Bookworm

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The manner in which Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced the reinstatement of a state-sponsored military parade to commemorate the 1916 Rising (at the Fianna Fáil árd fheis) has led to predictable criticisms that the Soldiers of Destiny are out to hog the 1916 commemorations in a partisan fashion, particularly in the run-up to the centenary in 2016. Plus ça change. According to James Moran (Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as theatre, Cork University Press, 184pp, ?39/£28 hb, ISBN 1859184014), the same thing was happening in the 1930s, when other political groups—the IRA, the Blueshirts and Saor Éire, for example—also laid claim to the mantle of commemoration. In particular, the governing party was anxious to expunge the rebellious women of 1916. As the title suggests, this book is primarily focused on theatre and new insights are offered on the studied theatricality of the Rising, in the context of plays by Pearse and McDonagh and a rediscovered play of Connolly’s, Under which flag?. Moran argues that the Rising set out to proclaim sexual equality as well as political independence, but that, while the myth of 1916 became central to Irish political and cultural life, the rebels’ radical ideas about gender were ignored. In addition, new readings and contexts are provided for O’Casey’s The plough and the stars, and for Yeats’s The dreaming of the bones.
Keith Jeffery’s The GPO and the Easter Rising (Irish Academic Press, 230pp,  ?25 pb, ISBN 0716528282) is based on the proposition that the General Post Office is central to all narratives of the Rising, but that the actual experiences of those Dubliners and others who were working in the Post Office have been neglected in the subsequent historiography. It reproduces a wealth of hitherto unpublished documents drawn from the treasure trove of material on the Rising held in the British Post Office Archives. Particularly useful is the memoir, ‘Irish experiences in war’, written by Arthur Hamilton Norway, secretary of the Irish Post Office, ‘for the information of my family’. Also included is his wife Mary Louisa’s short account, ‘The Sinn Féin rebellion as I saw it’, which formed the core of a 1999 IAP publication, The Sinn Féin rebellion as they saw it.
Norway features too in Stephen Ferguson’s ‘Self respect and a little extra leave’: GPO staff in 1916 (An Post, 62pp,  ?10 pb, ISBN 1872228410). This is a fascinating little book that sheds new light on aspects of the military history of the Rising. The failure of the rebels to capture the Central Telephone Exchange in Crown Alley, the author claims, was a decisive blow to their operations. Amongst postal workers a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ (if the anachronism can be excused) prevailed: despite bullets whizzing overhead, about 40 staff bedded down in the exchange for the Rising’s duration. But the Post Office was notorious for its parsimony. A letter to the Irish Independent subsequently complained that ‘the greatest revenue producing department of the state’ had still not paid the overtime due to the staff and even claimed that wages would be docked for the cost of hiring the mattresses! Secretary Norway gets the last word:

‘It will never be fully known what the staff in Dublin faced during that bad week. The actual dangers were great: those reasonably apprehended were greater still, and it is not by any means certain that they are over even now. It is useless to attempt to appreciate degrees to merit in those who work steadily in such abnormal times, and it is better not to try. My staff as a whole did their work out of self-respect. But I think a little extra leave would be much appreciated.’

If you had to list the seven signatories to the 1916 Proclamation, probably the person who would least readily come to mind is Éamonn Ceannt. Part of the explanation for his relative anonymity today must lie in the fact that until the appearance of Supreme sacrifice: the story of Éamonn Ceannt by William Henry (Mercier Press, 160pp, ?16.95 pb, ISBN 1856354660) Ceannt had not been the subject of a major biography. Born in 1881 in Galway, his family moved to Dublin in 1892. On leaving the Christian Brothers in North Richmond Street Ceannt worked as a clerk for Dublin Corporation. He joined the central branch of the Gaelic League in 1899, where Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill were active members. By 1905 he was teaching Irish, but he also found time to play the uileann pipes, to found a pipers’ club and to produce a newspaper, An Píobaire. He joined Sinn Féin in 1907 and soon became a member of its national council. At the same time he become chairman of the Dublin Municipal Officers Association, an early trade union for clerks. It was probably on 12 December 1912 that Ceannt was sworn into the IRB and from then on he brought his very capable organising abilities to preparing for an insurrection. Ceannt proposed that Sinn Féin have a policy of learning to use firearms, bringing him into conflict with Arthur Griffith. They differed too on the Dublin Lockout of 1913, with Ceannt expressing sympathy for James Larkin. He made the financial arrangements and played an important role in the landing of arms at Howth on 26 July 1914, and at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, on 1 August. By 1915 Ceannt had become a member of the supreme council of the IRB and was commandant of the Fourth Battalion of the Irish Volunteers. In the Rising itself Ceannt led the 120 men who occupied the South Dublin Union (present-day St James’s Hospital). His command was an effective one and, although under attack from the very beginning, he beat back vastly superior forces in what was probably the bitterest fighting of the Rising. Strangely, his death sentence was pronounced on the erroneous grounds that he had led troops at Jacob’s biscuit factory. Ceannt has been well served by this biography. Even a reader unsympathetic to the aims of the rebels will be engaged by the drama that is inherent in the Rising.
Several publishers have recently reissued 1916-related titles. Among them is Marie O’Neill’s Grace Gifford Plunkett and Irish freedom: tragic bride of 1916 (Irish Academic Press, 120pp,  ?19.50 pb, ISBN 0716527138). Her marriage to Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Jail a few hours before his execution is one of the more melancholy parts of the 1916 story. Less well known is her career as a successful artist and cartoonist. Many of her distinctive (and very funny) caricatures are reproduced here. Another IAP re-publication is Irishmen in war 1800–2000 (306pp,  ?49.50 hb, ISBN 0716528177), introduced by Harman Murtagh and with a foreword by Keith Jeffery, which is the second volume of a collection of essays from the Irish Sword, the biannual journal of the Military History Society of Ireland. This is a facsimile production, a very sensible approach from the point of view of production costs, but there is no excuse for the poor quality of the facsimiles, many of which look no better than very smudgy photocopies. Neither is there any indication of when the essays were originally published. The 1916 connection is Col. P.J. Hally’s two-part ‘The Easter 1916 rising in Dublin: the military aspects’. At the outset Hally takes issue with ‘the widely held opinion that the Rising . . . was organised and led by impractical intellectuals and dreamers . . . incapable of clear military planning’.
It is nearly twenty years since the publication of Seán O’Mahony’s Frongoch: university of revolution. Lyn Ebenezer’s Fron-goch and the birth of the IRA (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 240pp, £7.75 pb, ISBN 086381977) complements that book by outlining the history of the camp from a Welsh perspective. The author, a journalist and broadcaster, writes from an unashamedly Welsh nationalist perspective (the book was originally written in Welsh) but not to the detriment of a very well-researched and readable narrative. The most interesting part of the book is the epilogue, which relates the sad story of the flooding of the Welsh-speaking Tryweryn valley in the 1950s to create the Llyn Celyn reservoir, near the site of the Frongoch camp. This was at the behest of Liverpool Corporation in the teeth of massive local opposition; not one Welsh MP voted for the enabling legislation at Westminster. Although the author does not make the point explicitly, the powerlessness of the Welsh in this case is in marked contrast to the sovereignty exercised by the Irish state today. We may have made mistakes but at least they were ours to make. Surely that is the enduring legacy of 1916?

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