Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Various. SIGNATORIES. University College Dublin Press, Dublin, 2018, 137 pp
RRP: €11.99 h/b
The historians have had their say on the events in Dublin 102 years ago, and so have the politicians and the songwriters and musicians. The views of all groups are not the same, and we are left with a choice between heroism on one side or stupidity on the other, moral support from one group or opprobrium from another. But we have not heard much from the playwrights and those who want to respond creatively. This collection of brief monologues is a worthy contribution in that space.
The names of the contributors guarantee material of the highest quality. Emma Donoghue, Hugo Hamilton, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Thomas Gilroy, Joseph O’Connor, Frank McGuinness, Marina Carr and Rachel Fehily are all established writers; as it happens, all are also associated with UCD, either as graduates or staff. They were asked to provide a monologue by or about one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence.
The eighth contribution, the one that begins the collection and covers most of the others in some way, is written by Emma Donoghue. She uses the voice of Elizabeth Farrell, the nurse who carried Pearse’s surrender orders to the British and then to the other posts in the city. She is speaking long after the event – she died in 1957 – and wonders ‘what did I do, that I have to live so long, men’s faces blurred in my head, but the smell of blood still fresh?’
Not all the pieces are in the voice of one of the signatories. That for Sean Mac Diarmada is delivered by Min Ryan, his one-time girlfriend. ‘He never kissed me,’ she says, ‘Not properly. … He didn’t even tell me there would be a Rising. And I went haring off to Wexford on the train bringing a message telling the Wexford Volunteers the whole thing was cancelled.’ James Connolly’s contribution is through the voice of an unnamed Birmingham child who, with her sisters, is saved from kidnapping by their Irish carer named Angela; her hero and the subject of her bath time songs is the great labour leader.
Frank McGuinness has Eamonn Ceannt asking forgiveness of his young son; ‘Child, forgive your father.’ Rachel Fehily captures the diehard Fenian in Tom Clarke, still angry and supported as always by his equally determined wife. Those two pieces may have a reader wondering how their children fared in the new free Ireland and why we heard so little about them.
The monologue that leaves the strongest feeling of loss is the one by Marina Carr, spoken by Thomas MacDonagh. It reminds us that these were young men with their lives ahead of them, men who might have made a difference in the new dispensation. Yeats said of MacDonagh that ‘he might have won fame in the end’, a thought echoed here, ‘I should’ve stayed in Paris writing my poems because whichever way you look at it, this fiasco, this little skirmish of ours, is the stuff of prose.’
The original presentation of these pieces was at Kilmainham Jail, directed by Patrick Mason. He reminds us that they are neither historical documents nor religious liturgies; they are ‘acts of theatre – imagined artistic responses to people and events of the past.’ It is a valid point, but as with any great art, they leave the reader with the lasting impression of humans in an extraordinary situation.