Children of the Rising by Joe Duffy: the forgotten casualties of 1916

Joe Duffy’s stories of young lives in the Easter Rising show how the conflict affected children, reports Catriona Crowe

Poor children of Dublin collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Poor children of Dublin collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Fri, Nov 6, 2015, 12:38

   
 

Book Title:
Children of the Rising: The untold story of the young lives lost during Easter 1916

ISBN-13:
9781473617056

Author:
Joe Duffy

Publisher:
Hachette Books Ireland

Guideline Price:
€19.99

The decade of centenaries in which we are now engrossed provides opportunities to interrogate and reflect on what happened here 100 years ago. On our small island on the edge of a powerful continent, and next door to a large imperial power, we embarked in 1912 on a decade of diverse thought processes, activities and interactions, often diametrically opposed to one another, which resulted in outcomes as varied as the achievement of an independent, albeit partitioned, state, the establishment of a modern, highly defensive Unionism in the northern part of the country, the birth of a modern trade union movement, mass participation in the most murderous war yet seen in the world, the achievement of the franchise for some women, the creation of a founding myth for our state, involving heroism, hopelessness, high ideals and self-sacrifice, the elimination of the political party which had enjoyed overwhelming nationalist support for three decades, the creation of a new nationalist party whose roots spread in many different directions, a vicious civil war, and, most importantly, the deaths of almost 36,000 people and injuries, often seriously disabling, to many more.

The victims of violent conflict are often overlooked in the commemorative exercises, many of them laudable, which occur on these anniversaries. Ireland has tended to ignore victims, both of the struggle for independence and the first World War, for many years. Eunan O’Halpin’s huge project, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, will be the equivalent for the decade of Lost Lives, that sobering and immensely impressive record of death in Northern Ireland over the period of what is called “the Troubles”, created by David McKittrick and others.

 

How many died

O’Halpin and his collaborators are laying out details of how many died, who they were, who killed them, how many were civilians, which parts of the country had the highest death tolls, and what kind of violence – combat, riot or assassination – was the most common. The first volume of this extremely important contribution to our understanding of the period, covering 1916-21, will be published in the near future. The release of the records of the Bureau of Military History and the Military Service Pensions files (two separate collections) in the last decade has transformed research by scholars and citizens on the nationalist struggle, and changed the picture we have of what happened from something simple and heroic to a far more complicated version of events. The 1901 and 1911 census records underpin these records as the demographic basis for the study of the decade. All of these records have been released, free to access, by the Irish State, and will be one of the most enduring legacies of the decade of centenaries.

 

Some of the records released in recent years by The National Archives in London and the Imperial War Museum shed valuable light on Irish people involved and killed in the first World War, and on people in the British military forces in Ireland, of different kinds and intentions. The Imperial War Museum has constructed a huge digital resource, Lives of the First World War, which links many different archival resources to give a comprehensive picture of the histories of those who participated in the war, including some of the 250,000 Irishmen who did so.

Listen: Joe Duffy talks about Children of the Rising

Joe Duffy, the RTÉ broadcaster, took a laudable early interest in the 40 children killed during and as a result of the 1916 Rising, and has now produced a book, Children of the Rising: The Untold Story of the Young Lives Lost During Easter 1916, which gives names, details of deaths and family backgrounds, where possible, for each of them.

As he points out, we have not heard about child casualties of 1916 before; they became “collateral damage”, along with the rest of the almost 300 civilian casualties. In all violent conflicts, military leaders of all kinds often consign untold numbers of uninvolved people to violent death and injury, and their families to trauma, bereavement and impoverishment.

This book performs a really important service: it humanises the most vulnerable casualties of that week in April 1916 which has formed the basis of (some) Irish ideas of how our state came into being. Dead children are an essential part of the story, as are the terrible losses suffered by their families. Duffy begins with the death of two-year-old Sean Foster, shot in crossfire while being wheeled in a pram by his mother, Katie, on Church St. His photograph reveals a beautiful blond child; we learn that his father, John Foster, had been killed on the Western Front the year before, and that Katie’s brother, Joseph O’Neill, was fighting with the Irish Volunteers during the Rising, and was actually on the barricades in Church Street from where it is surmised the fatal shot came.

Duffy uses multiple sources to bring the stories of these children to life: census records, death certificates, statements from the Bureau of Military History, pension applications, compensation claims, newspaper reports and, valuably, testimonies from family members who came forward in response to a public request for information. This painstaking approach allows him to provide us with not just the riveting stories of the children, but the family and social environments in which they lived.

 

Endemic poverty

As expected, a large number of them came from the notorious slums, and Duffy’s use of the census and other records presents a relentless account of appalling overcrowding, insanitary conditions, widespread threats to children’s health and life, and endemic poverty. Class, as always, played an important part in children’s chances of survival. There is a marvellous chapter on looting, with descriptions of children grabbing sweets, toys and clothing from shops all over the city. One account tells of “a fresh-faced youth crossing the street [Sackville Street] with an armful of boots. He is brandishing a pair of white satin shoes and shouting hysterically ‘God save Ireland’.”

Fireworks were taken from Lawrence’s toy shop on Sackville Street and set off in the middle of the street. At least three children died in the midst of this risky but rewarding activity.

The effect of the book, as each child is dealt with in chronological order, is to create an alternative history of the Rising, to make us focus, not on heroism and idealism, but on the consequences of the conflict for ordinary people. Towards the end of the book, Duffy gives us a fascinating quote from a relative of 15-year-old Seán Healy, who was a Fianna Éireann scout, shot outside his home in Phibsborough: “I remember asking my granny – Seán’s mother – if she would like me to die for Ireland. Her answer never left me as she said, ‘It’s easy to die for Ireland. What Ireland needs is people to live honestly for Ireland.’”

Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland