If anyone was to produce a propagandistic fictional account of the effects of the 1916 Rising, Pádraic Ó Conaire might have seemed a likely candidate. He wrote in Gaelic, the language whose revival was a central aspiration of the rebels. (He was born in Galway city, where his father had a public house in the docklands, but raised in his uncle's English-speaking household in Rosmuc after the death of his mother.)
He had been in the same class at Blackrock College as two important rebel figures, Éamon de Valera and Tomás Ó Rathile. In London, where he lived from 1900 to 1915, he was a member of the Irish Volunteers and in the same nationalist circles as Michael Collins.
Yet when Ó Conaire produced arguably the first important fictional response to the Rising, it was complex, subtle and far from crudely heroic. His collection of stories, in which the Rising is a common element in the lives of seven very different people, made an important statement: artists would deal with the emerging new Ireland on their own terms.
Seacht mBua an Éirí Amach traces the shift in attitudes among many ordinary Irish people that resulted in Sinn Féin's stunning electoral success later that year. But Ó Conaire was no romantic: his politics were as strongly socialist as they were nationalist, and his aesthetic was urban, modernist and sharply informed by the awareness of poverty and emigration expressed in Deoraidheacht (1910), his powerful novel of exile and alienation. In the Seacht mBua stories, the drama of individual lives is no less heightened than the drama of the Rising that provides their context.
The most politically straightforward of the stories, Anam an Easpaig, charts the change of heart brought about by the Rising. The main character is a self-righteous Catholic bishop on his way to Dublin to seek counsel from an old friend about his role in disciplining a rebellious young priest in his diocese, who is actively supporting militant nationalists. The Rising breaks out, and he finds himself unexpectedly moved; he does not discipline the rebel priest.
But the stories are much less pious than this might suggest. M'fhile Caol Dubh deals with a married woman's dalliance with a romantic nationalist poet (not unlike some of the actual leaders of the Rising), her resistance to his advances and her dull husband's tolerance of the ambivalent affair. The irony is that it is the husband, not the poet, who dies in the Rising. In the other much-loved story, Beirt Bhan Mhisniúil, the mother and sweetheart of a dead rebel try to keep each other from knowledge of his fate. The hero is seen as a brave fighter but also as a human figure: when we first encounter him he is drunk and asleep on a park bench.
Ó Conaire insisted that “más ornáid agus más ornáid amháin ar ár saol an teanga Ghaeilge, ní fada a ré” – Irish would not survive as a mere ornament to life. His stories suggested, likewise, that it was in people’s lives, not in romantic rhetoric, that the meaning of a new Ireland would have to be found.