Giving Birth to a Nation
It’s one of the National Gallery’s best-known paintings, a priceless treasure that was lost for decades before making international headlines when it turned up in a Jesuit residence. What’s far less well known is that Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’ has a direct connection to 1916 in a poignant tale involving an iconic rebel leader, an assassinated RIC officer and his grieving widow.
The story begins in the immediate aftermath of Easter Week when Captain Percival Lea-Wilson became a marked man after he abused and humiliated prisoners in his charge after they were marched from the GPO to the Rotunda Hospital.
According to onlookers, one of Lea-Wilson’s worst offences was to order Thomas Clarke, then fifty-nine, to be stripped naked and forced to stand on the hospital steps in view of the nurses. He also taunted Seán MacDermott, who walked with a limp caused by polio, calling him a ‘cripple.’
Watching intently close by was a young Michael Collins, who swore that he would avenge the humiliation of his comrades.
He did so four years later when, on 15th June 1920, Lea-Wilson was shot dead outside his home in Gorey, Co. Wexford on Collins’s orders. In the wake of the killing, his widow, Dr Marie Lea-Wilson turned to a Jesuit priest for solace. In return, in what she considered a fitting gesture of gratitude, she gave him a painting then attributed to a Dutch artist, Gerard von Honthorst, which she had previously acquired for less than the equivalent of $1,000 in Edinburgh. But von Honthorst was not the artist…
And there the story would have ended but for the fact that, after decades lost in storage, Caravaggio’s masterpiece caused a sensation when it was rediscovered in 1990.
It’s a sequence of events that has left connoisseurs and historians alike to ponder that if Lea-Wilson hadn’t humiliated the leaders of the Rising, he wouldn’t have been murdered, his widow wouldn’t have sought counselling from the Jesuits, who in turn would not have received the painting – and Ireland would most likely have lost a priceless treasure.
This is one of many 1916 stories that forms part of the exhibition, ‘The Rotunda – Birth of a Nation,’ which took place in March 2016.
Just up the road from the rebels’ GPO headquarters during Easter week, staff and patients in the world’s oldest maternity hospital had a unique view of events from the vantage point of the iconic Rotunda building on Parnell Square. Among them was Mary O’Shea, a 23-year-old midwifery trainee from Abbeyleix, whose handwritten memoir of what she saw during that week will be on display at the exhibition.
Having spent the previous two years in France at the outbreak of the First World War, Mary wrote how it was ‘with great joy I returned to Ireland to peace, quiet and happiness.’
But that peace was shattered when the Rising began and she watched ‘in fascinated horror’ as a new war unfolded before her very eyes.
‘Easter week 1916 seemed so unreal that even still it seems like a nightmare,’ she wrote, remembering how she and her colleagues tended to their patients, while on the street below, people were shot and dragged off to the Rotunda morgue, and at night ‘the whole sky seemed illuminated.’
Here we were, with lovely dear old Dublin falling down about us and we trying to calm people who had not a clue about what was happening.
Paying no heed to warnings to stay away from the windows, Mary kept a close eye on events outside.
We saw snipers at work from the top of the houses of Parnell Square. We saw all the prisoners collected into the lawn in front of the houses of the hospital and marched away to prison. One I think was the Countess, judging by the size of her small hands and feet. When things got quiet and we went out of doors, a terrible sight met our eyes. O’Connell Street in a shambles.
With the GPO in ruins following the Rising, the Postmaster General set up temporary sorting offices in the ‘Rotunda Rink,’ a large steel and wooden structure which stood in the grounds now occupied by the Garden of Remembrance. It might have become a permanent arrangement had anti-Treaty troops not doused the building in petrol and set it alight on November 5th 1922.
By that time, Mary O’Shea had returned from England where she had done her general nursing training only to find the country in the midst of a civil war that she described as ‘a thousand times worse‘ than what had gone on in 1916.
‘To think that lads who stood together against a common foe could split and be so bitter,’ she wrote. ‘This to me is the tragedy of our time.’
Mary is one of five women of the Rising celebrated in the Rotunda exhibition, which also features Bridget Lyons Thornton, Kathleen Lynn, Dorothy Stopford Price and the Honourable Albinia Broderick. For the Rotunda’s Head Librarian Anne O’Byrne, the project was a labour of love, but with only six months from conception, it was no easy delivery. She commented:
It was very much a collaborative effort involving doctors, nurses, heads of departments, partners like the Abbeyleix Heritage Company and our special adviser, historian Sinead McCoole. We were delighted to contribute to the centenary commemorations.
The exhibition also showed that it was not only the Easter Rising that claimed lives in 1916. The squalid conditions in Dublin’s overcrowded tenements led to mothers and babies frequently dying from vomiting bugs and other diseases, conditions which are easily treated today.
From “My 1916: What the Easter Rising Means to Me,” available on Amazon © Celine Naughton 2016.
Celine Naughton is an Irish journalist and author. Her latest book, “My 1916,” a collection of personal stories about the Easter Rising, and her novel, “Sink to Slumber,” are available online. Her short story, “Dreams of Flying,” was shortlisted for the 2016 Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards. She may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on www.celinenaughton.com, on twitter @NaughtonCeline, or on Facebook.
© Celine Naughton 2016