Review: The Abbey Rebels of 1916 – A Lost Revolution
This beautifully produced collector’s item puts the theatre’s bit-part rebels in the spotlight
The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution
Gill & Macmillan
The Abbey rebels at the heart of this beautifully produced book are not the author-directors Yeats, Synge, Augusta Gregory and Lennox Robinson; instead, they are those individuals remembered in a plaque unveiled in 1966, people actually “out” during Easter week: Ellen Bushnell, Sean Connolly (one of the first killed in action), Peadar Kearney, Barney Murphy, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Helena Molony, and Arthur Shields.
The parents of these Abbey rebels included a printer, a dressmaker, a journalist, a grocer, a dock worker, and a midwife. They were working-class people, intellectualised by political clubs, Irish-language classes, and national theatre groups, of which the Abbey was not the most radical but the best established.
Apart from Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, a leading lady in the first three years of the Irish National Theatre Society (1902-1905), and Arthur Shields, who played big roles from 1914 to 1939, these people were not key to the success of the plays staged. Ellen Bushnell was an usher, Peadar Kearney a stagehand, Barney Murphy a prompter, and Molony and Connolly bit-part actors. Yet their access to a large public building in the centre of Dublin made them useful.
Molony stashed the hand press on which the Proclamation would be printed at the Abbey; Shields hid it under the stage. Bushnell supervised a small arms dump at the theatre. For republicans under surveillance by G-men, the Abbey’s performances were a great cover.
But did Abbey performances have any causal relationship to the Rising, of the sort that Yeats said kept him awake: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”
“That play” is undoubtedly the seditious one-act Cathleen ni Houlihan (with dialogue largely by Lady Gregory and an ending by Maud Gonne, so not entirely Yeats’s play). A remarkable number of republicans traced their political conversion to seeing this play. Its propaganda is simple but terrible: those who take up arms for Mother Ireland will die (their job is not just to fight but to die fighting), but they will be remembered forever and celebrated as martyrs.
During the Troubles, Conor Cruise O’Brien published a passionate attack on the play’s illogic. Repeated failure cannot be the means to success, he argued in the New Review in 1975, or endless killing the path to a life worth living. Still, it is a difficult ideology to defeat; witness the Islamic suicide bombers and shooters in Paris and San Bernadino.
As a mechanism for recruiting to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Cathleen ni Houlihan is unlike anything else the Abbey staged (a few plays by Lady Gregory perhaps excepted), but the theatre management certainly made use of regular revivals to maintain its nationalist credentials and of holding on to a core element in its audience, the “sixpenny public”. These revivals reached many. The Abbey Rebels of 1916 thoughtfully explores the question of causality, but in spite of the after-the-fact testimonials, a precise calibration of the impact of culture on history remains, as ever, elusive, and Yeats’s question hangs fire.
The narrative of The Abbey Rebels of 1916 is laid out in three sections: before, during and after 1916. The witness statements released by the Bureau of Military History and the appeals for military service pensions have been profitably mined by Fearghal McGarry. They enable him to capture the voices of the rebels, to tell the story of their deeds, and to follow them into the sometimes disappointing fates that awaited them in the Irish Free State.
Many out in 1916 (and more still who pretended to have fought) expected the Free State to support them for past service, or at least to come to their aid when they were on their uppers. Women veterans, no matter how great their needs, were especially unlucky in this pursuit of pensions. McGarry tells the story of Margaret Skinnider, shot three times while leading men in the rebellion, who was later refused a pension on the basis of her injuries because, the Pension Board explained, “the definition of ‘wound’ . . . only contemplates the masculine gender”.
Whether or not people got credit for their sacrifices often depended, McGarry illustrates, on how effective their families were as custodians of personal archives. Edward Kenny prodded his aunt Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh to draft her fine autobiography, The Splendid Years. Laurie Shields, the third wife of Arthur, assembled materials for a biography of the actor. His daughter Christine made a free gift of that archive to the library of the National University of Ireland, Galway, and now Arthur Shields is making a strong reappearance in the public memory. Overall, a major theme of The Abbey Rebels is how history is made and remade, commemoration after commemoration. How many factors drive it? And who benefits? Complex questions.
One of the seven Abbey rebels, Arthur Shields, never sought any credit at all, even though he was often asked by reporters about his revolutionary role. Yet, in fact, five times he dashed across the 150-foot breadth of Sackville Street while under fire. One of the last to evacuate the GPO, he was given a suicide mission by those in the Moore Street headquarters. Along with six other volunteers, he was told to jump from a second storey down into the street and fire at the machine guns on the British barricades, while Pearse and company attempted an escape in the other direction. At the last minute, the order was rescinded in favour of surrender; otherwise, Hollywood would have lost one its Golden Age actors.
Shields, a secular, labour-movement Protestant, and a romantic nationalist inspired by Yeats, was put off by the shape the new state began to take in the Frongoch detention centre, with Gaelic lessons by day and the rosary at night. Later, he experienced the Censorship Bill and divorce legislation as painful attacks upon his personal liberty. Evidently, the sight of so many lousers, seeking credit for what they did – or did not do – for Irish liberty, gave Shields a distaste for commemorations.
Beyond the text, which is written in an informed and fair-minded fashion, this is a splendid book. Plentifully illustrated in high-resolution colour from the Abbey and the Shields family archives at NUI Galway, and all the various national depositories, it is a collector’s item. Like the Royal Irish Academy’s Judging Dev of 2007, its presentation of documents gives the reader a feel of “doing history”. The reproductions of Joseph Holloway’s architectural drawings of the old Abbey are a particular treat.
Adrian Frazier’s most recent book is The Bull of Sheriff Street: John Behan, The Life and Work of an Irish Sculptor (Lilliput Press)