1916 in Irish fiction: ‘From glorious dream to wink and nod’

Eamon Maher examines depictions of the Easter Rising in the work of Ernie O’Malley, John McGahern and Sebastian Barry, and divines a common thread of brokenness

Ger Ryan and Tony Doyle in the TV adaptation of Amongst Women by John McGahern. What was it all for? is a question about the  war of independence McGahern heard a lot growing up, a sentiment  echoed by the disillusioned veteran, Michael Moran, in McGahern’s masterpiece

Ger Ryan and Tony Doyle in the TV adaptation of Amongst Women by John McGahern. What was it all for? is a question about the war of independence McGahern heard a lot growing up, a sentiment echoed by the disillusioned veteran, Michael Moran, in McGahern’s masterpiece


The initial quote in the title of this paper is taken from an essay published by John McGahern in The Irish Times on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising (April 3rd, 1991). It strikes a deliberately provocative note in relation to what McGahern viewed as the betrayal of the ideals of 1916.

I propose to compare and contrast three very distinct depictions of the iconic event whose centenary we are celebrating this year. I will begin with McGahern and then move on to Ernie O’Malley, whose memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, was a text for which McGahern expressed great admiration on numerous occasions. I will then conclude with Sebastian Barry’s award-winning novel, A Long Long Way, which gives fictional expression to the experience of those Irish people whose loved ones fought on the side of the Allies in the Great War and who were subsequently largely written out of Irish history. The main thrust of the paper will be to consider how different perspectives on 1916 can deepen our appreciation of just how complex and significant an event it was in terms of Irish history.

McGahern’s 1991 article expressed anger at the way 1916 is all too often hijacked by those wishing to rewrite history. The most common reaction to the Rising in the Ireland he grew up in was one of puzzlement. “What was it all for?” is a question that was heard on the lips of many people at that time, a sentiment that is echoed by the disillusioned veteran of the War of Independence, Michael Moran, in McGahern’s masterpiece, Amongst Women. “What did we get for it?” Moran asks, referring to the fruit of their struggle. “A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

Moran’s disillusionment is compounded by the fact that his fight for Irish freedom has succeeded only in replacing one form of oppression, namely British rule, with an Irish equivalent. He had been a squadron leader in the IRA, had taken great risks and endured much hardship to rid the country of the British once and for all. In the end, he feels sorely let down by the opportunistic manner in which a new native Irish ruling class seamlessly replaced the British one.

There can be no doubting the considerable fallout on many levels that ensued from the failed rebellion. It resulted in a brutal guerrilla war that ended in stalemate and a treaty that led to partition and a divisive civil war. The protectionist policies introduced by various governments in the early years of the Free State caused pecuniary hardship at home, with emigration to England being the only recourse for thousands of Irish men and women in need of employment. McGahern recalls how a Clare labourer working on a London building site, on reading that prayers were being offered for an end to the torrential rain that was falling in Ireland, exclaimed: “May it never stop. May it rise higher than it did for fukken Noah. May they have to climb trees.”

The deep anger felt by many Irish emigrants in England towards their homeland is a recurring trope in McGahern’s novels and short stories. These were mainly people from poor rural and urban backgrounds who were deprived of a viable future in post-independence Ireland. Their move abroad was usually not a temporary measure and forced them to endure perpetual exile. They could well be excused for thinking, like Moran, that the whole thing was a cod.

There were others, of course, who flourished under the new dispensation. These were the professional classes (such as doctors, clerics, bankers, lawyers, shopkeepers and, to a lesser extent, teachers and guards) that were closely allied to the State and the Catholic Church. According to McGahern, “They grew rich in sanctimoniousness as well as in power and money.” The close alliance between Church and State meant that in order to get on in Ireland, one had to steer clear of controversy, from whence the oft-repeated refrain: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

De Valera was revered in a way that was not in keeping with his rather limited role in the Rising. Yes, he was the leader of the group that took over Boland’s Mills and he was the only commandant to have escaped execution, allegedly by dint of his American citizenship, but subsequently, in McGahern’s assessment, “he looked more like a lay cardinal than a revolutionary”. Under de Valera’s leadership, the Free State would become a theocracy, which was totally at variance with the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation.

McGahern believed that the fact that the Rising took place at Easter placed it in direct competition with the Church’s greatest festival, thereby depriving it of the type of popular support it might have otherwise enjoyed. After all, “the risen people were nothing before the risen Christ”. That said, some of the leaders, most notably Pearse, were very keen to align themselves with the Catholic Church and regularly emphasised the purifying effects of a blood sacrifice.

McGahern was struck by the fact that many of the signatories to the Proclamation were writers and intellectuals: “A more unlikely crowd to spark a nation to freedom would be hard to imagine,” he noted. Even if the leaders had decided to wait for a more opportune timing for their rebellion and were successful in their objectives, it is likely that North and South would have separated in any case, mainly as a result of their need to “out-bigot” one another.

There was little doubt in McGahern’s mind that the ideals of the 1916 leaders and many of their combatants were subverted in the so-called Republic that subsequently emerged. He believed that the best way of honouring 1916 would be to restore the rights and freedoms contained in the Proclamation that were completely whittled away, mainly in an attempt to appease the concerns of the Catholic Church.

In the wake of the great decline in the church’s influence in today’s Ireland, the poor and the marginalised have been deprived of one of their main defenders. In spite of the tireless work of individuals like Fr Peter McVerry, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy and Brother Kevin Crowley on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, there are still significant problems in areas such as homelessness, unemployment, racial and sexual discrimination and, of course, corruption among our elected representatives. As a result, we are still nowhere close to matching the ideals of 1916. A good start would be to ensure that the “nod and wink” brigade are banished forever, but that does not show any signs of happening in the near future.

McGahern described O’Malley’s memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, as “the one classic work to have emerged directly from the violence that led to Independence and the foundation of the State”. Born in 1897, the second of 11 children, there was little in his upbringing – his father worked as a senior civil servant with the Congested District Board – to suggest that O’Malley would become one of Ireland’s best-known republican figures. In fact, the Catholic middle classes in Ireland at the beginning of the last century identified strongly with the British administration and were sceptical of the military manoeuvres of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army in the run-up to the 1916 Rising.

However, during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, young Ernie sympathised with the plight of the workers and was resentful of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the police to break up meetings and arrest the ringleaders during this acrimonious trade union dispute. O’Malley’s sympathies lay squarely with the protesters. Three years later, when Dublin was again the centre of agitation, he noticed how his own and other people’s attitudes slowly changed in the course of the Rising. From being viewed initially as a poorly trained and incompetent crowd of ruffians who had no hope of success and were responsible for the destruction of the city, public sentiment towards the insurgents was transformed in the space of a few seismic weeks. O’Malley, a medical student at the time, was an unlikely nationalist recruit. But seeing Irishmen risking their lives fighting against British troops with little or no hope of success, holding out against a vastly superior military force for six days, caused a change of heart that is well captured in the following lines from his memoir: “Something strange stirred in the people, some feeling long since buried, a sense of communion with the fighting dead generations, for the dead walked around again”.

Of course, the execution of the leaders by the British was a disastrous move. Their names, and especially those of the poets, Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett, became part of folklore and their writings were republished and sold out quickly. O’Malley’s burning ambition was now to bring the ideals of the 1916 leaders to fruition. He joined the local battalion of the Volunteers and within a short time would become a significant figure in the military resistance to British rule in Ireland. He described the impact of the executions thus:

“Without guidance or direction, moving as if to clarify itself, nebulous, forming, reforming, the strange rebirth took shape. It was manifest in flags, badges, songs, speech, all seemingly superficial signs.”

Things would never be quite the same again for O’Malley, who felt a sudden irresistible affinity with his Irish heritage and identity, which he was prepared to preserve at any cost. When you read On Another Man’s Wound, it is clear that O’Malley was in a very real sense turning his back on his family, education and social position by committing himself to the nationalist cause. His older brother, Frank, was an officer in the British army and Ernie himself had considered enlisting before the events of 1916. He kept his views and clandestine activities a secret from his family, as he knew that they would be horrified at what he was doing.

One of the beguiling aspects of On Another Man’s Wound is O’Malley’s controlled use of language, his wonderful capacity to evoke landscapes and portray characters, and it is these qualities, rather than any overtly political message, that McGahern undoubtedly appreciated. When reading about his travels around Ireland as part of his role in training insurgents for the armed struggle against the British, it becomes evident that O’Malley gained an appreciation of the harsh lives that most Irish people had to endure at this time. He felt an affinity with both the people and the land that is palpable in passages like the following:

“The strong smell of turf, a homely smell that left its tang in the air, light shining warm and rosy from a window-ledge out of the darkness, the murmur of the Rosary deepening as the family answered the response, the low furring of the owls in a startled ground flight, a hedgehog crossing the road. Trees thrusting upwards with added power or bulking sideways; they were arrogant at night, they filled the mind and they ruled the dark. Trees, shrubs, bushes and woods took possession and through them old nature showed its untamed strength and freshness and made us see how small we were; stars helped them to widen the external world. Familiar landscapes changed, hills played tricks in the moon light and roads became mysterious.”

Naming things can be a form of reverence, even prayer, and in this passage O’Malley achieves something similar to what McGahern does at the beginning of Memoir, where he describes in minute detail the topography of Leitrim, with its hedges, lakes, foliage and wild life. Both authors transport their readers to a specific place that had meaning for them and which, in turn, assumes meaning for the readers. O’Malley was not risking his life for some abstract concept; he was doing so for a people and a land that were engrained in his heart. He was aware of the fact that not everyone was appreciative of his efforts on their behalf; after all, his presence in certain households could result in tragedy for those who sheltered him. The conflict was at times bloody and fatal, but people still had to get on with the business of living: “Through the country military were taking over workhouses and courthouses for their troops, sand-bagged posts commanded roads and the people farmed the land and traded in the towns.”

There are times when it is difficult to resist O’Malley’s poetic descriptions of what it felt like to be a part of these stirring historical moments: “Now was the lyrical stage. Blood sang and pulsed, a strange love was born that for some was never to die till they lay stiff on the hillside or the quicklime near a barrack wall”. O’Malley himself often looked death in the face, both during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed, but he never questioned the rightness of his cause or the necessity of armed force in achieving what for him were necessary and legitimate goals. The intensity of war, the strong bonds of comradeship that it imbued, the dizziness brought on by not knowing from day to day if you would come through the struggle alive, all this is beautifully conveyed in O’Malley’s account of how 1916 changed the trajectory of his life. He was driven by a dream that would not leave him in peace: “Always Ireland, Ireland, Ireland: story, legend, song, poem, planning. Perhaps we, too, would get a chance to fight or die. That seemed to be the end of all, the beckoning fate.” It is difficult to believe that O’Malley’s fate, triggered by the emotional aftermath of 1916, was ever anything less than an obsession. Such is often the case with freedom fighters. When he died in 1957, O’Malley was given a State funeral that was attended by the top echelons of Irish society. McGahern noted that it was the revolutionary soldier that was being honoured that day and not the writer, as if the two were somehow totally separate from each other. He concludes:

“By the time of his death, despite the State funeral, he (O’Malley) had become a marginal, isolated figure in a country he had helped to bring into being. As with many of the Revolutionaries, what had emerged was not much to his liking. The class that came to power with the Church was as unadventurous as it was sanctimonious.”

“Sanctimonious” is an adjective McGahern liked to employ to describe the post-Revolution ruling class and it has a definite pejorative resonance for him. The connivance that developed between the Church, the economic and political elites, the teachers, doctors and civil servants, ensured that conservative values would hold sway over the more idealistic ideals that were foregrounded in the Proclamation. In fairness, I suppose it should be acknowledged that Ireland was not unique in this regard: many other countries which wrested back control from imperial powers followed similar paths by reverting to the tried and trusted and by instituting only a slightly different regime to the one that had been in place. The familiar has many attractions, as we know only too well.

Sebastian Barry brings yet another perspective to our discussion of 1916. His novel, A Long Long Way, was published in 2005 and it deals in some detail with Irish involvement in the Great War, a subject that does not sit easily with those who prefer to forget that thousands of Irish soldiers, north and south of the border, volunteered to fight on the side of the Allies during this conflict. By juxtaposing the exploits of those who rebelled against British colonial rule during 1916 with the Irish soldiers who died in their hundreds of thousands for the British armed forces in the first World War, Barry succeeds in making his readers undertake a critical evaluation of the motives of both groups.

The Northern poet and critic Tom Paulin has regularly vented his frustration with the obsession he observes in southern Irish culture in relation to the Rising. In his view, you cannot open The Irish Times or attend a cultural event without someone standing up and saying that their grandfather was in the GPO in 1916. Such frustration is clearly magnified for Paulin by the fact that his mother was Scottish and his father English, something that prompts him to state regularly that he hasn’t a drop of Irish blood in him. Notwithstanding, his comments deserve due consideration, as he is someone who came to live in Belfast at the age of 4 and was never allowed to forget his outsider status.

Declan Kiberd, for his part, maintains that those who took up arms had a definite grievance with British occupation: “The frustrations of all the fighters were cultural: they wanted a land in which Gaelic traditions would be fully honoured”. He goes on: “They rose in the conviction that further involvement by Irish people in the Great War would lead to far more bloodshed than their Rising, which they hoped would take Ireland out of the war altogether.” So the motivation of the 1916 leaders is not easy to pin down, but few deny it was idealism that prompted them to make a symbolic strike for freedom in the full knowledge that their chances of success were virtually non-existent. Their cause and their fate would eventually take on a noble tinge for many, especially when compared to the plight of ordinary soldiers who were butchered in the trenches and in the no man’s land that separated the forces of both sides on the western front. Kiberd, unlike McGahern, thought the choice of Easter for the playing out of their street theatre was inspired:

“Easter brought renewal, spring-time, new life to a dead landscape: and so it helped to justify and explain all previous abortive uprisings, for it wove them into a wider narrative, a myth of fall, death and glorious redemption.”

The religious symbolism of their sacrifice meant that the mythology surrounding the 1916 insurgents became very marked. This is in stark contrast to the disappointment of Sebastian Barry’s character Willie Dunne on his arrival to fight in Belgium: “When they came into their trench he felt small enough. The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing was a man.”

Dunne had joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers because of the monarchist leanings of his family. The Dunnes were Catholic loyalists, a background they share with Barry’s own family, and a dilemma arose when events in Ireland (mainly surrounding the Dublin Lockout and 1916) began to fuel anti-establishment and anti-British sentiment, placing Willie and his father (an officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police) in a precarious position.

The violence that breaks out in Dublin while Willie is home on leave from the front in 1916 adds fuel to the fire. He is appalled to read posters declaring the rebels’ support for their “gallant allies in Europe” and then he is called into action to fight against his own countrymen. He witnesses the death of a 19-year-old rebel who says to him: “I only came out to win a bit of freedom for Ireland. … You wouldn’t hold that against me?”

The images of Dublin’s main thoroughfare in flames and the Volunteers and members of the Citizens’ Army being rounded up stay with Willie and his fellow Irish soldiers as they return to Belgium. In an article he wrote on Barry’s portrayal of Irish history, Roy Foster notes the unjustified attacks that have been made on the writer. For example, he takes issue with John Kenny who in a review of A Long Long Way accused Barry of providing “in-service reading for a fairly standardized brand of revisionism”. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Cullingford, claimed that he (Barry) was recognised as “an ideological ally by the conservative paper the Daily Telegraph”, a view that Foster considers equally unjust. He argues instead that the “complex layers of Barry’s versions of Irish history …. come more clearly into focus in A Long Long Way” and he further maintains that the writer’s view of Ireland’s part in the Empire “is very far from a simple effort at rehabilitating a forgotten tradition”.

Foster’s intervention is important if we want to look at literature as a means of conveying a certain view of history, which I do not think it necessarily should do. Certainly, Barry’s work does concentrate on exploring the experiences of the Irish Catholic loyalists during the late-19th and early-20th century, but his main objective is not to prove a point or to propagandise, but to write good literature. I believe that he succeeds very well in that task.

In the soldiers’ discussion during the trip back to the front, Jesse Kirwin notes that there was little to separate their attitude from that of the insurgents up to the outbreak of war in 1914: “then some of us said we could do what Redmond said and fight as Irish soldiers, you know, to save Europe, but a few of them – well, they didn’t want that. You know. A handful really.”

A rift emerged as to which path one should follow in order to achieve Home Rule or full independence. The 1916 Rising pitted Irishmen against their fellow countrymen and inflicted wounds that would take a long time to heal. It is never an easy thing to be part of a foreign army that is tasked with suppressing a revolt in your own country. Willie and his fellow soldiers in the British army are moved to anger when news of the executions of the 1916 leaders reaches them: “The executed men were cursed, and praised, and doubted and despised, and held to account, and wondered at, and mourned, all in a confusion complicated infinitely by the site of war.”

During his next leave in Dublin, Willie is scorned by a section of the inhabitants because of the uniform he is wearing and is cold-shouldered by his father for daring to express in a letter his anxieties about serving in the British army after the executions. His father lost men in the Dublin riots and knows that the old order is under serious threat from the new wave of nationalist fervour. He turns his bile on his son:

“You stand here, Willie, in the uniform of your gracious king. Under solemn oath to defend him and his three kingdoms. You stand here in your own childhood home, your father a man that has strove to keep order in this great city and protect it from miscreants and the evil of traitors and rebels, for love of you all and in memory of your mother.”

The subsequent letter of apology his father writes never reaches Willie, as he is killed before its arrival. Politics and 1916 have ruined his life. Concepts such as nationalism and loyalism don’t mean much when you’re up to your waist in mud, excrement and dead bodies, with rats gnawing at your exposed flesh. There is no glory in such conditions, no way of embellishing what is senseless horror and abandonment.

In an interview with Kevin Myers, Barry bemoaned the neglect of the contribution made by Irish soldiers in the first World War: “These men deserved a most wondering thanks for their ordinary, divine courage. That they were not thanked when they came home was a profound indictment of a State that could not find in its narrowing heart – though in its own way a brave narrowing heart – to include them.” It is difficult to disagree with Barry’s reasoning. Willie Dunne suffers derision from his own countrymen for wearing the uniform of the British army and he feels like “he was a man with bits of himself broken”.

It seems appropriate to conclude our discussion of the three writers’ treatment of 1916 with this idea of brokenness. For McGahern, it was the broken promises contained in the Proclamation that caused most upset. With Ernie O’Malley, it was the absence of idealism and excitement in the Ireland of post-Independence that led to his profound disappointment. In a sense, something broke in him too that was never fixed. McGahern captures his dilemma well: “He (O’Malley) had absorbed a myth and was prepared to follow it, like a single flame, no matter what was the cost to himself and others.” Finally, through the experiences of his character Willie Dunne, Sebastian Barry demonstrates how an Irishman’s loyalty to the Queen exposed him to danger and ridicule, to the dismantling of the values which he and his family held most dear. In many ways, Willie is dead long before he meets his end on a Belgian battlefield.

There is nothing too uplifting about any of the three writers’ depictions of the legacy of 1916, but maybe their writings provide a healthy antidote to a lot of the hyperbole we are currently experiencing during this year of commemoration.

Eamon Maher will deliver his lecture, “From Glorious Dream to Wink and Nod”: Depictions of 1916 in the Work of Ernie O’Malley, John McGahern and Sebastian Barry, at 5pm today, Wednesday, April 20th, at the Institute for Irish Studies, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. Admission free. Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght and editor of the Reimagining Ireland book series with Peter Lang Oxford and the author of two monographs on John McGahern

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