Fearghal McGarry. The Abbey Rebels Of 1916. A Lost Revolution. Gill & Macmillan. 376 pp. ISBN 978 0 7171 6881 1. RRP €29.99
A book review by Frank O’Shea
It is pleasant in this year of much commemoration to come across a book that tells about 1916 through the stories of seven ordinary people with small parts in the action itself. What they had in common was an association with the Abbey Theatre as actor or producer, but also in lesser roles as prompter, carpenter or usher(ette). These were ordinary Dubliners, most of them serious thinkers whose involvement in rebellion was out of conviction rather than emotion.
It would have been tempting to write the book as a version of the history of the Abbey as a centre of patriotism, a hotbed of radicals and rebels. Any account of the campaign that resulted in Irish independence must mention the role of Yeats and Lady Gregory in raising the consciousness of the Irish people to their history. Here we see those two giants as the way they must have been regarded by many of those involved in the theatre: finicky, controlling, in some ways like small time bullies.
The significance of the Abbey in Irish history is highlighted in the author’s description of it as ‘an avowedly ‘national’ institution led by Protestants.’ That distinction would not have had importance for Pearse or Connolly or Tom Clarke, happy for any support from any quarter. But for the generation that came after independence, it was an angle that took on some significance, particularly after de Valera came to power in 1932.
The seven people whose stories are told are actress Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh (Mary Walker as was), feminist Helena Molony, carpenter Barney Murphy, usherette Nellie Bushell, writer Peadar Kearney and actor/producers Arthur Shields and Sean Connolly. The last-named has only a brief chapter, because he was the first rebel to lose his life in the Rising, but all the others survived the action.
The book emphasises that few of these survivors played any part in either the War of Independence or the early history of the state. All faced hardship and in some cases extreme poverty. The women in particular were unable to persuade the new rulers of the state that they had taken any part in the Rising and were thus ineligible for the small pension that was grudgingly granted.
The story of Peadar Kearney is particularly sad. He was “lifted” by a party of Auxiliaries four days after Bloody Sunday, and spent a year interned near Belfast. His health suffered greatly and affected his attempts to earn a living as a house painter. His Soldier’s Song brought him little material reward and it was viewed with suspicion by the Treaty supporters because of its constant use by the Irregulars. He died in poverty and obscurity in 1942; the Minister for Justice Gerry Boland refused to release his nephew Brendan Behan from prison to attend the funeral.
The final chapter notes the way that mid century history had been re-written, so that ‘the event remembered in 1966 was not the one that occurred in 1916.’ Some examples of this were the opinion sometimes heard that The Soldier’s Song is merely the ‘English translation’ of the national anthem Amhran na bhFiann and more outrageously the way that the socialist and Fenian/IRB background of many of the fighters was ignored in favour of a form of promotion to Catholic sainthood.
This is one of the better books about the Rising. Written with clarity and a welcome objectivity, it is the story of how the later lives of ordinary people can be affected by youthful radicalism.