Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

by

Howard Adelman

Colm Tóibín wrote a very interesting and insightful piece on the 1916 Irish Easter uprising for the London Review of Books titled, “After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting.” The reference http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting was sent to me by one of my readers in response to my blog on the mini-series “Rebellion;” I opened the response and read the Tóibín article yesterday evening.

Colm began by referring to Henry James’ depiction of his ancestral tribe in his novel, The Princess Casamassima in a letter to a Bostonian friend. Ireland “seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.”

In my blog, I had referred to the clash between two camps, the realist (Jimmy Mahon, the socialist leader of the Irish Citizens Army played by Brian Gleeson) and the romantic (Patrick Pearse, the poet orator and leader of the rebellion played by Marcus Lamb), the two polar opposites within the rebellious ranks. However, I totally missed the allusion of this premise in the series to Henry James’ thesis that it was only when the two polar opposites joined forces, that the action could begin and the rebellion take off. James in his preface in the novel wrote of his own romantic hero, Hyacinth Robinson, that the action could only take place when he became “‘most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.”

Colm via James and his novel provides the historical background and context missing in the series, such as the role of Millbank Prison by the Thames that held the Fenian rebels who had initiated the raids from post-bellum America into Canada from 1866 to 1871. The Fenian Brotherhood’s attacks on British army forts and customs posts in Canada, all ending in failure, within Upper Canada and subsequently Ontario, strengthened the Orange Order (still the dominant force in my home province when I was a kid). Those raids from the modern founders of terrorism helped lead to Confederation in 1867, the same year that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. For if the realists brought discipline and organization, the romantics brought a desire for and an expertise in notoriety and theatricality.

The “Revolution” series did bring out the radical rhetoric that made death and dying for a cause a romantic aspiration in the face of those who had white milk in their arteries and veins instead of red blood. The ruthlessness of the rebels, the dramatization of conspiratorial action, was present early on, but not the guile. So in 1885 the Fenians blew up half of Westminster and the Tower in London using Alfred Nobel’s wicked invention. But it would be the disciplined, focused, selfless and implacable Irish-American, Thomas J. Clarke, who had set up an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, and was caught, charged with treason and conspiracy, who would make the difference. He initiated the conspiratorial web from his prison cell in Millbank that set off the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. It was from that prison cell that he wrote his archetypal prison memoir and its depiction of the horrific conditions and the combined stupidity and lack of compassion of the British, and contrasted that with the camaraderie and courage of the prisoners in subverting their jailers. That memoir directly lead to the creation of Amnesty International that would campaign for the release of the prisoners, with the unintended consequence of allowing the rebels to return to Ireland to engage in much more effective Irish revolutionary activity.

Henry James had referred to Ireland as an “accursed isle, “where literature, art, conversation, and society had all been murdered in the name of an ardent nationalism.” In 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote and published the thriller The Secret Agent that would outsell Heart of Darkness. According to Colm Tóibín, Sir Robert Anderson, the police commissioner who had played such an important role in his insistence on treating the rebels as felons rather than political prisoners, as the British army general does in the five part series, published Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s treatise on terrorism. But in Conrad’s foreword to the 1920 edition, he claimed it was the “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of February 1894 that had inspired him. But it could have been both. When Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park accidentally with his own terrorist bomb (I witnessed the same type of event in Jerusalem in 1978 when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up outside my classroom window when I was teaching a class on Hegel at Hebrew University), Conrad called this incident “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” But it is precisely such irrational acts of theatricality, when combined with disciplined political calculation, that, according to Henry James, sets off revolutions.

Responsibility for the planning of the rising was given by Patrick Pearse to Tom Clarke (the tobacconist played by Lalor Roddy in the series) who was killed by the firing squad on the first day of the executions (3 May 1916) alongside Pearse himself, and Séan Mac Diamada, also known as Séan Macdermott, played by Sean Fox, who was killed by the firing squad on the final day of the executions on 12 May 1916. None of these leaders during WWI came within a shadow’s breath of the charismatic and clever, audacious and super-intelligent nineteenth century Irish firebrand, Charles Stewart Parnell. But in the series, the combination of characters, together with an obtuse British leadership, provide the spark that would lead to both a failure in the battle for Dublin by the rebels and a victory by their successors in the war for independence. There is no hint in the series that I recall, and hence the criticisms of lack of context, that both Patrick Pearse and James Joyce, in the footsteps of their fathers, revered Parnell.

Colm fills it in. “The clash between the two (Joyce and Pearse) over ideas of language and cultural identity would make its way into the encounter between Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” For Joyce deplored the romanticism of the Irish nationalists, particularly the cultural nationalists like William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. The clash between the cosmopolitans and the nationalists ripples through Joyce’s Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus is denounced by an ideologue who romanticizes dying as a hero for a nationalistic cause. James Joyce, on the other hand, revered “the reality of experience” and “the uncreated conscience” rather than the romanticism of a dream – make Ireland, or America, great again. Romantic longings appeal to a reified Irish (or American) essence.

Colm also brings out information that I never knew and that is entirely ignored and even contradicted in the series. Pearse liked talking (and sleeping) with young boys. Colm quotes his 1909 poem, “Little Lad of Tricks.”

Little lad of the tricks
Full well I know
That you have been in mischief:
Confess your fault truly.
I forgive you, child
Of the soft red mouth:
I will not condemn anyone
For a sin not understood.
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.

Though a reactionary of old age pensions and a strong opponent of Irish emigration, Pearse revered women and did not denigrate their role, as Pearse does in the series. Pearse promoted women for the board of the National University of Ireland. Mercurial, solitary and protean, Pearse evolved into a leading revolutionary who, narcissistically, fell in love with this new emerging messianic and somewhat reckless image of himself as having transformed from a dreamer to a man of action. And he was propelled by a dream of martyrdom rather than victory. When his portrait was requested for a pamphlet, Pearse wrote, “I think a portrait of Emmet would be better (as well as handsomer) on the cover. After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting, but not before.” This evolutionary development from romantic poet and political orator to romantic rebel and political martyr was understandably also ignored by the series.

Colm also displays his intimate knowledge of the inner workings and political struggles of the Irish independence movement and portrays how a rag tag group of rebels divided among Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, the Gaelic Athletic Association and Redmond’s National Volunteers transformed itself into a divided but effective revolutionary force, which eventually wins, more because of the stupidity of the British command structure than the discipline, organization and wisdom of the revolutionaries whose 1916 Easter rising was such a tremendous failure as a military operation, but such a successful advertisement for rebellion in the face of British obstinacy and perfidy.

Colm and the series both fill in the divisions between the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh (Barry McGovern) – protection of the church must be our first priority – and the need to identify with the people – the position of the archbishop’s secretary portrayed as Monsignor Mulcahy (Gus McDonagh) rather than Father Michael Curran, but I found this identification somewhat confusing in the series. It was also not clear to me, as Colm points out, that Pearse’s reading of the proclamation in front of the Post Office was met by a small and uninspired crowd. Though that was how it was portrayed in the movie, I thought that this was the product of series budget shortfall rather than a mimetic version of what actually took place.

Colm also makes clear that the choices of properties to occupy ignored seats of power in favour of symbolic locations, and the choice of the centre of the main shopping area and close to Dublin’s north side slums, led to a large number of civilian casualties, unintentionally or otherwise, when combined with the British use of artillery and large guns clearly in breach of the norms of just war. This barrage that killed a large number of civilians took place in spite of the fact that 200,000 Irishmen were serving in the front lines in Europe and the lives of their relatives would be sacrificed to British indifference to Irish lives. This is conveyed in one dramatic moment with the death of the Irish fusilier’s young boy.

Colm reminds us that the rebellion had cultural as well as political consequences. I remember as an undergraduate reading Sean O’Casey’s 1925 comic portrayal, The Plough and the Stars which captured the rhetorical romanticism of the revolt – I never read or saw the earlier Shadow of a Gunman. The scene of the looter with “a new hat on her head, a fox fur around her neck over her shawl, three umbrellas under her right arm, and a box of biscuits under her left” has a variation in the series, but without O’Casey’s depiction of her comic relish in her acquisitions.

Colm should be read in juxtaposition to the series, for he supplies context and richness, though he largely ignores the feminist message of the series. That context is important the morning after a rhetorical clown with stock phrases like, “We – no I – will make America great again,” is repeated for the umpteenth time by the now presumptive Republican presidential candidate. The advertisement for myself rings out once again like one of those barker ads, but without the promise that, “I will refund your money.” Men in coal mines will be proud once again to work as miners – environmental consequences be damned. Just as Trump won against the prognostications of virtually all the pundits, he could beat Hillary. She is vulnerable. The appeal to ignorance is powerful.

God bless America. Who else will if Donald Trump wins?

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