Rising to the challenge


With such a long tradition of complex and contradictory responses to the 1916 Easter Rising, there’s no reason to expect the centenary will be any different

Props and wardrobe from the original Plough and the Stars at the Abbey; the play’s author Sean O’Casey; WB Yeats, who wrote The Death of Cuchulain in response to Oliver Sheppard’s statue in the GPO; the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, designed by Daithí Hanly and completed for the 50th anniversary; playwright Denis Johnston, who wrote The Scythe and the Sunset, staged in 1958; and author of The Red and the Green, Iris Murdoch. Photographs: Matt Kavanagh, Brenda Fitzsimons and Frank Miller

IT IS February 2016, the centenary year of the 1916 Rising. Ireland, still struggling with economic depression, is in need of a blast of patriotic pride. The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, had announced when he took office back in 2011 that the centenary would be used as an opportunity to rebrand Ireland as “the best small country in the world in which to do business”. The national theatre, the Abbey, stages a new play about the Rising, written by a star dramatist whose work has been box-office gold. The great and the good of Irish political, business and cultural life gather for the opening night.

But the play isn’t the celebration of the Rising’s heroism and sacrifice that the times demand. It is set among looters, consumptives and wasters. It deliberately sets Patrick Pearse, who is seen and heard through a pub window, against scenes of prostitution, high farce and ridiculous political rhetoric. The play suggests that many of the rebels were motivated by nothing finer than macho vanity. It questions whether the Rising achieved anything for the poor of Dublin. It even hints that Ireland had the wrong revolution.

All of this is, of course, unimaginable.

But how much more unimaginable it would be if it were not 2016 but 1926, not the centenary of the Rising but the 10th anniversary. The new State is extremely fragile, barely recovered from a bitter civil war. The memory – and the myth – of the Rising is one of the few things that unites Irish nationalists. The Abbey has just become the first State-subsidised theatre in the English-speaking world. The great and the good go to see the play.

Among them, on the fourth night, is the mother of Patrick and Willie Pearse, both executed by the British; the widows of Thomas Clarke, also executed, and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, murdered by a mad army officer during Easter Week, are there too. Not surprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Starsis launched into the world with riots.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who led the protests against The Plough, described them as a conflict between “the Ireland that remembers with tear-dimmed eyes all that Easter week stands for” and “the Ireland that forgets, that never knew”. O’Casey, in response, mocked the whole notion that Ireland wanted to remember the Rising: “Is the Ireland that is pouring to the picture houses, to the dance halls, to the football matches, remembering with tear-dimmed eyes all that Easter week stands for?” Thus even 10 years after the Rising, there was already a deep division over its meaning. The Rising was always viewed with hostility by unionists on both parts of the island, for whom 1916 meant the Battle of the Somme, with the Rising remembered, if at all, as a “stab in the back”. But even among nationalists there was uncertainty almost from the start about how, and indeed whether, it should be remembered. As the new Government tries to imagine the centenary as a great moment of national unity, it has to face the fact that remembering the Rising has never been easy.

In the first place, any democratic State would have to be more comfortable celebrating the heroism of the Rising than endorsing its central idea that a zealous minority had the right to set the political agenda through violence.

The problem was that from the first anniversary, in 1917, the memory of the Rising was used not so much to look back as to look forward – to the completion of the unfinished revolution. That first year, militant nationalists reprinted the Proclamation (using the original type, which had somehow survived) and posted it around the city with the slogan “The Irish Republic Still Lives”. Clair Wills notes in her book Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO, “The events planned for this first anniversary were as much about re-enacting or continuing the Rising as commemorating it.” And this, of course, is precisely what has made the marking of the Rising so awkward: 1916 has never been entirely in the past. When the State marked the 50th anniversary in 1966, it forgot that that there were young Catholics north of the border for whom the triumphal message was a call to arms.

“And in any case, who owned the Rising? Who were its heirs? In the first decades of the State, the struggle to control the commemoration of the Rising was a continuation of the Civil War by other means. There was what Wills calls a “mixture of pious reverence and political point scoring”. The divided political children of 1916 may have professed their profound respect for the sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly but that didn’t stop them squabbling over the ownership of their legacy.

The first official State commemorations, staged from 1924 onwards, were uncomfortable affairs – most of the immediate relatives of the 1916 leaders refused to attend ceremonies hosted by the Free State government.

Republicans mounted counter-commemorations. When Fianna Fáil came to office in 1932, it not only ramped up the official commemoration of the Rising (increasingly taking the form of a military display) but immediately removed 241 Cumann na nGaedhael figures from the list of invitees. By then, as Wills writes, “The Easter events were less commemorations of the sacrifice of 1916 than party political demonstrations.”

A certain public cynicism was evident even before The Plough, as the political purity test of “Where were you in 1916?” became a standing joke. As early as 1924, the satirical magazine Dublin Opinionran a cartoon of the GPO with the caption “Don’t worry about accommodation: this building held 30,000 patriots in 1916”. The joke was recycled, in 1932, when Ireland applied to host the Olympic Games. To the objections that the country had no venue large enough, the wags pointed to the infinite space available in the GPO.

Official commemorations of the Rising culminated in big military parades for the 25th and 50th anniversaries. The 50th anniversary in 1966 was perhaps the nearest thing to a broadly embraced national celebration, with everything from postage stamps to the renaming of train stations, and from Hugh Leonard’s TV re-enactment, Insurrection, to a pageant in Croke Park.

But with the troubles in the North, this apparent triumphalism gave way to an almost embarrassed silence. The 75th anniversary in 1991 was marked by a brisk, wreath-laying ceremony at the GPO and little else. The question of who owned the Rising had again become a live and dangerous one and the State obviously feared that one answer might be the contemporary IRA.

The artistic and cultural memory of the Rising was no more straightforward than the political struggle to claim it. Even the most famous icon of the Rising, Oliver Sheppard’s statue of The Death of Cuchulain, unveiled in the GPO in 1935 by Eamon de Valera in anticipation of the 20th anniversary, was not originally intended as a 1916 memorial. Sheppard designed it long before the Rising, in 1911. It became the quintessential visual representation of the Rising (medals and coins struck for the 25th and 50th anniversaries used images of it) but this meaning was projected backwards.

And as a heroic image, the statue provoked contrasting literary responses. WB Yeats celebrated the statue in his play The Death of Cuchulain, seeing it as a manifestation of “What stood in the Post Office / With Pearse and Connolly.” In Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy, published three years after the unveiling, one character, Neary, dashes his head against the statue’s bronze buttocks “such as they are”. While Yeats was sanctifying the memorial, Beckett was making a feck of it.

It is, in any case, striking that even in the 1930s the safest way to represent the Rising was through ancient, and therefore uncontroversial, mythology: Cuchulain was easier for de Valera to absorb than, say, James Connolly. And this idea of representing the Rising not directly but through mythology was continued in the other visual memorial, the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, designed by Daithí Hanly in 1946 but not completed until the 50th anniversary 20 years later. Hanly’s mosaics of Iron Age weapons are dominated by another huge mythological image: Oisin Kelly’s 7m tall statue of The Children of Lir. Given the consciously Christian symbolism that was mobilised by the rebels, it is striking that the State found this pre-Christian imagery more manageable. By literally mythologising the Rising, the State, to a degree, depoliticised it.

Literary responses were no simpler than the visual representations. The first anniversary in 1917 was also the occasion for the private circulation of what would become the most famous artistic response to the Rising – WB Yeats’s poem Easter 1916. Here, too, a pattern was emerging. While the political memory was being shaped into heroic patterns, Yeats poem was full of paradoxes and ambiguities: “terrible beauty”. While tracing the transformation of the rebel leaders from clowns to heroes, Yeats wondered whether “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” (Even with all these ambiguities, Yeats was careful not to publish the poem until 1920.)

Plays were written in the immediate aftermath of the Rising: Maurice Dalton’s sceptical Sable and Goldand Daniel Corkery’s heroic Resurrection, both in 1918. The only other major play on the Rising, Denis Johnston’s The Scythe and the Sunset, staged in 1958, is, as its title suggests, a parody of The Plough and the Stars. Set in a cafe across the road from the GPO, it is at least as much about O’Casey’s play as it is about the Rising.

Johnson suggested, in the 1930s and again in the 1940s, that a dramatised version of the Rising be re-enacted every Easter in O’Connell Street as a kind of modern morality play. The suggestion was not taken up, but it was partly fulfilled in the Croke Park pageant in 1966.

The first large-scale treatment of the Rising in fiction was the 1919 novel The Wasted Island, by the Irish Volunteer organiser Eimear O’Duffy, who had sided with Eoin MacNeill in calling off the planned rising.

O’Duffy’s 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.” Dozens of romantic novels later used the Rising as a backdrop. But arguably the only major novelist to engage with it before the 1990s was Iris Murdoch.

Her 1965 novel The Red and the Greenis set around the Rising and can be seen as a 50th anniversary book, but it is more a typical Murdoch tale of family and sexual intrigue (in this case literally incestuous) than a straightforwardly political or historical work. One character, Christopher Bellman, is killed on his way into the GPO to join the rebels, but it is unclear where the shot comes from – an image, perhaps, of Murdoch’s non-committal stance. Murdoch noted that The Red and The Green “was written before the IRA started up again, so that it was, as it were, an innocent, optimistic book which assumed the Troubles were over.”

More recent appearances of the Rising in literary novels tend to be decidedly anti-heroic. Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry(1999) is very much in the tradition of The Plough and the Stars– the Rising seen through the eyes of those who will not inherit its ultimate victory. Doyle’s Henry Smart is a rebel in the GPO but he comes close to shooting Patrick Pearse in a stand-off between Volunteers and 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.” Likewise, Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boyshas an element of parody. During 1916, the eponymous friends spend their time plotting to swim to an island to plant the Irish flag.

In Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way, the Rising is seen from an entirely unfamiliar perspective – that of a young Dubliner in the British Army who is briefly deployed in quelling it. It marks a larger shift – it is now almost impossible to represent the Rising without acknowledging the wider context of Irish involvement in the first World War.

By far the oddest literary response is the novel published in France, in 1947, as On est toujours trop bon avec les femmes[We always treat women too well], ostensibly a translation from the Irish of “Sally Mara”. It is actually an elaborate postmodern fiction by the French novelist and philosopher, Raymond Queneau (best known for Zazie dans le Metro).

Queneau’s novel is a pastiche of hard-boiled American trash fiction, replete with sadomasochistic sex and violence. It is a send-up of Hadley Chase’s notorious No Orchids for Miss Blandish. But it is set inside a Dublin post office (relocated for some reason to Eden Quay) during the Rising. Gertie Girdle, a young Loyalist clerk who is in the toilet when the rebels occupy the building, sets about ruining their revolution by seducing Volunteers and leading them to their deaths.

From Fianna Fáil rallies to French postmodern novels, and from heroic myth-making to passionate demolitions, there is a long tradition of complex and contradictory responses to the Rising. In thinking about 2016, it seems right not to attempt to squeeze this variety back into some simple shape but rather to make room for it all.