A woman sitting at her window was shot dead in broad daylight. She was reading.
Sitting at a window with a book would be like, say, spreading a towel on hot sand so you can lie down and ask the sun to coax the damp of a northern climate from your bones. You don’t expect a gunman.
You could be standing in line at a bank with the news on continuous feed. You’re bored out of your mind, following the running heads about a foreign war, a city falling, families displaced. You look away from a burning car, bodies on the ground. It’s lunchtime and the queue is long. Your feet hurt. You’re hoping the money’s in because there’s bills to pay—there’s always bills—and you’re behind with the rent and the kids need a decent meal not just pasta, dear god you’re sick of pasta. It’s close in here, someone in the queue has BO; you’re sweaty under your hair, maybe it smells funky too and—something loud happens, glass breaking, a shouty voice Everybody out! Get out! At first you don’t get it but piece by piece you make sense of it: that man there jumped the counter; the teller who was there before went down under him the way they do in rugby; people in ugly clothes wave guns and sticks and break things; over there people are being herded into a back office; there’s arguing, shouts. More glass breaks. People edge towards the door. Someone grips your arm. Your heart skips but it’s only the woman who was behind you in the queue, saying Come on! and you do. The pair of you shove through the crowd swarming the door as though you’ve always known what elbows are really for. Outside you breathe deep, gaspy breaths your ribs are sore from holding onto and look back, where some skinny kid is hanging a flag you’ve never seen before from a window.
The first fatalities were policemen, after which the law crept away and hid for the duration.The cavalry arrived. Their horses were shot from under them.
A band of older reservists who had been sports stars in their youth were on their way back to barracks from manoeuvres in the mountains. The real war was off on the continent. The words Georgius Rex were stitched into their tunics, so they were inevitably known in Dublinese as the Gorgeous Wrecks. It’s a long walk from the mountains but they were nearly there. I’d say their feet were sore, their minds fixed on whatever brew waited for them in the barracks. They carried guns but no ammunition. You could say that they were armed. You could say they were unarmed. The true thing is that they were shot, on a sunny spring day on the streets of their own city. Some of them were killed.
The gunmen cut off the phones. They cut off the gas. They turned dogs and cats loose from the pound so they wouldn’t starve. They smashed windows and furniture and blocked the streets. They dug themselves in among the citizens— into businesses and homes in the heart of the city—and waited for the soldiers to come for them. They took hostages. They hijacked cars and vans and bicycles. If citizens resisted, they were shot. The trams and trains stopped running.
The soldiers came. At first, before they got properly into the swing of things, both sides would cease fire long enough to yell at the citizens to let them at it, to go home, out of harm’s way. But they were slow to cop on, those people. They didn’t get it, what was going on. They couldn’t believe what their eyes and ears were telling them, that they could be gunned down on the same streets where they lived and worked and shopped, where their children went to school, where they leaned on sills to gossip with the neighbours. Citizens were shot. Scores of them.
Hundreds of them, actually, by the time it was over. They say a blind man, feeling his way across an empty road with a white stick, was shot by a sniper and lay there moaning, hurt, helpless. They say the St John’s Ambulance man who went out in the open to help him to safety was shot dead. That the sniper shot the blind man again to finish him off.
More soldiers came. The gunmen killed them. Gunmen were killed. The city turned on itself, let rip. In an orgy of destruction, it laid waste to its own impoverished, ravenous self. The stables caught fire. More windows were broken. Holes were knocked in walls. There was looting, there was chaos. A man who tried to stop it was lifted by the soldiers, who used him as a hostage while they drove around. A human shield. Then they shot him. They shot journalists. They made a boy kneel in the street and then they shot him.
More soldiers came. There will always be more soldiers. There was a curfew, there were roadblocks. People went hungry. There were bombs. A woman sat by a window reading. She was shot. All the windows broke. The hospitals were full. The gunmen were in a hospital. The soldiers came. There was shooting. A nurse was killed while soldiers and gunmen killed each other. The soldiers burst into homes, took men outside and shot them. The soldiers took hostages. They shot them. There were bodies on the streets and not enough coffins to bury them. The nights were fiery.
Inside the city, people tried to help. They went out in cars to carry the injured to hospitals. They took bleeding strangers into their homes. They brought food and sheets and towels to emergency clinics set up in living rooms and kitchens. The ambulance drivers drove through flames. The firemen. The doctors and the nurses. Two girls went out under fire to carry cups of water to dying men. A man went out onto the steps of his house to see what he could do. Hours before, there’d been a bloodbath there. He’d helped to carry injured men and boys in uniform to safety. They shot him there. They killed him.
On the Thursday, Dublin began to burn in earnest. The soldiers made the firemen stand down so the buildings would blaze away to nothing and they’d have a clear line of sight to their targets. Glass melted and ran down the walls. People stood on hills outside their city and watched it burn.
The gunmen surrendered. The citizens were: shocked, traumatised, elated, glad it was over. Some of them were ruined. Many were bereaved. They were hostile, angry, sympathetic, proud. There was a lot to feel and not much information. They didn’t know what we know. We don’t know everything. We never will.
The gunmen were rounded up for gaol. The general ordered their leaders to be shot. The soldiers shot them—Connolly so badly wounded they had to tie him to a chair. To shoot him.
That’s where our national creation myth began. And just to make sure that it would grow into an unstoppable motivating force, more than three thousand men and women were rounded up to be interned in English and Irish jails.1 By the time they came home they were heroes.
You know the rest.
Pearse said he would surrender, not because they’d been burned out of the GPO and were tracking back through burning streets that led to the massed and waiting arms of the British army, but to spare the citizens of Dublin. You’d have to wonder, did he look out the windows at all in the previous week? Did he listen?
- 485 people were killed in Dublin that week, more citizens than rebels and British Army put together. Almost one in five of those were under 19 years old.2
- 100,000 people—one third of the population of the city—had to go on relief because they’d lost everything in the fires.3
- £2,500,000 sterling worth of damage was done—including the destruction of 179 buildings in the centre of Dublin and the ruin of businesses that never managed to reopen.4
Most of it happened in an area of roughly four square miles. Meanwhile, the war in Europe continued. In just one battle, on just one day of that week—Thursday, while the fires in Dublin took hold in earnest and the firemen were held back—the 16th Irish Division of the British army were subjected to a gas attack at Hulluch (France). There were 1980 casualties: 570 killed outright and many more to die later, their lungs in tatters.
They say the German soldiers held up placards to let the Irish soldiers know what was happening at home.
These facts were not exactly hidden but it’s safe to say they were obscured. Yes, I think it’s safe to say that. The story we were told had different starting points, all leading to the moment when a gallant band of patriotic men and women set out to wrest their country back from the ancient enemy. The eight hundred years. The few against the many. The sacrifice. The story we were told was heavy on the sacrifice, how close it came to martyrdom. No, wait, it was a kind of martyrdom. A noble thing, to die for faith or country—and, sure, in Ireland didn’t they amount to the same thing. Never mind if that’s what millions of others were doing on the continent and elsewhere, all for the sake of one ism or another.
It’s hard to think about 485 people dead in the space of a week, even though we see it on our screens so often now. It means more when you look at them singly. The man on his doorstep. The blind man with his stick. The ambulance man who went to help him. The woman sitting at her window. I’d say she was minding her own business, but since she was reading at the time there’s no knowing what business she was actually about.
Reading was how we got off the island and into the light of broader, more supple ways of thinking when I was a teenager. It seemed to be the case that writers who questioned or undermined our most sacred assumptions about ourselves had to shut up or get out.
Spare a thought for the administration that allowed inflammatory language to run unchecked in print and on the streets. Look where it got them. Our own crowd were less tolerant, later. In the interests of controlling our sense of who we are and what we might become, they were enthusiastic in the redaction and censorship of books and films. If a book was seen as anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, or anti- the Irish Catholic values we were all supposed to share, it didn’t stand a chance. Books were burned, denounced from the pulpit and outright banned. Anyone who didn’t like all this could leave, weren’t we better off without them.
I first read Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place when I was fifteen. It blew my mind wide open. Soon afterwards I read John McGahern’s The Dark. They were both banned, which was partly why I read them in the first place. I hid them inside false covers and read them in plain view, at school. Between them they set off seismic tremors in my mind. Truth was possible, in fiction—even in Irish fiction. Fiction could be real. For the first time I was almost as interested in the writers as in their books. I wanted to know who they were, how they’d found the courage to do it, what price they’d had to pay. Where were they now? Elsewhere, of course. That’s what happened if you put your truth on paper—you went into exile.
John McGahern changed everything when he came back. He published another novel and he stayed. If you’re looking for examples of courage and radical turning points, that’s as good as any and better than most.
You’ll say this was back in the last century and it was. You’ll say the times were different and they were. But this is still true: reading matters. Reading changes minds.
You grow up with a deep unchanging physical love of this country, a fierce attachment to certain places, the curved blue shoulder of mountains reaching an arm around a city, the long tongue of the sea moving in the mouth of a bay, its many voices; stony ground and scarlet setting suns, mirrored lakes and empty beaches; the sensation of cool moss on the bared sole of a tired foot, the human scale of its cities, the crooked rooflines of a street. You share its sense of humour, its fluency, its spite. It hurts to leave these things as so many of us must, for reasons to do with the State, which is not quite the same thing as the Nation and certainly not the same as the country. A State is less easy to love.
When my family and I came back after ten years in America, I spent several years studying and teaching women’s writing and cultural history of the period leading up to the Rising. See how interesting that is, as though the school curriculum’s influence was so deeply etched in my mind that I still, as an adult, thought that history stops—and begins again (but differently)—where the Rising starts. In my time we did a little leapfrog over the first world war and skidded past our own War of Independence and Civil War. We don’t know everything about those, either. I knew—and loved—the story of the Rising. It has all the elements of great fiction: characters larger than life, a strong plot, romance, betrayal, hopeless odds, the surprise twist at the end that changes everything. New life in the ruins of the old world. I knew the stirring speeches that led up to it, the alliances and disagreements, the very real civic groundwork that so many ordinary men and women did to improve the difficult lives many Irish people lived under the British administration, the efforts to awaken/restore a sense of national pride. I knew what the public figures did and said and wrote. I had admiration for some and affection for others and knew right well that most of them would disapprove of me. But in all that time I managed never to look at the numbers. I’d never seen the photographs of O’Connell Street in ruins. I must have seen them, in the sense that my eye may have glanced at them, but they left as little impression as the microwave energy that passes through all of us right this very minute—my minute writing this and yours, reading it. It’s not as though those facts are hidden. They were easy enough to find and that was a shock too. How close to the surface they are and how unseen. Our representatives still talk about the sixteen men who were executed, as though theirs were the only lives that were lost. They talk about what those men would want. As if they’d been elected. They talk as if they knew them, as if they own them, as if they, the representatives, are the ones those men would choose as their successors. As if they are worthy to succeed them.
These days we have what can feel like a numbing habit of referendums. Look at the recent list: on Judicial salaries and on giving additional powers to Oireachtas committees (October 2011); on the European Fiscal Treaty (May 2012); on Children’s Rights (November 2012); on Abolition of the Seanad and establishment of a Court of Appeal (October 2013)—and many more on the horizon. We only get to have a say in shaping our Constitution thanks to the battles the 1916 leaders fought, but during this increasingly tedious series of campaigns the seditious thought that they had no mandate for their action crept into my mind. That if we woke up one morning now, in the twenty- first century, to find the city taken over by armed men whose intentions were unclear, our feelings would not in any way relate to the gratitude and reverence we’re supposed to feel for the signatories of the Proclamation, the almost incantatory sound of their names. The recent marriage referendum was a different thing entirely. That amendment was passed on a wave of joy and hope like nothing I’ve seen on this island, ever. It was a real and utterly bloodless revolution, and the change was born of stories told with great courage and belief in people’s ability to hear and understand them.
In December 1915 Padraig Pearse wrote of the war in Europe: ‘The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth… The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields.’5 It sounds mad, now, knowing what we know about that war but he wasn’t, by any means, the only one to deliver this kind of rhetoric across Europe at the time.
Take Tom Kettle, for example: constitutional nationalist, parliamentarian, poet and economics professor at UCD. When the German army invaded Belgium in August 1914 Tom Kettle happened to be there, buying guns for the (National) Volunteers. He stayed on for a couple of months as war correspondent for the Daily News. In one of his dispatches he wrote: ‘War is hell, but it is only a hell of suffering, not of dishonour, and through it, over its flaming coals, Justice must walk, were it on bare feet.’ Kettle was a Redmondite. Back in Ireland, he joined the British army and became quite the poster-boy, urging Irishmen to enlist. Redmondites believed that the contribution of Irishmen would support the case for Home Rule once the war was over.
Rhetoric is one thing. The reality was different. ‘It is a grim and awful job,’ Kettle wrote to his wife Mary from the battlefield. ‘No man can feel up to it.’ His poem for their daughter Betty shows a shift in his awareness of how conflicts are manipulated.
… they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor—6
The poem acknowledges something else again: ‘You’ll ask why I abandoned you… to dice with death.’
Many of the executed leaders were fathers. Many of the soldiers who were killed during Easter Week were fathers too. Others were only boys. The citizens who died ticked all the relationship and gender boxes: fathers, mothers, siblings, children, friends. 485 fatalities. That’s a lot of futures stolen and families destroyed. A lot of lives ruptured and thrown off course. A lot, they might say today, of collateral damage.
‘Collateral damage’ is the kind of phrase we have to resist. Language matters. If you want to desensitise people, first you drain words of meaning, attach antiseptic labels to actions, restrict the options for understanding or sympathy with the thing-to-be-destroyed, whatever or whoever that is. On the other hand, if you want to incite people to hatred, words will do it. Language gets under your skin. The way music can interfere with the rhythm of your walk, language can either disorder or ignite your thinking, it sets the neurons firing differently. There are medical tests that require you not to read because it causes demonstrable changes in your brain. The words we use matter—they have destructive as well as creative potential. Reading changes minds.
So does experience. Exposure to the reality of war changed Kettle’s ideas. In a letter to a friend from the battlefield, he wrote: ‘If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace.’ He was killed at the Somme on September 9th 1916, four months after the executions in the stonebreakers’ yard of Kilmainham Gaol. He was 36 years old. He left a wife—Mary (Sheehy)— and daughter, Betty (3).
Tom Kettle was a friend and colleague of Tom MacDonagh, poet and lecturer at UCD, who was executed as a signatory of the Proclamation. MacDonagh was killed by a firing squad on May 3rd 1916. He was 38 years old. He left a wife—Muriel (Gifford) who drowned a year later—and two small children, Donagh (4) and Barbara (1).
Our own poet/soldier Francis Ledwidge wrote a haunting lament for MacDonagh, still popular today: ‘He shall not hear the bittern cry/In the wild sky…’7 A year later, Ledwidge was dead too. He was killed at Passchendaele on July 31st, 1917, three weeks short of his thirtieth birthday.
Any discussion of the intricate mesh of connection between these figures— or of the key events of the Rising—and in the context of writing and war, has to include Frank Sheehy-Skeffington.8 Writer, journalist, activist (feminist and pacifist) he campaigned against conscription in the early days of the war and was jailed for it. Previously he and his wife Hanna, a teacher and writer, had campaigned for women’s right to a university education and for women’s suffrage. (Hanna was the founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union. Along with Louie Bennett, she was a delegate to the International Women’s Peace Congress in the Hague in 1915 but they were prevented from travelling by the British administration). Frank was the man who tried to stop the looting in Dublin and was lifted by soldiers, used as a human shield and later killed in Portobello Barracks. His friends in college included James Joyce and Tom Kettle—who was also his brother-in-law; Kettle’s wife Mary was Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s sister. Kettle and MacDonagh had both been members, with Frank, of the Citizens’ Peace Committee formed in response to the Dublin Lock-out in 1913. A close friend of James Connolly and initially a member of Connolly’s Citizen Army, Frank Sheehy-Skeffington resigned when its policy shifted towards militarism. He was shot by a firing squad in Portobello Barracks on April 26th 1916, aged 37. He left his wife, Hanna, and their son Owen (7).9
Poets had plenty of stirring, lyrical things to say about the war, at first. Before reality struck. ‘They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old’ wrote Laurence Binyon in 1914. Binyon survived that war and lived to see the next. He died in 1943, aged 74.
Rupert Brooke, of ‘for ever England’ fame, wrote, ‘War knows no power. Safe shall be my going,/ Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour.’ Later, but not much later, he wrote: ‘We have taught the world to die.’ Brooke, who actually saw little action in the war, died of sepsis (from a small cut) on a French hospital ship in the Aegean on April 23rd, 1915.10 He was 38 years old.
Charles Sorley, a Scottish soldier/poet, said of most early war poetry, ‘it is a living lie.’ He wrote:
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said…
Sorley was killed at Loos, near Hulluch, on October 13th 1915. He was twenty years old.
Pearse’s words can still interfere with a reader’s pulse rate. Naked I saw thee… Beware the risen people… While Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace… You could forget which century you’re in until you lift your head from the page. Not everything he wrote was quite so inspiring. In ‘The Murder Machine’, an article published in January 1916 in a pamphlet of the same name,11 he referred to Irish people who didn’t reject their education in the British system— in other words, Irish people who disagreed with his worldview—as ‘Things’, masquerading as men and women. ‘Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are for sale.’ Ireland, he said, was a nation of slaves.
Before his oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa, not many people would have known who Pearse was. He was a teacher, a poet and something of an ideologue, judging by his more inflammatory writing. He had a fondness, even a longing, for his personal notion of death and the glory that would follow.
Unpick the rhetoric and this much is still true: Connolly, Pearse and the others acted for what they believed to be the common good, as the Proclamation says. We are what we are now because of them. We’ll never know what else we might have become. It’s thanks to them that we ask different questions now, free of the stale old ruts of hatred, resentment, suppression and mistrust. They did, after all, pay with their lives. They did it for the future, for us—for those of us, that is, who stayed when the inconvenient dissenters left, all those who couldn’t do business in the climate that followed all our wars, those who couldn’t live in a Catholic hegemony, those who were driven off the land. Not to mention all those who have been hidden, interred uncoffined in dark and unmarked graves in that same land since.
Taken selectively and in the context of our history, Pearse’s words seem thrilling and magnificent. We still teach them to our children. But what else do we teach them? Of all the black-hole silences of Easter week (never mind the truths, the lies) the blackest has to be the silence around the fact that ordinary people did what they could to help other human beings who were bleeding, torn and broken on their streets, calling for help. Some of those citizens paid for their humanity with their lives. We are only beginning to admit to this, or to the extent of the casualties. It’s as though acts of humanity were considered shameful—or dangerous—in the light of patriotism. The habit that stuck was one of secret societies, covert violent action—often against civilian targets—and reprisals. We think our wars are over, but are they? If Europe disintegrates. If protectionism gains a foothold. If fascism returns. If Islamic State has its way. If. You think that can’t happen? One hundred years ago, they didn’t expect the gunmen either.
When my generation were taught about the Rising such outrageous acts as bringing a cup of water to a dying teenager in a British soldiers’s uniform were unmentionable. Giving comfort to a dying boy in uniform could still cost a woman her life in the 1970s, although we like to think it wouldn’t happen now.12 The Rising, as it was told to us, was all about the rights and the wrongs of it, success and failure, the winning and the losing and which side, freedom gained and lost, gallantry, martyrdom. I’d have liked my younger self to know the full story, to know that other options are open to us in choosing the kinds of people we want to be. I’d like my kids to know that you can give your life to something you care about instead of for it.
What a difference a single word can make.
As the commemorations loom, the rhetoric returns. The egos haven’t gone away, you know. I’m only saying. And even now there’s people reading this who’ll say who is she anyway, and what kind of name is that, Mills? It’s an English name, they’ll say. Never mind that that particular line of family is rooted in inner city Dublin at least as far back as 1815—which is as far as we’ve been able to go, the records having been destroyed in one skirmish or another. Never mind that all the women’s names, the names that get lost in time, are as Irish as you’d like: Dunne, Kelly, Kavanagh, Hart. There’s a Scottish-sounding Jameson and one intriguing Edge.
This is how they try to keep you quiet. They say you’re not Irish enough or you’re too Irish, you’re not Catholic enough13 or too Catholic, too feminist, not feminist enough, too middle class, too inward-looking/backward-looking/ outward-looking, too pacy or too slow, too familiar or too strange, too fond of black polo-neck sweaters.
What they say shouldn’t matter to you while you’re rooting around with your pen. Nothing should be further from your mind as you grapple with a sentence, where a single inaccurate word or misplaced comma can change your meaning. This is the real work, to be conscious of language and how it’s used, to consider how you use it yourself as you explore what it means to be human in your time. The business of exploring what it means to be human might seem elegiac, if not downright nostalgic, with cyborgs and posthumanism on the horizon—if not already here—but it matters. You are, after all, human. You’re not enough, you never will be, but that dissatisfaction is the very thing that keeps you going. Beckett said it: try again.
Go back to the beginning. A tantalisingly lovely spring day, a public holiday. A woman worries about someone far away—a lover or a daughter, working in one of the world’s torrid troublespots where mass-murder, kidnapping and mayhem have become the norm. She wishes they were home, safe. She goes to a chair beside the window for the light, for air. She picks up a book and opens it.
1. O’Connell, Joseph E. A. Jnr Dublin in Rebellion: A Directory 1913-1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006)
2. Glasnevin Trust 1916 Necrology www.glasnevintrust.ie (accessed 04/08/2015)
3. Caulfield, Max The Easter Rebellion (Gill and Macmillan, 1995)
5. ‘Peace and the Gael’, December 1915
6. ‘To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God’
7. Possibly a reference to MacDonagh’s own poem ‘The Yellow Bittern’: ‘A bittern calls from a wineless place…’
8. The surname Sheehy-Skeffington was the combination of Frank’s name, Skeffington, with Hanna’s, Sheehy.
9. Frank Sheehy-Skeffington was the person Connolly trusted to preserve his ideas and ideals. He wanted Frank to be executor of his papers and had to be told, within hours of his own execution, that Frank had been executed before him.
10. The second Battle of Ypres began on April 22nd that year; the landings at Gallipoli began on April 25th leading to a sustained battle. More than a hundred men from the Dublin regiments were killed in those two conflicts. The Rising in Dublin began on April 24th 1916, close to the first anniversary of the bereavement of many of its people.
11. This was based on an earlier article in The Irish Review (1913)
12. Jean McConville, a widow with ten children, was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in 1972 from her home in Belfast. Her body was found on a beach in County Louth in 2003.
13. Critics question this statement, but at the time of going to print, a child can still be denied a place in a primary school on the basis of his or her religion.