The Stinging Fly: In the Wake of the Rising review: Rising above the romance
A visceral collection of pieces by modern Irish writers depicts another side of 1916
The Stinging Fly: In the Wake of the Rising: presents memorable and evocative new perspectives on 1916
The Stinging Fly: In the Wake of the Rising Issue 33, Vol 2, Spring 2016
Edited by Seán O’Reilly
The Stinging Fly
Inevitably, we are being bombarded with new books published to coincide with the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Standing out in such a crowded space is a challenge, but this edition of The Stinging Fly, which has been publishing quality new Irish and international writing since 1997, manages to do that.
Edited by writer Seán O’Reilly, it has a welcome anarchic quality, partly because it includes contributions from 43 writers and partly because the public call for submissions that started the book asked for contributors to “re-read and respond” to the Rising and its legacy “in whatever way they wanted, in any shape or form”, the aim being to provide an “alternative space”.
The diversity and unpredictability of this volume are its strengths and there is much here to savour. Pretty much anything goes, and the variety of tones is striking: weaving through these pages are anger, humour, reflection, spikiness, wistfulness, regret and raw emotion, in the forms of fiction, memoir, poetry, history and drama. How interpretations of the Rising have changed and why are common themes. In 1966, despite the words of equality in the 1916 Proclamation, the focus was very much on “the men of 1916”.
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“To this day,” writes Evelyn Conlon in her contribution 1916, you’re asking me?, which reflects on her interaction with the 1966 commemorations and the 1916 Proclamation, “it is my greatest curiosity: who first suggested that women be included and how did the conversation go?” She suggests, in contrast to 1966, “this time around different things will be talked about. It will not be such a shock if some smart-arse girl remarks that de Valera wouldn’t allow women into his battalion.”
Archivist Catríona Crowe in How Do We Know What We Know? reminds us why those new perspectives exist; the culmination of the release of a “plethora of relevant high quality sources . . . a rich tapestry of historical records with all of their flaws, ironies, truths and deceptions”, many of them now digitised.
The new profile of the 1916 child-victims produces a poignant poetic response from Aisling Fahey in the poem Martial Law about a two-year-old girl shot dead
gutted like fish in market;
erased from being.
Whose job was it to peel her body off the pavement?
Did they have to peel the mother from her fading figure first?
Another innocent victim is remembered in a strong piece by Lia Mills, It Could Be You: “a woman sitting at her window was shot dead in broad daylight. She was reading . . . I knew and loved the story of the Rising. It has all the elements of great fiction . . . but in all that time I managed never to look at the numbers. ‘Collateral damage’ is the kind of phrase we have to resist. Language matters.”
Paul Lynch in The Rage of O’Malley underlines the contemporary ferocity of feeling and the death of a rebel whose “indignation had become an indignity in itself”. There is also much caustic but lyrical commentary on the fate of the revolutionary promises. Aidan Mathews in Roll-Calls and Role-Play notes that “the 1916 insurrectionists failed in their bid to hold the GPO but the heredity inheritors, none of whom would ever open a post office account or stamp their own envelopes, barricaded themselves in the banks”.
Seamas Keenan in A Liffey Swell also alludes to the preoccupation with the path to respectability: “Image and presentation boys . . . we’re not a rabble . . . one day the Big Fella will be kissing the Bishop’s ring on the steps of the Pro-Cathedral”, while Stephen Murray’s poem Bird Man Spawns (Reprise) eventually encounters “the bone-headed puppets of the Amadán Dáil”.
There is also a provocative prose piece by Dave Lordan on the extent to which poetry, 100 years on from the poets’ rebellion, is now primarily a “digital and performance” art, Ireland’s accomplished political poet and satirist Kevin Higgins appearing in non-literary digital publications in Ireland and the UK. To make an impact, “the interventionist poet must forgo any reliance on support from within the ranks of the bureaucratic quietist establishment”.
The contemporary issues of mental health, suicide and drug use are tackled by Lucy Sweeney Byrne and Grahame Williams, Byrne in the story Danny also underlining generational tensions in communication: “Lucy finds eating with her father unpleasant because they’ve already said all of the things they have to say to each other and new things aren’t occurring quickly enough to sustain further conversation”. Anthony Hegarty’s Remembering a Civil Union recounts, after 20 years
Man and man fighting
to be relaxed together.
Kevin Barry, in Some Notes on Names and Deeds, suggests “the almost sexual charge of blood-sacrifice mythology works best on adolescent males”. A number of poems focus on the impact of the executions of the 1916 leaders: Lauren Lawler reflects on Grace Gifford’s wedding to Joseph Plunkett the night before he was shot:
We read our vows like children . . .
You, a martyr. Me, a widow.
AM Cousins, in the poem Blessed, imagines Margaret, mother of the Pearse brothers, who was told by Patrick that she, too, would be blessed as a result of the Rising:
I tend the graves.
I feel the burns of lime
On my boys’ flesh.
Patrick McCabe’s powerful Aiséirí traces the thorny issue of continuity or lack of it in republican endeavour from 1916 to the 1970s through a family’s involvement. “Rebirth! and this time we’ll finish it,” says the character Brendan in 1971, whose father had fought in 1916. The withering response of an elderly lady to such sentiment is: “Rebirth? Death, I call it. Death and suffering for that’s all it ever brings.”
Jimmy Murphy also grew up in the 1970s. The narrator of his Hard Up for Heroes recalls being more interested in Gary Glitter and Marc Bolan than his father’s republican ballads; but that same father gradually “drifted away from his party and returned to coming home drunk with the News of the World in one pocket, An Phoblacht in the other”. Also in the 1970s, Iggy McGovern, as documented in Poblacht na Hero, was a fiddle player in a folk band in Chicago was forced to dress up like a leprechaun by Big Mikey, “Irish-Italian patriot and all-round scum bag”; as owner of The Shamrock bar he “has us over a barrel. A small matter of work visas.”
Glenn Patterson’s Tomorrow Never Knows is a provoking meditation on change and differences between Ireland North and South; he wonders if the Republic has changed “despite its political classes rather than because of them”. Therese Cox in Appropriations of Michael Collins, writes with a raw vulnerability about escaping violence in Chicago and finding a busker lover in Dublin, whose two idols are Jimi Hendrix and Michael Collins and who wanted to seal their romance by showing her 1916 bullet holes. Now a respected academic, the former busker “furnishes his life with objects we used to scoff at”.
Valerie Nolan in #Rising imagines online commentary on the 2016 commemorations in parallel with the chronology of Easter Week 1916: “Honestly unsure what this #Rising commemoration is trying to be. Seems halfway between a Pride parade and a victory day in Moscow.”
Donal O’Kelly’s splenetic play Hairy Jaysus is about pacifist Frank Sheehy Skeffington, brutally murdered in 1916 in Rathmines where now, a beggar is moved on violently; all the “redneck bluebottle” sees at “the AT fuckin M” is a “crusty leper that needs clearing ouha da way o da smooth runnin o da gaff”.
It is a powerful end to a frequently visceral but immensely stimulating collection that succeeds in showcasing original and challenging new Irish writing and showering the reader with memorable and evocative new perspectives.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. His latest book is A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923