I went on a 1916-themed bus tour during the week, the so-called “Rise of the Rebels” tour, in which actors recreate key moments from the Rising on the top floor of a transformed double-decker, with open-air performances at stops along the route.
Very entertaining it was too, although of course I knew most of the plot developments. What the story lacked in drama, occasionally, was more that made up for by the performances of the unofficial extras – ie the population of Dublin, who strolled through several of the sets and sometimes participated.
In front of the GPO, for example, where actors in period costume read part of the Proclamation, a woman leaned in, listening to Pearse’s words, and started shouting encouragement.
At first I thought she was a member of the cast. Her clothes, if not period, were slightly old-fashioned. She also had a certain stage presence. It wasn’t until a Garda came over to talk to her, quietly, that I realised she wasn’t part of the play.
Around the corner from there, in Henry Place, the actors and audience (about 30 of us) stopped for another scene – the rebels' retreat from the burning post office.
This came as a great surprise to a man who had himself retreated into the quiet alleyway, off Henry Street, and was hunkered down, furtively rolling a cigarette of mysterious content, when the drama descended on him.
Then, around another corner, the tour relived the garrison’s attempted escape through a British machine-gun fusillade. But instead of bullets, we had to run the gauntlet of a continuous stream of cars and pedestrians from Moore Street market.
And watching them watching us, I was struck by a new twist on the phrase “Dublin character”. It used to be awarded to recognised eccentrics. Here it seemed to apply to all passers-by, as they walked through the set, half-looking and then, noticing the audience, half-acting a part.
Dublin remains a theatrical city, clearly, as it was in 1916. The events of Easter Week are usually portrayed as a poet's rebellion. But as Roy Foster pointed out in his book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890 – 1923, it was actually dominated by playwrights and actors.
Many of its leading figures had written plays, including even James Connolly. And much of the Rising's real-life drama had been rehearsed, consciously or otherwise, on the boards of the Abbey, or Joseph Plunkett's theatre in Hardwick Street, or in many other venues.
Nor were the dramatists confined to the stage, as the Playboy riots proved. From a London exile, George Bernard Shaw claimed his native country had "the most sensitive and, upon provocation, the most turbulent audience in the world".
In any case, when the insurrection began, Foster writes, "several people mistook the manoeuvres for street theatre; Constance Markievicz was asked by passers-by at Liberty Hall if she was rehearsing a play for children, and Joseph Holloway, encountering a copy of the [Proclamation] took it first for a playbill".
The GPO was the ultimate theatrical backdrop; British bombardment of it only adding to the effect. As Foster puts it: “Those famous photographs of Dublin streetscapes shattered by rebellion look like a stage set.”
Then there is the story of Sean Connolly, the first republican casualty, whose doomed assault on Dublin Castle is the focus of one of the bus tour stops. Connolly was an actor, and could have been a Hollywood star had patriotism not claimed him.
He had recently been offered a contract in the US, but decided his country might soon need him more. Only days before the Rising, he had performed in a James Connolly play, which ended with him raising the green flag and declaring: “Under this flag only will I serve; under this flag, if need be, will I die.”
That’s near enough what he did. After his group failed to take the castle, although killing a policeman, he entered the adjoining City Hall instead and was on the roof when himself shot. He wasn’t raising the flag, contrary to popular story, but in a sense few actors will, he died on stage.
Accidental extras aside, it may help the sense of drama surrounding the bus tour (see ridetherevolution.com for more details) that Dublin’s streetscapes are now again shattered, if only by the Luas works.
It certainly added to our feeling of Rising-induced chaos, as the driver took us from one battle site to another, while negotiating roadblocks.