed in on the relationship between Michael and Agnes Mallin and wondered if the pregnant war-widow-to-be brought a rose to the prison when she visited him before his execution.

"Their children, plucked from their beds, made the journey too. Four little people, ignorant of the Rising and of another sibling to swell the brood, were robbed of their Dad forever," Peg wrote in her entry.

Like many people, Peg was moved when she read Michael Mallin's final letter to his wife, in particular the post-scripts to his youngest children. "Una my little one be a Nun. Joseph my little man be a priest if you can," he wrote. The two children honoured their father's dying wish - and one more besides.

Peg (84) wanted to create a garden that commended the work of Fr Joseph Mallin, the last surviving child of Michael and Agnes, who celebrated his 102nd birthday last year. "Hopefully he'll get to read this," she says.

The life and times of Michael Mallin has always resonated with Peg. "He was such a decent guy. He would have loved to die for Ireland - yet he couldn't imagine dying, leaving Agnes and the four children destitute.

"This guy was so human - he just thought of his family and what they would do without him. He was decent to the core. And then poor old Agnes, being left destitute with a pound a week. She was a wonderful mother who raised five kids on her own on nothing. I could shed tears for that woman…"

Peg, from Raheny in Dublin, says she is interested in the female aspect of the Rising. "I look for literature on the wives because they were kind of written out of it. It's mostly the men that we think about: the honour and the glory and dying for Ireland."

It didn't take her long to write the piece. "I only write when something really hits me. It hits me and after that it's gone," she explains.

And this story hit her hard. "Agnes did not leave a rose," she concludes in her entry. "No flower could adequately express her sorrow. She did leave four beautiful blooms for Michael Mallin - and one more to follow."


Entry: 'The 1916 Wedding Garden'

Irish Independent Bloom competition finalist Mary Gwendoline Brennan. Photo: CJ Nash.

Mary's grandparents - James McCann and Mary Gwendoline O'Farrell - were to get married during the week of the Rising. Due to events in Dublin, however, the ceremony was postponed to May 3 in the Ballyleague Catholic Church, Lansboro, Roscommon.

Mary (59), a part-time pharmacist, from Kilcullen, Co Kildare, recently came across a newspaper clipping in which her grandparents' wedding presents are listed in unsparing detail.

Well-heeled wedding guests didn't stuff a few bob into an envelope in those days. On the contrary, the gifts were worthy of a write-up in the local paper. The Dowager Countess of Granard brought them a "silver-mounted liqueur decanter". Mrs O'Farrell of Strokestown brought them a "gold pendant, chain and brooch". Mr and Mrs James Matthews brought a "silver biscuit barrel".

Mary's entry provides some amusing commentary as she lists the rest of the gifts: A 400-day clock ("a slower pace of life back then"). Silver afternoon teaspoons ("from the Inland Revenue, no less"). A stuffed bird ("not the mother-in-law!").

She never got to know her grandparents. Her grandmother, who she was named after, died when she was a year old. "She actually left me her engagement ring which I wear to this day," she explains. "My mother wears their wedding ring - which is engraved with the date of their marriage - around her neck."

The sentimental value of the jewellery often makes Mary wonder what kind of people her grandparents were. In her story, she envisions them sitting in their garden a few days after the wedding. "James is smoking his pipe while writing thank-you letters to the wedding guests, his ink stand and blotter on the table. Mary Gwendoline is shaded from the sun beneath the silk parasol [another wedding gift], her furnished work basket at her feet."

She goes on to imagine an afternoon tea service decorated with fragrant roses and "honeysuckle clambering up the stone wall", while her imagery evokes the tranquility of a garden in early summer. "Butterflies flit from lupin to foxglove. The hum of the honeybees arising from the lavender". This is the first time Mary has composed a piece of writing. Unsurprisingly, gardening is her creative outlet. She says the bucolic surroundings of Kilcullen, Co Kildare inspire her.

"I take my dog for a walk every morning and see bluebell, primroses, cowslips which I put in front of the May Altar when I get home... It's a beautiful area. You see something new every day."


Entry: 'The War for Peace'

Irish Independent Bloom competition finalists Eve and Angela Mahon at home in Fenagh, Co. Carlow. Photo: Karl Mc Donough

Eve Mahon's grandparents encouraged her to enter our Bloom 1916 Commemoration Garden competition. Her dream garden would have included a burst of forget-me-nots and a vegetable patch.

No doubt Eve's grandparents inspired her on this front too. The avid gardeners spend a lot of time in the great outdoors with their granddaughter, teaching her how to plant bulbs and tend to their vegetable patch.

Eve (10), wrote a poem called The War for Peace. "The leaders had their hopes but they also had their fears," she writes. The budding poet says she found the rhyming scheme challenging but we think she pulled it off with aplomb, while also weaving in a gardening metaphor or two. "In their hands was the seed of nationhood to sow, then the British came and to heaven they had to go."

English is one of Eve's favourite subjects in school. "I think I prefer to write poems, though. I have written some funny Halloween ones," she says. She also likes History. "I started getting interested in the Rising before our teacher started teaching us about it."

Eve's keen interest in 1916 has been food for thought for her mother, Angela. "As an Irish mother I'm struggling a little to strike the balance between teaching my children about the heroic actions of the men and women of the Easter Rising while still being careful not to glorify war or justify bloodshed," she wrote on the entry accompanying Eve's poem. "May we remember the past and constantly strive to keep Ireland peaceful and make our future better."

Eve would like to be "a few different things" when she grows up. "I'm in the middle of writing a children's poem book," she explains. "I think I'll be a children's poet but I kind of want to do that on the side of a different job - maybe an interior designer."

Angela (34) has one of Eve's poems hanging in the bedroom of her other daughter, Hazel (five). "It's about going to the moon," she says. "She has a little picture of a satellite and an astronaut on it. Going to the moon - we'll be there soon…

"I'm just gushing about her," she adds. "She has learnt the 1916 Proclamation off by heart and let her imagination be filled with stories of the wonderful women who broke social expectations to hold arms and fight hard."

Angela and husband Sean recently invested in a loft bed with a desk underneath for their eldest daughter. "It would be something you'd be looking for for a teenager but we had to get it a bit prematurely because she needs space to create," says Angela.

"She has her knitting needles and her loom bands and her markers... creative clutter. She's always tinkering away, writing or drawing. We're so proud of her."

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