The Quixotic Generation of 1916

imagesBook Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

R. F. Foster: Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, Penguin, London, 2015 (originally published by Allen Lane in 2014)

ISBN:  9781846144639

RRP: £13 (paperback); $15 (kindle at Amazon Australia)


The organization of this account of what Roy Foster calls ‘the generation of 1916’ is gloriously lucid: nine chapters with disarmingly simple titles – Fathers and Children, Learning, Playing, Loving, Writing, Arming, Fighting, Reckoning, Remembering –  and it’s a book which brings together social, literary and political currents of Irish life between 1890 and 1923, the ‘revolutionary’ generation. It focusses most intently on the middle-classes, mainly, one suspects because of their facility with documenting their lives, and in the case of the Bureau of Military History of securing their hegemony through narrative.  It’s a book that certainly points to the need for something similar to be written on the rank and file Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, and the many lower-class participants who don’t get a look-in in this book.

The contention of the first chapter is perhaps contestable: that this was a generation alienated from their elders, and feeling failed by the Irish Parliamentary Party, rose up against the fathers. One has to question whether this generation of young people was in fact any more committed to breaking with the past than any group of adolescents and young adults anywhere in the world in the modern period? Certainly we know that many of the combatants of the Easter Rising were alarmingly young. Diarmaid Ferriter in A Nation Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923, claims that the average age of a-rank-and-file Volunteer before 1919 was 23 and their officers 25. And given that Tom Clarke, the old Fenian warrior of an earlier generation, was a veteran of almost 60, he must have raised the average quite significantly.

What is most striking to me about the pre-Rising Irish middle-class (and it is the middle class that is almost exclusively Foster’s focus) is its freewheeling bohemian character: romantic nationalism provided many fora (meetings, dance-floors, remote country language camps, amateur and professional theatrical stages, communist communes) for debating and living secularism, feminism, suffragism, even vegetarianism and gay liaisons. Men were unabashed in their support of feminism (it is heart-warming to know Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was not alone in his gender radicalism).  Sexuality is openly discussed, and love affairs flourish in Gaelic League functions. This is modernism and the moderne in vigorous action before WWI. It’s a surprisingly vivid canvas and an invigorating one, as its scope is quite a lot broader than politics and literary revivalism. Women were free to read and discuss the latest sexology, and experiment with it in mixed groups, and learning Irish in remote country camps was a cover for a great variety of behaviours not open to their bourgeois parents. A searing illustration of this generation’s  experimentalism is a very sad story told by her sister-in-law Geraldine of Grace Gifford Plunkett’s losing a baby after her new husband’s execution. One can only imagine how that sorrow must have compounded so many others, including her equivocal place in her husband’s family.  Foster does not fail to remind us that what the Free State delivered was a very much less secular version of being human, one far more constrained by catholic bishops and priests, than what this vivid generation had enjoyed for the two decades and more before the Rising.

When he anatomises learning, the term that Foster introduces into the discussion is political radicalization. It’s a usage with distinctly modern overtones, and it does give one cause for pause, especially if you’re inclined, as I am, towards pacifism. The radicalizing (Foster uses the term ‘indoctrination’) education in revolutionary values, resembling sect-like behaviour, and the normalizing of notions of ‘blood sacrifice’ at St Enda’s and at the Christian Brothers’ schools through the creation of nationalist textbooks is well-known. Foster is inclined to see Christian conservatism, and the rhetoric of martyrdom, as feeding the generation that was heading into a blood-soaked revolution, though he does suggest that the Rising when it arrived came with more blood and guns than the gently brought up ever imagined. Some, of course, took to it with relish; some did not.

Another method of indoctrination in this revolutionary generation was dramatic realization: the rituals, tableaux, pageants and the re-enactment of ancient myths, especially those of Emain Macha and the Fianna. Conn Colbert, a PT teacher, inducted senior boys at St Enda’s into the Irish Republican Brotherhood. St Enda’s was among the more extreme and no fewer than 30 of its students were to be found in the GPO, and five of the executed leaders had taught there. Even the Royal College of Surgeons harboured advanced nationalists and among the ranks of medical trainees were many women like Kathleen Lynn, Brigid Lyons Thornton and Ernie O’Malley, all to serve during the Rising in major ways, the former two as doctors while Ernie walked away from his medical training to become a heavy-duty IRA killer in the Civil War, and then writing novels about it. Similarly, Dublin’s art colleges, the Metropolitan School of Art and the Royal Hibernian Academy schools, brought together high profile revolutionaries, like Gaeilgeoir Cesca Trench (cousin of Dermot Trench whose Irish-learning Joyce satirizes in Ulysses) and Constance Markievicz. Even the National Library was a hotbed of advanced nationalism: Irish scholars debated with Irish language enthusiast, Seán T. O’Kelly, who, of course, would fight in the GPO, get elected to the first Dáil, eventually become Ireland’s second president.

When literary history is written, it is the poets and literary theatre in Dublin who get the plaudits, and Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory are centre-stage. Foster suggests that Yeats and the Abbey in particular had a much more equivocal place in the esteem of advanced nationalists, partly because of his age, but also because of the Abbey’s politics. Arthur Griffiths, while holding up Markievicz’s Theatre of Ireland, denigrated the Abbey as a ‘plague house’ and apparently, younger revolutionaries confided similar attitudes to diaries and letters and looked elsewhere for political inspiration.  And there were no shortage of opportunities for writing and acting, both on conventional stages but also in commemorative activities focused on the historical past. Theatre groups professional and amateur and small and large, proliferated plays advocating the Advanced Nationalist cause. Hubert O’Grady’s Irish National Drama Company kept up a solid repertoire of plays rehearsing Irish history – Fenianism, the Famine, Tone, Sarsfield, Robert Emmet. The plays were popular, and yet another potent cultural and political consciousness-raising tool in the national armoury in the period.  Whitbread, an Englishman, toured plays commemorating the heroes of 1798 to Britain, and funded a prize of £100 in 1902 for an Irish playwright resident in Ireland. It wasn’t only Yeats’s plays that sent men out to die.  This book is a salutary reminder of just how vivid the theatre scene was, not only in Dublin but also in Belfast and Cork, where theatre companies formed and re-formed like amoebae, as is their wont.

The sections on the Rising and its aftermath tread more familiar territory, but the final chapters on Reckoning and Remembering speak difficult truths about the kind of Republic that the generation of 1916 inherited, and their inevitable disappointment, especially for the loss of freedoms by the women, and the narrowing of the culture to a repressive Catholicism.

One of the most valuable sections of this work is its Biographical Appendix, which gives more vivid pen-pictures of the main players and even the less well known in this generation. One gets a good sense of where they came from (often from the North), what their religion was (often Protestant), what they did professionally before and after the Rising, who they married (often brothers and sisters of their partners), and how marriages strengthened the bonds and the pain of loss.

This book has been on the must-read list for some time. I regret it took me so long to get to it, as it’s a riveting read which taught me a lot about a culture I thought I knew, and provoked some serious questioning of the orthodoxies.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective.