Rebel Poets and their Friends

Writers often take some of the claim for creating the conditions under which the Easter Rising occurred. Yeats worried about his responsibility in writing incendiary material that might have sent young men out to the barricades. Joyce, as always oppositionist, in so many ways cavils against violence and in particular the violence occasioned by nationalism and claims to independence. Certainly, nationalist feeling was created and fostered during decades of heightened literary activity, during the 1840s, and again later and more intensively in the three decades from 1880. The Young Ireland movement and the Gaelic League/Irish Revivalists  systematically reclaimed and translated the ancient literary heritage of Ireland, breathing new life into the myths of Ireland which were read as promoting a warrior class more intent on dying bravely than living with dishonour.

The recuperation of a literary tradition with over a 1000 years of continuity did much to build national self-esteem. The writers, of course, didn’t do it alone. Other nationalist activities worked in tandem with the literary revival to create the conditions for armed rebellion – the language revival, and even the emergence of sporting activities that were specifically Irish, the arming of Ulster and the reactive building of the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers were other facets, not to mention the politics of Westminster, the loss of Parnell and the shelving of the Home Rule Bill.

Having recently performed Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, a play that takes strong issue with nationalism, Bloomsday’s  second Easter Rising commemorative event is one which focusses on the poets of the Rising and their poetic peers. It’s an intriguing lens through which the Rising may be viewed. A Terrible Beauty will not only explore the poems by the leadership, but also responses to their deaths, and more generally the Rising, by their friends, and the story of what they’d achieved before their untimely deaths.  What emerges is a tremendous sense of grief at the loss of the leadership cadre of the country. Many of the poets featured did not necessarily agree with the military action taken, but agree or not, they were moved by the idealism and the hopes of the men. There is no doubt that Ireland’s coming to independence was a costly affair, especially in terms of loss of life and talent.

poets no textIt is common practice to talk of three executed poets – Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh. However, the writers have discovered we can add two more to that impressive tally – James Connolly was a poet and playwright, and Roger Casement had a slim volume of poetry published after the Rising.  The case for Casement being a poet rests on a single poem available on the internet, and two manuscripts of poems and the typescript for a book of poetry published by the Talbot Press in 1918, all held in the National Library of Ireland. I’ve not read the material held at the library, so the jury is out on his creative abilities, and we’d be interested to hear from contributors who’ve had the opportunity to see them. Some of the manuscript poems appear to be on Irish subjects. However, what we do admire about him are his brave and ground-breaking reports on colonial abuses in the Belgian Congo (1904) and his later reports for Westminster on abuses by British companies in the Putamayo region of South America.  He was clearly a writer and a thinker, and also a strong follower of the Gaelic League, and had been led by his postcolonial reports, and his reading of Irish literature and history, to think of Ireland as an unwilling colony. He’s so significant in this story that Bloomsday has commissioned a play based on the trial of Roger Casement, Convicted on a Comma, written and directed by Brian Gillespie, to commemorate the execution on 5 August 2016 at the Moonee Ponds Courthouse Museum (details to come).

The biggest surprise of our research journey was to discover several details we’d not known about James Connolly, another of the heroes of the 1916 poets’ story. First, that he was a playwright, and also that he wrote poems, one of which will be featured in A Terrible Beauty: The Poetry of the Easter Rising. It’s a witty socialist anthem written to be sung to The Soldiers’ Song.  That makes James Connolly not only a fine socialist thinker and activist, not only in Ireland, but internationally; a person with literary pretensions; and the only leader of the Rising to be militarily trained by the British, another lesser known feature of his life. He spent seven years in the British Army under an assumed name (also taken by his brother), many of them serving in Cork, and towards the end of his service at the Curragh Barracks. He left the army at a point he might have been posted to India because he had met Lillie, his wife, and when his father in Scotland was dying.

Master of Ceremonies for A Terrible Beauty will be its youngest writer (one of a team of three), Liam Gillespie. Another unexpected detail to emerge from this research is how very young the leaders and their followers were. Diarmaid Ferriter confirms this and goes further (in A Nation Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923), in claiming that the average age of a-rank-and-file Volunteer before 1919 was 23 and their officers 25.  It seemed appropriate, therefore, to recruit younger performers, and Bloomsday is pleased to be joined by three young undergraduates from the University of Melbourne for this event – Anna-Rose Shack, Aaron Bhat and Jack Callahan. Aaron and Jack will also sing a capella, the better to hear the words of the songs. Our other musicians are even younger – Quinn Hames is a harpist who is in his early teens, and Atira Shack is travelling from Perth to sing a ballad of the period. There will be five popular and often subversive songs of the period, two of which were banned as seditious after the Rising.The team will also include the very experienced Renée Huish, who feels honoured to sum up the Irish claims to independence over seven and a half centuries in a poem by Lady Gregory, and the seriously talented (Green-Room-Award nominated) and experienced actor, Steve Gome, recently Peter in Plough (directed by Wayne Pearn).

The event is on 15 April at 7.30pm at the Celtic Club, 316-320 Queen St., Melbourne. One performance only. More information and booking….

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial team, and runs Bloomsday in Melbourne, which has written and produced A Terrible Beauty.