Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Paul Gorry: Seven Signatories: Tracing the Family Histories of the Men Who Signed the Proclamation, Merrion Press, Dublin, 2016.
This book, written by a leading Irish genealogist (a Fellow of the UK and Irish societies), was compiled as a 1916 commemorative project, and it’s fascinating, if often dry. It serves different functions simultaneously: it provides information about the backgrounds (in many cases to the grandparental generation) of each of the 7 signatories which has its own intrinsic interest; and it foregrounds its genealogical methodology, which will be of interest to many readers, but not all. It’s a careful study which is scrupulous about sifting and evaluating evidence, being provisional where it’s required, and pointing out where there are gaps that might be filled in. This is a huge virtue and it does this well. It is good to interrogate sources as esteemed as the Dictionary of Irish Biography and to continually test the evidentiary basis of claims.
Where the publication catches fire for me is when it demonstrates the variety of homes from which the rebels came, and hints at class issues. One of my best reads in the year of the centenary of 1916 was Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces, and from it I’d formed a view of a very middle class cohort of a Bohemian and sexually free-wheeling variety. It was a superb read which filled out the cultural (especially the theatrical and print publication) side of the revolution but it did shortchange us on the rank and file. This little text complicates that picture quite a lot. Leaders like James Connolly, Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada were not at all bohemian. There were many surprises and touching details which often challenge one’s preconceptions: Edinburgh-born and raised, Connolly often disavowed his Scottish birthplace and peddled a myth about coming from Monaghan; Ceannt had a father and brother who were policemen, and another brother was in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Great War; Thomas Clarke’s father was very much a man of Empire, taking his family and serving in Cape of Good Hope, and the son’s revolutionary fervour came from his mother’s Limerick family; MacDiarmada’s father was a farmer and carpenter and his mother may have been from farming stock. Joseph Mary Plunkett’s grandfathers (Patrick Cranny and Patrick Plunkett) were a very different class: they’d migrated to Dublin, married well, and gone into business building large terrace houses for the middle-class to rent and had arrived in the upper middle class. It’s a very complex mix that formed the upper echelons of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. Clarke and Connolly (who had served in the British Army in the Curragh, a fact he kept quiet) probably had more than passing familiarity with military culture, in contrast to Plunkett’s book-learning about military strategy.
I’m drawn to the wives and families of these men, and they are given their full place in the narrative in terms of accounting for their possible influence and what happened after the executions. The size of the families is often mind-blowing and the number of deaths often appalling: Joseph Plunkett was one of 1 of 7 but in his father’s and mother’s families, there were 9 and 10 respectively, all largely viable (Joe was the sickest, and would have barely survived the Rising had he not been executed, having contracted glandular TB from unpasteurised milk), probably because they had money. MacDonagh was one of 9, and 3 died in infancy or youth. I was heartened to learn that all but one of the children of Connolly, one of my two Rising heroes, survived and prospered: two to either marry or become a TD, one (Nora) to become a social activist and another a doctor (Moira). These seemed very apposite outcomes for a Socialist father. I was horrified to learn that the children to whom MacDonagh wrote his eloquent elegiac poem were left orphans when their mother, Muriel Gifford, drowned at Skerries just over a year after the Rising. A small but intense tragedy which compounded a larger one, but one that must have made the lives of their children, then 5 and 2) immensely difficult emotionally (though the lad survived to become a judge and a writer and marry two sisters in succession). This is to extrapolate, of course, from the bare bones of the genealogies recorded here, and one is reminded continually of the human faces behind the facts in this set of genealogies. They are pregnant with meanings, and possibilities for future historians and writers.
So, if genealogy is your passion and you’re keen on the Rising, this is a fascinating little book.
Frances is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Collective.