Complicating the 1916 Narrative

Diarmaid Ferriter

During this centenary year of the 1916 Easter Rising we are being showered with what are often referred to as “new perspectives”. An abundance of archival material has been released in recent years, much of it digitised and freely accessible, the cumulative effect of which has been to transform the parameters of our interpretation of 1916, with a strong emphasis on social history and the primacy of personal testimony. What this process has amounted to is an invitation to complicate the narrative of 1916; indeed, such a complicated narrative is demanded by these sources. Doubtless, a heroic narrative will also persist, as alongside revision, much pride exists in relation to an extraordinary revolutionary generation. They were guided by the lights of their time and need to be assessed through the lens of their Ireland 100 years ago. What we do not need is a reductive, cartoon history that simplifies the 1916 generation and their hinterland.

We also need to recognise that the “new perspectives” are not all new, and this is why Seán O’Casey’s courageous and subversive excavation of 1916 in The Plough and the Stars was so important in 1926 and continues to resonate to this day. What O’Casey showcased in 1926, and what we have come back to 90 years later, is a concentration on ordinary lives as they were lived and lost in 1916 due to a variety of different allegiances or none.

O’Casey was well placed to offer an alternative to the heroic narrative; what he crafted was a caustic but also humane perspective on the 1916 Rising. When he looked back in 1957 at the events of the revolutionary period he was adamant “we should be careful of personal idealism; good as it may be and well meaning, its flame in a few hearts may not give new life and new hope to the many, but dwindle into ghastly and futile funeral pyres.” At a time when the politics and state building of the 1920s demanded a stained glass approach to 1916, O’Casey refused to indulge in such piety. The play provoked a riot in the theatre on 11 February 1926, but the Abbey Theatre directors resisted censorship and defended its playwright.

By 1926, O’Casey was 46 years old. During his formative years he had experienced many causes and organisations as an activist in the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the socialist Irish Citizen Army. As a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in December 1911, he was dismissed from his job on the Great Northern Railway of Ireland. He became disillusioned with nationalism as the years progressed and considered the 1916 Rising “a great mistake”, but as has been noted by his biographer Christopher Murray, one of the ironies of his attitude to Irish republicanism was that before he resigned from the Irish Citizen Army in October 1914, he had drafted its constitution, some of which was incorporated into the 1916 Proclamation. But he was not going to overlook the tensions between the labour and nationalist movements or what he described in 1919 as a labour movement that he believed had “laid its precious gift of independence on the altar of Irish nationalism”. In the play, The Covey speaks for O’Casey in mocking Peter Flynn: “When I think of all th’ problems in front o’ th’ workers, it makes me sick to be lookin’ at oul’ codgers goin’ about dressed up like green accoutred figures gone asthray out of a toyshop!” Similar sentiments might be expressed this year about those who seek to concentrate solely on costume or commemorate without reflection.

The president of the republic proclaimed in 1916, Patrick Pearse, is represented in the play through his rhetoric- “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”- his words relayed through a pub window. By using extracts from various of Pearse’s speeches, O’Casey was not only seeking to probe the implications of such language for Irish nationalists but also engaging with a theme that went way beyond Ireland; the industrial-scale slaughter of the First World War and the abstract assumption that the sacrifice of countless working class soldiers was necessary to save civilisation. During the war, 30,000 Dubliners enlisted for service in the British army and 19% of them were killed. Where was the line to be drawn between nobility and futility? O’Casey engages with the gulf between expectation and disappointment; between rhetoric and real lives, and the lofty oratory of redemption through bloodshed lies alongside the squabbling of the pub’s occupants, including a prostitute, a risky and provocative presence on a 1926 stage.

There were roughly 25,000 families living in one-room tenements in Dublin at the time of the Rising. While Pearse had acknowledged in October 1913 that “one third of the people of Dublin are underfed; that half the children attending primary schools are ill-nourished”, O’Casey felt such social awareness had been drowned by preoccupation with martyrdom. In a letter he wrote in 1926, he maintained “It isn’t a question of English or Irish culture with the inanimate patsies of the tenements but a question of life for the few and death for the many. Irish-speaking or English-speaking, they are all what they are; convalescent homes of plague, pestilence or death”.

But for all the relevant political issues about which he felt so deeply, O’Casey also had his artistic priorities. His unique talent for characterisation and language, suffused with a vibrant credibility, still shines today. O’Casey’s writing thrived on the slang, phrases and rhythms of Dublin city; the wit, rage, satire and spontaneity and the peoples’ survival by living communally. Fighting was a form of bonding, as was gossiping, reminding us that for all their political differences, the tenement dwellers shared so much, including poverty. O’Casey was crystal clear in his view that “every art is rooted in the life of the people- their love, joy, hatred, malice, envy, generosity, passion, courage and fear”.

His women were, as Bessie Burgess reminds us in this play, spiky and resilient in what O’Casey described as their “fearless and cheery battle with a hard and often brutal life”. We hear more about these women today; the phrase “the men of 1916” rings too hollow in the centenary year, as it did for O’Casey 90 years ago. So too, does the idea, manufactured after the Rising, that it was solely a Catholic affair. Dublin’s population was 13% Protestant a century ago and Burgess, like O’Casey, was a working class Protestant. But he was hostile to sectarian grandstanding, as he makes clear in one of Fluther’s lines: “We ought to have as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out of as many things as possible”, another line that will still resonate for many today.

The looting that occurred during the Rising is a reminder of what revolution can amount to; for Fluther in this play it is a free jar of whiskey. In the midst of the mayhem, class prejudice abounded; Clitheroe can only bring himself to fire over the looters’ heads, while Captain Brennan savagely demands that “if them slum lice gather at our heels again, plug one o’them”. The civilian experience of the Rising was not only relevant because of the temporary loss of law and order, but because they bore the brunt of the violence; 485 people were killed during the Rising and more than half of them were innocent civilians.

We do no need to elevate O’Casey as a supremely objective witness to history; his own ego and interactions with various of the revolutionary era’s personalities, organisations and themes made him at times an angry, jaundiced observer. As pointed out by Declan Kiberd, “the natural aggression that remained unpurged in his personality was finally vented on the rebels in his play.” He was not keen to allow the nationalists to make their case effectively in the play and its content also offended many socialists in 1926. O’Casey was capable of his own distortions. In the play, Sergeant Tinley, speaking of the damage inflicted by the rebels, refers to the “Dum Dum bullets they’re using”. As Charles Townshend, one of the authoritative historians of 1916 has noted in relation to this, “such evidence as there is remains in the nature of hearsay.”

But O’Casey excelled in juxtaposing comedy alongside the venerated objects of Irish nationalism, including the tricolour flag of Irish republicans. What did all the dreaming, symbolism and idealism amount to in practice? What is our answer, 100 years on, to the question asked at the end of the play: “Is there anybody goin’, Mrs Clitheroe, with a titther o’sense?” What was the difference between vanity and heroism? How wide was the gulf between political rhetoric and human emotion? There were, and are, no simple answers to those questions. O’Casey was later to be kinder to Pearse, writing in his autobiography in the 1940s “Pearse, while filled with the vision of a romantic Ireland was also fairly full of an Ireland sensitive, knowledgeable and graceful.”

When O’Casey died in 1964 an obituary pointed out that even at the end of his life he was calling out for younger writers not to be “afraid of life’s full-throated shouting, afraid of its venom, suspicious of its gentleness, its valour, its pain and its rowdiness.” The same call can be made in relation to how we look at and commemorate 1916 today. In this centenary year, we need to embrace a complicated narrative, and no better place to start than with The Plough and the Stars.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin.

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