Children of the Rising, an untold story

A BOOK REVIEW by Dymphna Lonergan9781473617056

Joe Duffy: Children of the Rising: the untold story of
the young lives lost during Easter 1916, Hachette Books Ireland, Dublin, 2016

RRP: €20

ISBN: 9781473617056

This is a surprising book. The title, with its euphemistic ‘lost’ for the word ‘died’ might give the impression that this will be a sentimental account of the Dublin children who died during Easter Week 1916. Author Joe Duffy spent most of the noughties hosting an afternoon radio programme on RTÉ Radio 1 that was most notable for Joe’s championing of individuals battling a range of life issues. We can imagine his dogged pursuit to bring the Rising children’s stories to the world.

From the beginning, though, we can see that this is no mere tug at the heart strings. At the start the euphemism has been put aside for the stark listing of The Forty Children Aged Sixteen and Under Who Died in the Easter Rising. The names are listed in alphabetical order in bold, followed by age and place of residence.

Dublin tenement

Dublin tenement

Facing this page are some quotations, one of which is a poignant offset to the list of the dead children: ‘In no city in these islands with which I am acquainted have the children such freedom, I might say such possession, of the streets as Dublin’. The speaker is John Cooke, Honorary Treasurer for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children giving evidence to the Dublin Housing Inquiry, 1913. This quotation answers our queries as to how  many of these forty children could have been put in peril during this week. The so-called ‘freedom’ of the streets came from overcrowded housing conditions.

Numerous families occupied the former mansions of the Anglo-Irish who had fled Dublin city and returned to England in the years following the Act of Union in 1800. The mansions decayed into tenements where families shared one room and hundreds shared one toilet. The last two children on Duffy’s list are named as ‘Boy unidentified’ and ‘Infant unidentified’. Certainly something was lost here in this Dublin.

Patrick_Pearse_cph.3b15294

Patrick Pearse

The table of contents sets out the coming story in a way that appeals to sentiment and romance, in the literary sense: chapter one is titled ‘As I Strolled Out One Easter Morning’; chapter two is ‘A Tale of two Cities’. Chapters three, five, and six are quotations. The last is from Patrick Pearse’s poem ‘The Mother’:  ‘We Suffer in Their Coming and Their Going’. The reference is to children, but this reviewer had to smile at this quotation, as it brought to mind my father who loved to quote from poetry and drama. Whenever any of us had a toothache, he would commiserate with ‘we suffer in their coming and their going’.

Page xi is titled ‘The 1916 Rising: Day by Day: A guide to events each day including a list of all deaths’. This is followed by a text box that names the nine children ‘shot and fatally wounded’ on day one, which includes ‘Male’ O’Toole’. The six civilians, eleven rebels, twenty-eight, military, and three police are not named. These bold facts are followed by the opening words of the book’s narrative, ‘A warm, sunny bank holiday – it has rained for thirteen of the previous fourteen days’. The photograph of the page facing is of the Rising aftermath: the General Post Office gutted; daily life resumed with trams and buses passing; people walking and on bikes. In the foreground facing the camera is a boy of about eleven, a cap on his head, on his face a puzzled look. His facial expression matches the ‘whiff of uncertainty and excitement in the city-centre air’ that ends this opening paragraph.

Children prospecting in rubble

Children prospecting in rubble

Page xii begins a series of dot points that outline the day’s events. It reads like a newsreel: gates are locked; the passengers on the open upper decks of the trams look down in bemusement; …a young lad makes off with one of the pushbikes that has been commandeered by the Rebels; a light drizzle starts’. This narrative device conveys a sense of immediacy, chaos, and confusion.

The book’s beginnings continue in this fashion: names of the dead children, an account of the day’s events, but no detail on how the children died. Their stories then begin with the Prologue on page one that sets out the background to their short lives.

O'Connell angel

O’Connell monument ‘angel’ with 1916 bullet hole in breast

Duffy uses his own family to tell the tale of Dublin tenement life. His grandmother was aged ten when two tenement buildings collapsed into Church Street, killing seven. Church Street was where three years later two-year old Sean Foster would be the first child killed in the Easter Rising. The stories of the forty children killed in Dublin that Easter week are told in great detail over the next two hundred odd pages. The text is enlivened by striking photos such as the bullet-ridden window in Northumberland Road (p 88) and the ‘unscathed O’Connell monument amid the ruins of O’Connell Street’ (p. 132), a claim that can be disputed if you take into account the bullet holes in the angels that are still visible today. Not all children who were killed during Easter Week were from the inner city tenements. One middle class family on the South Circular Road was headed by Melbourne-born Arthur Draper Sainsbury. His nine-year-old son George ‘…stuck his head out a window {to see the advancing British soldiers} and was shot dead’. (p 135).

Children of the Rising is designed to be read on a number of levels. Photos, boxed texts, and lists give their own short, sharp accounts. One boxed text on page 185 carries the intriguing title ‘The boy who was shot dead before the Rising’. It’s the story of baby Herbert Lemass who was accidentally shot by his sixteen-year-old Volunteer brother when he was cleaning his gun. That brother, Seán Lemass, was Taoiseach when Ireland celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising in 1966. The book can also be read in a linear fashion, savouring Duffy’s conversational yet informative style. The research is excellent. Children of the Rising is as important an account of this turning point in Ireland’s history as any other Easter Rising book, and a fine tribute to the unintended child victims.

Dymphna Lonergan

Dymphna is a member of the Tinteán Editorial team