I grew up with a fiercely romantic view of Irish nationalism. The stories thrilled me, all of them – rebellion, dissent, fiery speeches from the dock, or delivered over thrillingly open graves. Religion had taught us to relish the notion of martyrdom, and here was the same principle transferred to politics – but I was too far gone on the language and imagery of both to spot the overlap.
The Easter Rising. Well. The symbolism was about as perfect as anyone could imagine. The rhetoric of sacrifice. The few against the many. The brave handful facing the wrath of an imperial army and holding them at bay for a whole week, ultimately winning freedom for all of us, giving their lives for their country. Thrilling stuff.
But a thing that always made me prickle was the received notion that Dubliners were hostile to the Rising. After all, Dublin was the only place where any effective Rising took place. Dublin rose, and Dublin paid the price, and there’s posterity, giving out because some Dubliners – but by no means all – were angry.
I get defensive about my city.
I came to know something about the literary and social history of the time because back in the last century I had a teaching and research fellowship at UCD and my task was to rediscover forgotten women writers (1885-1915). Many of those women were political and/or social activists. It was an exciting time in Ireland – on the brink of change, opening to a future that was full of possibility. Women were winning the right to a university education and would soon win the right to vote. The story of the Rising was clear and hard as crystal at the heart of it, the absolute turning point of our fate as a nation. Unassailable. It’s our foundation myth and we’re proud of it. Proud of the men and women who enacted it. And rightly so.
So far as I knew, no one in my family had anything to do with the Rising – although I do come from the kind of family where total strangers turn out to be first cousins, and solitary (so far as we believed) ancestors are later revealed to have a clatter of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings we just didn’t know about. My parents were of that “whatever you say, say nothing” generation.
One day I was sitting in my car at the bottom of Dominick Street, waiting for the lights to change, and suddenly it was as if the walls around me – new shops, flats, fast-food joints, apartments, hotels, cinema – faded and the old city rose in their place, crumbling, sooty and rotting at the seams. And I realised I was looking more or less directly at the place where my mother was born: over the shop, in Parnell Street. The lights changed and I drove away, thinking hard.
One set of grandparents were there in Parnell Street where the British Army massed in 1916 to squeeze the last of the fighters out of the GPO. My father’s parents were on Merrion Row in much the same situation: There was intense fighting around Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel. My grandmother was pregnant with my father at the time. Both families lived and worked right on the edge of the fighting. Both had small children. Their businesses would have been shut, they’d have gone through the food shortages and looting; martial law, with soldiers and checkpoints in the streets; gunboats on the Liffey; half the city on fire. It must have been terrifying.
I filed the thought away, but I knew I’d come back to it. I had a vague idea that I might write a novel about some of the activists whose lives I’d studied. But when I came to begin that novel, years later, I couldn’t find a way in. Every word out of the characters’ mouths felt stilted and explanatory and politically correct. They tasted wooden. So, little by little, I moved the activists aside and let Katie (the main character) loose in the spaces between them. She doesn’t know what’s happening, or how it will end. When the Rising begins she’s still reeling from the news that her twin brother has been killed in the war.
When I began to research the novel I was shocked to learn the extent of the violence of the Rising: the damage to the city, the number of casualties. More than 440 people were killed. Nearly 1,500 were severely wounded. 100,000 people had to go on relief. If Dubliners were angry at the time – and there’s evidence to show that many of them were in sympathy with and supported the insurgents – they had reason to be. The anger didn’t last long: public opinion swung around fast enough, with the executions. But I do wonder why people still insist on referring to the 16 men who were executed as if theirs were the only lives lost, when the truth is rather different.
Reading about Irishmen who fought in the first World War – those who went because soldiering was the only way they could feed their starving families; and those who sincerely believed that fighting would help to bring about Irish independence – I was angry on their behalf. They were betrayed by absolutely everyone, after the Rising. The army they fought in, the British government, our own eventual government. After a few years they became one more uncomfortable truth that couldn’t be talked about.
I went to many schools, so I have a reasonable sample to base this on: when my generation were being taught about the Rising, the story was heavily edited. The emphasis was all on the rights and wrongs of the thing. You were on one side or the other, for or against, right or wrong. I never heard about the body count or a single word about the many people who went out under fire to bring the wounded to hospital or to fight the fires, or those who opened their homes as temporary casualty stations to strangers, no matter what side they were on. That’s a hell of a silence, when it comes to teaching young people about the choices we make in life, the kinds of people we want to be.
I began to question, seriously, the official gloss on events. I will always get a lump in my throat in the Stonebreakers' Yard; or thinking about Connolly, strapped to a chair so they could shoot him; or the O'Rahilly writing a final note to his wife in a doorway, knowing he was dying. The stories – of the Asgard, or of Grace Gifford marrying Joe Plunkett in the chapel at Kilmainham hours before his execution – will always be thrilling. It's our foundation myth, and we love it. But when I was writing Fallen I gave up the myth in favour of wondering what it might actually be like, to have your city erupt in sudden violence when you don't have a clue what's going on, or why.
The novel is set in the past, but it's a contemporary question. The other day I heard a journalist on the radio, reporting from Ukraine. He said that there are extremists on both sides, but the vast majority of ordinary people try desperately hard to keep normal life going. That's what the characters in Fallen are trying to do, while the world they know falls apart.
Katie is a completely invented character but her confusion and split loyalties feel truer than any of the proselytising I’d been assigning to characters in early drafts. She doesn’t know how to put her life back together, or whether she cares enough to try. Taking shelter from street violence in the home of friends, she meets Hubie, another casualty of war. Illusions shattered, each grieving a stolen future, they struggle to make sense of the disintegration of their world and to imagine a way through the ensuing chaos – and when old rules no longer apply, new possibilities begin to reveal themselves.
Although Fallen unfolds in a particular place and time, against the backdrop of the Rising in Dublin, it's really about love and grief. Two damaged people try to muddle through the oldest and most difficult of human dilemmas: how to live.
Fallen by Lia Mills is published by Penguin Ireland (trade paperback, €14.99) on June 5th and will be launched by Anne Enright at The Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin, on June 10th, at 6.30pm.