By Bill Keeth
Looking back a hundred years & more, courtesy of half a dozen books and a DVD
If, nowadays, an armed force of determined defenders made a stand against an infinitely stronger army of occupation there would be an almighty furore worldwide. Questions would be asked in the House. Representations would be made to the United Nations. Presidents Obama and Putin would lose no time at all in despatching trained mediators to the trouble spot. Political pundits would chunter on interminably within the hermetically-sealed newsrooms of Sky, the BBC and ITN.
This is not the way it was in Dublin on the morning of Easter Monday, 1916, when fewer than 900 men and women secured various strategically-located public buildings around the city. Chief amongst these was the General Post Office, from the roof of which a republican flag was soon flying. Then, at a few minutes past noon, Patrick Pearse (teacher, lawyer, romantically-inclined patriot and poet) strode through the front entrance towards Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), where he proceeded to read to an audience of bemused onlookers the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
A troop of lancers bore the brunt of the first fusillade of shots.
With its being a Bank Holiday there were more insurgents than British soldiery at this point, though reinforcements soon arrived. Then the city of Dublin became a war zone for just short of a week, at which point the same Patrick Pearse agreed to British demands for an unconditional surrender.
Retribution was fast and furious.
During the first two weeks in May a total of 15 rebels were executed by firing squad. Patrick Pearse was amongst them (whistling as he went, according to one British source); his brother Willie, too (guilty of being Patrick’s brother); with labour leader James Connolly last of all (propped up on a wooden chair on account of wounds sustained).
Outrage ensued throughout the land – not least amongst the more circumspect elements directing the British war effort. Because 200,000 native Irishmen had already enlisted in the ranks and widespread mutiny was feared. Meanwhile, with Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and other leading insurgents just temporarily gaoled the stage was set for a more extended conflict.
Sadly, so many aspects of the Easter Rising combine to mar its remembrance – the use of dum dum bullets by some of the insurgents, contrary to the Hague Convention; the British Army’s resort to courts martial of a type illegal under the Geneva Convention; the shameful pro-military pronouncements of Cardinal Logue and the owner of the Irish Independent at a time when James Connolly’s fate still hung in the balance. Worst of all by far, though, is surely the number of civilians who perished – 148 in all, with pensioners and young children amongst them. So, in preference to passing rash judgment on the events of 1916 it might make more sense to consider them as part of a wider overview of Irish history, courtesy of a half dozen books and one DVD, as follows. (See Amazon and eBay.)
A trilogy of historical fiction by Walter Macken …
Seek the Fair Land (about Cromwell in Ireland in the Seventeenth Century)
The Silent People (about the Great Famine of 1845)
The Scorching Wind (about the Irish War of Independence, 1919-21)
Strumpet City by James Plunkett (fiction about the lock-out of 1913)
Interface: Ireland by Kevin Dowling (fiction about the conflict in Northern Ireland)
Ireland, a History by Robert Kee (non-fiction, a fully illustrated accompaniment to the authoritative BBC/RTE series of the same name)
Finally, the aforementioned DVD is Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts.
There is an undeniably epic quality to this film due in part to its outstanding cast, with Charles Dance as a G Man and recently-deceased Alan Rickman as a sibilantly snakelike Eamon de Valera. Courtesy of director, Neil Jordan, too, Liam Neeson comes into his own here to the extent that it is quite impossible to imagine any other living actor in the title role.
Incidentally, author Anthony Burgess thought well of Kevin Dowling’s novel, Interface: Ireland – and said as much, too. Well do I recall a press photograph of the two Mancunians in Monaco when the book was first published in 1979. Sadly, the partisanship endemic to those troubled times has so far denied Kevin Dowling’s masterpiece its proper place in literary history. Nevertheless, this is one author who was ever appropriately lauded at my family’s Blackley address. Indeed, how could it be otherwise when his mother had served as midwife to mine during pregnancies plural in number?
(18 May 2016)
See Amazon Kindle books recently published by Bill Keeth: Every Street in Manchester, Manchester 9, Write It Self-Publish It Sell It, Boost Your Pocket Money and Pension