It was an English writer, Leslie Poles Hartley (1895 – 1972) who said “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” and few books I have come across illustrate this point more eloquently than Rebels by Fearghal McGarry (Penguin Ireland). McGarry is a lecturer in Modern Irish History at Queen’s University in Belfast and this is his second book on the events around the Easter Rising of 1916. His previous book, entitled The Rising was published by Oxford Press in January 2010.
What makes Rebels a riveting read is that in it McGarry relies solely on the words of the men and women who were involved in various parts of Ireland in the events leading up to Easter 1916. It is these authentic, ordinary voices that vividly bring to life Ireland in the second decade of the last century and make for a compelling and enlightening read.
I sat down with Fearghal over coffee recently to chat about Rebels and began by wondering ‘why another book on the events of 1916’. “Over the last number of years I have done a huge amount of research on 1916 specifically using the witness statements,” explains Fearghal. “The first book often summarised these voices but I knew they were the best part of the book, so I wanted to do another one letting the voices speak for themselves.”
The witness statements referred to are a unique archive of statements collected during the late 40s and 50s from 1,800 individuals involved in Ireland’s struggle for independence. They cover events from the formation of The Volunteers in 1913 right up to the signing of The Truce in 1921. Once collected, the statements were kept under lock and key until the last witnesses died in 2003 when they finally became available. For anyone in any way interested in modern Irish history, this archive is a rich repository of information. Fearghal explained that the statements, which were collected by the Bureau of Military History, are kept in their original form in the Military Archives but a duplicate set is available to the public at the National Archive in Bishop Street, Dublin 8. www.nationalarchives.ie If you have any interest in this period or are doing some family research on a relative involved (even in a small way) in the events of the time, you should drop in and have a look. There are plans to digitise the statements so that they will be available online at some stage. I asked Fearghal if such an archive is common in countries that have engaged in revolution, but he is not aware of any other similar archive. He went on to say “the fact that there are 1,800 statements means that for a relatively small revolution we have a very high percentage of statements. This would seem to be fairly unique and makes the archive a valuable resource.”
So the fact that Feargal makes such brilliant use of these voices from our past means that the actual amount of writing was minimal although there was a lot of research and collation. “There was a great liberty in writing a book without my own voice interpreting the material. I found the process very enjoyable.”
I have to admit that when I got the book, I was somewhat dismayed to find that the text was almost entirely made up of clips from various individuals arranged around chapters which outline in chronological order the events leading up to The Rising and it’s immediate aftermath. There was no narrative and I feared that this might make for a book that was disjointed and difficult to engage with. But a chapter or two in and I could fully understand why Fearghal was so keen to let these voices tell their stories without interpretation or explanation.
In Rebels, we are not just reading about the military and logistical organisation (or lack of it) that went into the preparation for Ireland’s strike for freedom. Through these clips we learn so much about life in Ireland from about 1913 to 1916. There is as much social history here as there is the story of insurrection. We get a real glimpse of ordinary lives and what motivated people to get involved in this movement for Irish freedom.
One of the most notable elements is the inclusion of many women’s voices. The women of Cumann na mBan and Inghinidhe na hEireann who give some wonderful insights into their motivation and activities in support of the push for freedom. One in particular, Helena Molony outlines beautifully her vision of a free Ireland
The social ideals of Sinn Fein did not appeal to us. They wished to see Irish Society (as their official organ once expressed it) as ‘a progressive and enlightened aristocracy, a prosperous middle class and a happy and contended working class’. It all sounded dull and a little vulgar to us and certainly a big comedown from the Gaelic Ireland of Maedhbh, Cuchulain and the Red Branch Knights which was the sort of society we wished to revive. Well, we did not quarrel, and Arthur Griffith made the unique and paradoxical achievement of compelling tens of thousands of people who disagreed with his object to carry out his policy with the greatest enthusiasm.
As I read this the first time, I wondered at what modern Sinn Fein would make of the vision of a free Ireland credited to them by Ms Molony.
I have vague memories of learning history in school and it was a dry and uninspiring experience in the main. I remember sweating over trying to learn off dates and famous speeches. It so failed to inspire me that I gave it up in favour of geography. It wasn’t until I watched the RTE/BBC production of The Treaty in 1992 that I became interested in this period again. And if I am honest, I think that a lot of that may have been due to falling in love with the persona of Michael Collins (even though in that production he was brought to life by Brendan Gleeson – a brilliant actor who managed to portray Collins’s huge attraction). Like many modern icons, Collins’s early death has only added to his charisma. But it was his fearlessness and unwavering ambition to remove the British from this country that was intoxicating – even from a distance of some 70 years.
It seems that I am not alone in being somewhat infatuated by our Rebels. I give you another great clip – this time from Anne Cooney of Cumann na mBan in Dublin.
He (Con Colbert) took two photographs out of his pocket and asked me “Would you care for one of these?” One of the photographs was of himself alone and the other of himself and Liam Clarke. I said I would be delighted and he actually gave me both and I have brought in one of them to show you. I was charmed because, to tell the truth, I thought an awful lot of him and of course, he must have known it. He was not however at all interested in girls; he was entirely engrossed in his work for Ireland and devoted all his time to it.”
Oh Anne, I feel your pain.
These myriad of voices so skilfully knitted together by Fearghal have brought to life many of the historical events we learned of in school. The excitement of the gun running at Howth, the chaos of the Rising itself and finally the capture and execution of the leaders is all portrayed through the eyes of those who were there. It is both poignant and yet without sentimentality. And sprinkled with humour as illustrated by this clip from Joe Good of Kimmage Garrison
On our journey (by boat to British prisons) one Volunteer remarked ‘If they choose to have an accident now and say an enemy torpedo struck us, it will solve their problem.’ Perhaps he was right, because the personnel of what was afterwards to become IRA GHQ were aboard that boat – that is to say Michael Collins, Dick Mulcahy, Gearoid O Sullivan etc.
Of course the story is incomplete. The War of Independence doesn’t begin until 1919. So will Fearghal be revisiting the witness statements again? “Yes, I possibly will,” he replies, a tad enigmatically perhaps.
But what about the process of writing – how does Fearghal, a busy academic manage? “Well, as part of my job there is a requirement to write history books. I probably spend half the year teaching and am given a generous amount of time for research so the two go together quite well.” But like most writers, Fearghal will admit that the hardest part is to actually sit down and begin the writing. “I try to work to a set regime of hours. I guess I try to approach the writing like a proper job.” Ah, so that’s the secret then!
The past is indeed a foreign country and this book shows that Ireland did do things differently in the past. The voices in Rebels are passionate and engaged in the life of their country and events taking place therein. I wonder what they would make of their country today? I wonder if it would be possible for us today to capture just a little of their spirit, their activism and courage to effect change once again?