Some years, when written down, have a look about them. In their mathematical, tidy visuals they bring their own particular questions, giving off whiffs of what has come since—and the parts of it we’ve talked about—because that’s what history is. As I have tried to address this 1916 question I have marveled at the pressure it has put me under. I realised that you could get defeated by the effort of answering for a number of reasons, some of which made me want to plead the secret ballot. This in turn has led me to understand more fully just how extraordinary it was as an event, not necessarily in itself but in its aftermath and in what it eventually achieved. So I chose to leave the thorny aspects aside, sweep away the dissenting voices, gloss over the parts that the secular me find difficult, and see if I knew what it meant to me on an esoteric level, and yes, I do mean exotic.
My first reaction to the question is to be instantly transported to the fiftieth anniversary in 1966 and how that shaped some of the ways in which I saw myself in the world. It’s impossible of course to fully measure that sort of thing, because time of day, place and questioner will affect the answer, but clearly now is a good time to have a think about it, reluctant and all as I may have originally been. This reluctance comes from the tensions I see gathering, the black cloud that some people insist on bringing to the table, the thunderous unspoken blame for how things have turned out. It may also come from the unfinished nature of the entire affair.
But let me take you back a bit. On Easter Sunday 1966 I was aged around about 14 and a half, becoming aware of myself as someone other than a girl in a grey gymslip, although what that was I had no idea, and indeed often still don’t. Looking back I can see that I was a detached sort of child, in love with things like history, stories well told, and even the aura that poetry could create—I had fallen for Baudelaire, of all people. Boys came in and out of my landscape fleetingly, but they were an idea that was hard to hold on to—I occasionally regretted having no brothers who would presumably have had friends that I could have watched without effort, outside of school hours. There were no boy neighbours either—well there was one half a mile away, but for some reason or another he didn’t count.
I had gone to a two-teacher school, Mrs Cassidy downstairs for the first four years and for the last four years upstairs a Mr McGill who would now be up on common assault charges at least, such was the vigour he put into his daily use of the cane. He was an equal opportunities man and used it on girls too, although there is one day in his battery of some boys that stands out all on its own. I often take a look at fifty-plus-year-old Irishmen and am astounded that they can even hold on to a conversation never mind have emotional relationships. Mr McGill told great stories though and I do remember grappling one day with how the two sides of him could reside in the one person. I can’t remember how I resolved it, but I know I still enjoyed the stories, particularly the history ones. Around our parts people still don’t want to talk too much about Mr McGill, mainly because he died young from cancer, and perhaps they’re afraid of what they might say after that. Also, possibly, they don’t want to offend the widow who had to rear the five or six children following his demise. A few years ago I was asked to write a short piece for a local historical chapbook about the days in St Mary’s National School, Coravaccan. Funnily enough they must have felt that my view didn’t really sit right with the rest, so they declined to print it.
At the age of eleven in 1964 I left the country school and travelled by bus for one year to ‘The 7th Class’, in the St Louis Convent primary school in Monaghan, into a roomful of about thirty girls, some of whom, including me, would be doing the Scholarship, the only possible way for me to get what was then a fee-paying secondary education. I had never seen a nun before and was a bit taken aback, but soon got used to the look of her and that of the dozens of others that I began to see in the distance, veils flowing behind them, flitting about in that place of awe, the secondary school. It was my first experience of being an outsider and I rather liked it. Sporadic, isolated, hitting continued— sometimes unexpected low blows to the back of the head. I don’t remember a cane. But I do remember learning a ferocious amount of wonderful things and getting a beautiful County Council Scholarship, the most important thing I have ever won.
As a result of that, I took my place in the all-Irish secondary school, one of a few day pupils among what was mostly Gaeltacht boarders from all sorts of counties on the West Coast of Ireland and Dublin, a place I knew little of, although I knew lots about the Bronx and Long Island, having a plethora of American cousins who visited during the summers. I was so enamoured of the jigsaw that was secondary school that it was some weeks before I realised that no one, nor me, had been hit. My what an experience this was going to be. Getting the hang of it was like watching snow falling. And into this came the 1966 Pageant, an event exclusive to boarders, if I remember correctly, but then that would make sense, they lived there and had all evening to rehearse. While they were busy practising their lines, the rest of us were treated to the Proclamation. Quickly a rumour went around about an tSiúr Brigida: it was said that she’d had a boyfriend who was shot in 1916, and that she had subsequently turned her back on the temporal world and entered the convent. I thought that impossible but it could have been true— after all my own father had been born a month after the executions had taken place and she was older than him, or was she, it was hard to tell. So the ages could have fitted. Thinking about this I understand how short time is, how a lifetime has turned out not to be so long at all. I thought about the executions too in a compressed time sort of way when I was entering Death Row in the US on my research for my novel, Skin of Dreams.
So here’s what happened. A month or so before the Easter Sunday parade we were directed to the Proclamation and we read it. Irishmen and Irishwomen… Immediately we were included. It is impossible to explain how important that made the entire experience. This was at a time when we were willing to accept that ‘Man’ and ‘He’ applied to us, but really in our hearts our English- language understanding was better than that, and we knew. But in our hands was a document that had actually set out to speak to us. To this day it’s my greatest curiosity. Who first suggested that women be included and how did the conversation go? Is it true, as is generally believed, that there was only one man who had a problem with the calling out of Irishwomen? My what a bunch they were. We set to learning it off by heart. And my what a bunch we were, girl-citizen children, many of us of the poor, sitting at polished desks with the opportunity of having a second-level education. A proclamation, in other words a declaration of ideals, makes you bigger than yourself. And that’s what it meant to me. It did seem exotic, way more elevating than everyday things.
It was pointed out to us that the inclusion of the word ‘Irishwomen’ was an astonishing thing and I was willing to take their word for that, even though I couldn’t figure out why it should be thought so. As you can see I had a bit to learn about exclusion. In all the years since when I hear the query ‘Who suggested that the word women be included?’, I go back to that time of my innocence when I presumed that it would be a given. Lest you think I was uncritically carried away by the rhetoric of the entire experience I do remember questioning whether the sentiments in ‘The Mother’ could be truly ascribed to the subject of the poem, how could we be sure that was what she thought? And I brought it up. Perhaps that was not appreciated. I was getting well ready for the next Proclamation that I would read with interest, which was the Charter of Rights from Irish Women United. I missed Change or chains, being firstly too young and then too immersed in flight rather than fight.
So there was a before and after reading of the Proclamation and a later learning of how it had been let down, its ideals at least partially destroyed by those who eventually came to power, those who would use shoddy dishonesties to further themselves, while beside them worked men and women still imbued with a notion of civil service.
But the words of it still stand for what is best in aspiration to the greater good above personal greed. With hindsight I think I can honestly say that the sentiment expressed in it turned me towards a view of the world that spreads out rather than in. I was fascinated by the fact that people would do something for their country. It’s not that I didn’t know about other uprisings, but this one had been successful, that’s what made it different. Hadn’t they talked about it at the crossroads in Hungary and India? (Mind you in our house it was considered only partially successful, we had our hinterland cut from us, by the eventual Treaty. We looked across the border with a sense of loss.) And hadn’t it caused all sorts of rumbles in the Conscription Debate in Australia, the echo of which is still heard where people talk of these things.
My reluctance to examine the place of 1916 in my thoughts might also have something to do with my fear of anniversary as a concept. I have occasionally written short stories in reaction to something that can only be addressed by fiction. ‘Reasons That I Know of That We Are Not Allowed to Speak to My Grandmother’ is a reply to the sheer nonsense and depressing pointless guff around weddings, where people behave as if this is the only day in their lives worth living. (Take it easy, you’ve just been lucky to have met someone that you, still, like, and you might even be really lucky and continue to like them, and they you. Only time will tell.) I’ve recently been at a humanist funeral which was just as bad. Spare us from the uncontrollable weeping of a relative, which should be done not from the pulpit but in the front row with a sympathetic arm being occasionally passed over the shoulder. But I digress. Sometime around 1997 it became apparent that the Millennium was going to turn into the equivalent of twenty weddings on one night. ‘Escaping the Celtic Tiger, World Music and the Millennium’ began as a reply to this phenomenon but veered off into the further reaches of lexicography. A decision was made early in our house to fine people if they mentioned the word Millennium. In the end we threw together a lovely quiet evening, some poets, a painter, a musician, an open invitation to two sons and their friends, and Mary Holland, who funnily enough was the only one who cracked and thought after a few glasses of wine that it might be an idea to go up to the roof to see the fireworks.
A further problem is the looking back at what has happened since 1966, the viciousness of the war, the so called Troubles, which is a slightly more serious word than the Emergency. I feel a whiff of the closing down of discussion that accompanied those Troubles. But that’s the burden that our history has. Our very geography decided our fate. We were after all a tiny island beside a larger one with notions of achieved Empirical grandeur and its subsequent queasy superiority. It’s an interesting thing also to wonder about the effect of place on one’s thoughts. I started writing some of this essay while gratefully squinting out at sun on the Dordogne River, free of dissident voices, but looking at it now back in Ireland, where it takes on a different complexion, I suddenly long never to have been asked the question or to have refused to reply. Talking of place—I’ve noticed too that Northerners can be more interested in 2016— there’s a touch of the ‘If you were in Belsen you’d eat it’ about this. They are more appreciative of the reality of being a citizen rather than a subject precisely because they haven’t got it. Doris Lessing visited two schools in the same week, one out in the African bush where the teachers were scraping out the alphabet in the dust, no books, and the children were hanging on to every word, the next in a comfortable classroom in London, next door to a library, where the students looked bored with privilege and never dreamt of going into the room with the books.
Talking endlessly about the I, not putting it in a wider context, has a parochial narcissism about it that holds no interest for me. I dread emotional incontinence so this is not an autobiographical essay but it is about how I came to see myself as Irish. There is pre- and post-reading of the Proclamation and there is pre and post the European Schools Day Essay, both of which took place within the two years of me being aged between fourteen and sixteen.
Now, let me try to get my head around this. This was an essay competition run in the countries of Europe. The year I did it the title was ‘Changes I would like to see in Europe, their effect on the educational system and thus the formation of citizens’. Fancy that. Generally this competition, like the learning of games and being part of the 1966 pageant, was open only to boarders but a new, rather radical nun had arrived in our midst and she decided that I should do it. In the evenings the boarders went to the library to research the topic, in the evenings I went home. I don’t think I intended to do the thing at all, but on the appointed day it was remembered that I had been signed up. Because I would not be there in the evening I was brought, alone, into the office of the Mother Superior, given a desk, a pen and told I had two hours.
The experience was so novel—no one was ever in this office except for matters of a most serious nature—I enjoyed the challenge. I had in my mind Brendan Kennelly’s poem ‘Apostles of Possibility’. I have no idea where I could have come across that. So, armed with the poem, the pen and the strangeness of the surroundings, I set to. A few weeks later I was returning from a wander around town, slipping back into school to collect my bag, having given some class a miss, when I met departing pupils, leaving the premises much too early. It transpired that the entire school had been summoned to the hall to announce that there had been two winners from our school, one of them me. They were then allowed to go home early, hence the exit of the day pupils, as I slipped back in. Obviously it was a bit of a disaster that I wasn’t present, but in the circumstances it wouldn’t have been politic to do anything serious about my behaviour.
Then came one of my first lessons in class, although I didn’t know that’s what it was. I had to fill in a form for the upcoming journey to Germany, the prize given to the winners. For hobbies I truthfully answered, reading and dancing—a truth that lasts to this day. Mother Dorothea, who was cursed with a particularly unsweet voice, whined at me, ‘No, no, do you not play tennis, put down tennis and we’ll teach you.’ I suspect that they were reading ‘boys’ for ‘dancing’ and that certainly would not do. I put down tennis—although I insisted on keeping dancing in. Perhaps the tennis would take the common look off it. And they did give me two lessons that got no further than me being baffled as to the point of the entire thing. I was sent out to the hairdresser’s to have my hair done for the passport photograph which explains the bouffed up appearance in my first document for travel. And then on our journey to Dublin, to Coláiste Mhuire, to be formally announced as representatives of very young Ireland, I had to be kitted out in a boarder’s Sunday outfit, clearly my own day-pupil one not being seen as acceptable. Did any of this bother me? Not one whit. Somewhere, perhaps in my solitary nights—I didn’t sleep at home, that’s another story—I had learned not to mind too much about the strange behaviour of my betters.
The prizewinners arrived and were assembled in Bodensee, Lake Constance. On checking through a truly fascinating labyrinth I discovered that much is lost of the records of this event but I do know that there were ten winners from Ireland. Each country’s group had with them at least one teacher and a member of its parliament with an occasional visitor, which included Denis Healey. And yes I noticed his eyebrows. Our man was Richard Burke. Among our ten winners were Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, perhaps already becoming a poet with her matching notepaper, and Declan Kiberd, definitely already becoming an academic, I would say. Each morning we had roundtable discussions for which we donned translation headphones. I was stunned by the entire thing. Now that I think about it, it was a kind of youth parliament—if I’d been a little older I might have got more out of it than an evening with an Italian, who taught me ‘O Bella Ciao’, and my first alcoholic drink to go with the experience. When the time was up all the students headed home but we Irish were treated, by Ireland, to an extra few days. We were brought to Strasbourg to look at the EU building and then by train to Paris. We were very aware that our country was treating us well. I mention this because I do believe that gratitude had something to do with feeling that we belonged to a new country. Forget the niggling fact that we weren’t an entire country (always there with Ulster people), the proclamation had been learned off by heart and still tripped lightly off the tongue.
There are many things wrong with this republic of ours, particularly at the moment. The greasy till made a spectacular reappearance there for a while, the obligations of privilege were forgotten by many. And covert fumbling for more than a person could possibly need was carried on arrogantly by all sorts of people, some of whom I might even have once called friends. There were many things wrong with the Republic when I was carrying the stigma attached to the life I was living in the 1980s, and yet even at that time I remember doing a reading in London and while roaring with rage at home, exhausted on picket lines, I answered there that it was not such a bad place strangely enough, its natural resources were rain and women. You’d have to have lived then to know why that was important. What I meant was that it was, and still is, a place that has idealistic people. The Proclamation is still an issue, suggesting human rights and enfranchisement, and about to be become more so as it is laid out on school desks once again. This time around different things will be talked about. It will not be such a shock if some smart-arse girl remarks that De Valera wouldn’t allow women into his battalion, she might be able to get a copy of Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries from her mother and it might even be discussed.
What of my fear of anniversaries? I thought that I might have had to disappear for this one. I had a terrible dread that the shouting about who owns 1916 would prove impossible to live through. (Can someone please explain how anyone can own an historical event? Perhaps they mean understand it. Or were part of it. A bit like people who now claim to have been in favour of contraception all along and of having put their heads above the parapet in the Eighties, when actually they crossed the street as we stood selling condoms at the top of Grafton Street, having our names put down in Garda notebooks and, no doubt, on job interview ‘Additional Notes’.) But somehow this is shaping up a bit better than I had expected. The fact that poets and teachers were among the signatories of the Proclamation might just give the artists of today their deserved say. They, after all, are the people continuously involved in public service, most of them living on the scrapings of tin in order to give us a better understanding of what life means.
But back to the polished desks and the Proclamation. We were getting ready for our own revolution as we read it in 1966. In the beginning we may have thought parts of it were quaint, just as today we ourselves could be called that very thing. The point is that the Proclamation might have ended up being like a Baudelaire poem except for what happened afterwards. It is an astonishing wonder that three quarters of this tiny island did indeed manage to get green post boxes. And because the days are gone when you went inside the green telephone box outside on the street with your change lined up to speak your private conversations, some people think that it doesn’t matter. I think it does. I don’t want to claim retrospective smartness, but I do believe that the Proclamation’s effect on me was to leave me open to the notion of a place way outside myself, which has been an interesting enough planet on which to have spent the subsequent fifty years.