Writers’ view of Rising far from rose-tinted
Ever since the seismic events of 1916 Irish artists have taken a nuanced view of events
Mick O’Dea’s portrait of Eamon de Valera. In Tom Murphy’s An Aspect of the Rising, the prostitute works herself into erotic ecstasies by unleashing a torrent of blistering invective towards the Long Fellow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Of all the myths of Easter 1916, perhaps the most misleading is that the Rising was relentlessly mythologised. That may have been true in the political realm, but writers have been producing sceptical, angular and anti-heroic commentaries on the Rising almost from the start. Here’s a sample of 10 questioning artistic takes on the Rising. And none of them is The Plough and the Stars.
1: Sable and Gold, by Maurice Dalton (1918) Staged at the Abbey Theatre two years after the Rising, Dalton’s play centres on Gregory Parke, the son of a Cork bank manager who goes off to join the fighting in Dublin but loses his nerve and sneaks away. He comes home but does not disabuse his mother of her belief that he is a hero.
2: The Wasted Island, by Eimar O’Duffy (1919) O’Duffy was a senior Irish Volunteer who sided with Eoin MacNeill’s decision to call off the planned insurrection. His alter ego, Bernard Lascelles, sees the Rising as a tragic mistake: “What had they achieved? In one mad week they had shattered the work of years; dead were some of the bravest hearts in Ireland; broken was the orderly, constructive, enthusiastic movement that was to have been built up until it had become the Irish nation.”
3: Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922) The “Cyclops” chapter parodies both the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the execution of Robert Emmet, which acquires unmistakable overtones of the 1916 executions. It is presided over by “Tomkin-Maxwell ffrench-mullan Tomlinson”, a name that splices Gen John Maxwell, who ordered the executions, with the rebel Ffrench-Mullan family.
4: Murphy, by Samuel Beckett (1938) A character, Neary, infamously attempts suicide by bashing his head repeatedly off the buttocks (“such as they are”) of Oliver Sheppard’s statue of The Death of Cúchulain, which had recently been installed in the GPO as a memorial to the Rising.
5: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau (1947) This is ostensibly a translation into French of an Irish diary of a woman called Sally Mara. It is actually an elaborate postmodern fiction by the French novelist and philosopher Raymond Queneau (best known for Zazie dans le Metro). The English clerk Gertie Girdle (allegedly Mara), trapped in another post office on Sackville Street but engaged to the commodore whose gunboat shells the city, destroys the heroic destiny of seven rebels by having sex with each of them in turn.
6: The Scythe and the Sunset, by Denis Johnston (1958) The play is set in a cafe near the GPO during Easter Week. An Irish British army officer debates with one of the rebel leaders, clearly modelled on Patrick Pearse. The play’s absurdist tone is far from heroic.
7: An Aspect of the Rising by Tom MacIntyre (1966) On the eve of the 50th anniversary the narrator picks up a prostitute and takes her to the Phoenix Park, close to Áras an Uachtaráin, then the home of Éamon de Valera. She works herself into erotic ecstasies by unleashing a torrent of blistering invective towards the Long Fellow, while “all over Ireland, medals were being dusted, ribbons spruced, orations polished and artillery oiled for the 50th Anniversary of the Insurrection”.
8: A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle (1999) Henry Smart is a rebel in the GPO, but he comes close to shooting Patrick Pearse in a stand-off between the Volunteers and his own Irish Citizen Army: “Jesus, I hated the Volunteers. The poets and the farm boys, the fuckin’ shopkeepers. They detested the slummers – the accents and the dirt, the Dublinness of them.”
9: The Rising of Bella Casey, by Mary Morrissy (2013) Just as The Plough and the Stars implicitly accuses the official version of Easter 1916 of cutting out the Dublin poor, so Morrissy accuses O’Casey himself of cutting out his own sister Bella, who married a member of the British army. Morrissy’s poignant story begins with an image borrowed from The Plough and the Stars, of a piano being looted during the Rising, but moves forward and back into the downward spiral of a promising but unregarded life.
10: A Hundred Years a Nation by Paul Muldoon (2016) One of the artistic centrepieces of this year’s commemorations was the performance of this rap-like text by Muldoon, with music by Shaun Davey played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and sung by 1,000 voices. It was moving and celebratory but also scathing and provocative, giving space to “gombeen financiers”, “parish parasites”, ghost estates, mass emigration, “bloody assassinations” and the “bomb’s abominations”. It is hard to think of another nation that would acknowledge its failings so furiously even as it celebrates its foundations.
Yet, paradoxically, this is where Irish national pride really resides. There has always been the thin-skinned, red-faced, spittle-flecked chauvinism. But Irish artists have also insisted, sometimes at great cost, on the need to contradict and complicate the national narrative, to drag the epic down to the level of the all-too-human, to puncture pomposities and to uphold the right to question the limits of heroism. Over the past six weeks the State and the public have caught up with what the artists have been doing for almost 100 years. It’s what’s called independence. firstname.lastname@example.org