David Pierce
York, England

Creative Commons 4.0 by David Pierce. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Edited by Constanza del Río and José Carregal

Edward Everett Root, 2020. 234 pp.

ISBN: 9781911204800

Revolutionary Ireland, 1916-2016: Historical Facts and Social Transformations Re-assessed has its origins in an AEDEI conference held in Zaragoza in 2016 to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. In her Foreword, Gerardine Meaney remarks that at the heart of this collection there is “a dialogue between Ireland and Spain”. Dialogue implies a two-way process, but the focus here is not so much on the two countries as on Ireland itself. Meaney’s comment, however, is suggestive, for a potential dialogue informs this whole collection, not least because of the presence and alignment of contributions from the two countries. The book attests to something else, which is not immediately apparent, that is an underlying unity and sense of purpose that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

If any one sentence carries the burden of this book it comes in the closing pages when the contemporary Galway poet, Sarah Clancy, declares that “No generation has yet existed in the Free State which has not had a system of quasi-legal incarceration of people whom the state did not approve of flourishing alongside it”. The comment is consciously provocative if slightly severe, and yet on reflection it manages to draw into it all the essays which precede it. For whether it is the historical record or the literature which that history spawned, people in Ireland, and especially women, have repeatedly faced actual incarceration or the system of oppression designed to control them or their bodies. As Amor Barros-del Río underlines in an accomplished survey of Edna O’Brien’s novels, what we repeatedly witness in her work are protagonists negotiating with “the concept of womanhood, motherhood, and identity”. Indeed, the whole of her work, Barros-del Río forcefully argues, “focuses on the (im)possibilities of female emancipation in the Republic of Ireland, from the mid-twentieth century to the present”. The system is also on view in the most compelling recent account of incarceration. This is the diary which was written by Vukasin Nedeljkovic when he was seeking asylum and which is reproduced in this volume. Terrible voices constantly surround the author, threatening exclusion and even the little pleasures in life: “You didn’t earn this coffee, someone says”. Fortunately, asylum centres are now being replaced, but, as Nedeljkovic reminds us, sixty-two asylum seekers have died in Ireland since 1990.

The book is divided into two sections, one on the historical record or so-called facts and the other on the various responses by writers such as Colm Tóibín, Edna O’Brien, and Evelyn Conlon, by film-makers such as Thaddeus O’Sullivan and John Forte, or in contrasting television documentaries on the Easter Rising. But it begins with a survey of the history of modern Ireland and an explanation of “revolutionary” in the title. The choice of the word is deliberate and not to be considered ironic or romantic. Rather, it is designed to insist on two things: a rupture between a colonial and postcolonial history and a continuity between past and present, how what happened with the Proclamation in the General Post Office triggered a revolution which still has meaning or whose effects continue to this day. The editors, Constanza del Río and José Carregal, cite Hanna Arendt and the assimilation of “revolution with liberation, with the restoration of lost liberties and privileges marking a new beginning”. The dark side is never far away in this account but, equally, never all-enveloping. So, even as the stress falls on the shortfalls of revolution and on those missing from the traditional story, we are also reminded of the continuing need to attend to what went wrong in “revolutionary Ireland” and never to avoid asking difficult questions. This book, then, affords a nicely-timed engagement with a country that has never stopped being an inspiration and a disappointment. Or as O’Brien once inimitably expressed it at the onset of her memoir, Mother Ireland (1999), her native land is “a woman, a womb, a cave, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare”.

In the first essay, which focuses on the newly-released findings in the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection, Cécile Gordon and Robert McEvoy provide some useful insights into a range of material: the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter Rising, the fate of James Connolly’s dependants and the financial hardship they endured in subsequent decades, the role of women who took an active part whether in the Rising, the War of Independence, or the subsequent Civil War, and how some of these women were refused a pension because they were not men. As the authors suggest, the continuing release of these documents is enabling a re-examination of the historical record, challenging official narratives, and reminding us of the role of collective memory in understanding the past.

In “Ireland’s Revolutionary Years 1916-1923: An Oral History Record”, Maurice O’Keeffe drills down into material from his remarkable Irish Life and Lore Archive of interviews associated with those years. He stresses the importance of the lived experience of ordinary individuals, how memory is both a source and a subject, and how memory should not be confused with history. Thus, when an episode near Tralee in the Civil War produces opposing accounts in interviews, the author pauses judgment and simply draws attention to the frequently contested legacy of oral history. O’Keefe’s intriguing account can be read alongside Thomas Earls FitzGerald’s sobering essay on violence against women in Munster and Connacht in the War of Independence. What stands out is the intimidatory use of hair-cutting by both forces of the Crown and the IRA and, equally, how they mirrored each other in their cruelty.

The witness statement made by Brigid Lyons in 1949 about her experience during the Easter Rising is the subject of an intriguing essay by Mariana Vignoli Figuera. Lyons, a medical student from Galway, was a member of Cumann na mBhan, who was captured and taken to Kilmainham Gaol. While there Lyons met Constance Markievicz and witnessed the executions of the leaders of the Rising. Listening to her recorded statement from that key period of modern Irish history, Lyons comes alive again for us in a surprisingly vivid way. From the vantage-point of contemporary linguistic theory, Figuera has shone a light on what is significant in cross-cultural terms and, indeed, for non-native speakers, on what might slip between the lines. Her conclusion might not surprise those familiar with traditional Irish singing. However, using Appraisal Theory, she shows how, while the affect terms were low, Lyons was emotionally affected by what she witnessed.

An echo of all this violence can be heard in O’Sullivan’s 1995 Troubles thriller, Nothing Personal, a film which Stephanie Schwerter in “Northern Irish Revolutionary Cinema: From Thriller to Comedy” contrasts with Mad About Mambo (2000). What all these accounts from different periods underline is a struggle for control of the narrative. That struggle takes centre stage in Paul O’Mahony’s discussion of two television documentaries of the Rising, shown in 2016, one produced by the BBC, Easter 1916: The Enemy Files, and the other with an Irish-American inflection, 1916: The Irish Rebellion. With very different audiences and agendas, the documentaries remind us a legacy that is still contested and that reveals little by way of common ground, at least for the program-makers.

In his essay “The Changing Status of Wounded Masculinity in Colm Tóibín’s Ireland”, which concentrates on two of Tóibín’s stories and a novel, José M. Yebra outlines a case for seeing Tóibín as a transitional rather than a transformational figure. He describes The Blackwater Lightship, a novel set in 1993, the year when homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland, as “an allegory of painful (if peaceful) evolution”. Masculinity in the guise of Declan, who is dying of AIDS, provides an example of wounded masculinity. Something similar can be said of Molly’s son, Frank, in “The Priest in the Family” (2004), Frank being the “holy” priest accused of abusing boys. At the centre of both these narratives the tension derives in part from how women in the family respond. Frank is largely offstage but his mother’s first question when she learns from another priest of the impending court case is “Does anyone else know this?” According to Yebra, Frank suffers from what Marie Keenan calls “Perfect Celibate Clerical Masculinity”, the burden in other words of not living up to his high calling.

Tóibín reserves judgment and allows his narratives to tell the story, at times quietly and at other times less so. In “The Pearl Fishers” the sexual relationship between the narrator and Donnacha as schoolboys is one the latter wants to forget now he is nearly twenty-five years married. Gráinne, his wife, on the other hand, is intent on speaking out about being abused by a priest in her teenage years. Grainne, a star journalist on a provincial newspaper, is determined to tell her story to the world, but the narrator wants to get away from “the high drama of Gráinne’s life” (80). His line of questioning is telling. “‘Are you still in daily contact with the Virgin Mary?’ I asked before we rang off”. This is followed by another cutting remark when they meet up: “What is the truth?”.

Tóibín’s narratives explore gay identities and experience and the destructive secrecy in Irish life. With regard to pre-1993 Ireland, Yerba describes secrecy in Tóibín’s writing as “a metaphor for the pleasures it hides”, which is a point well-taken, but, arguably, secrecy is, if not more complex, certainly more flexible. The writer, for example, who is often considered outspoken and at times outlandish, takes care to allow the shadows, the prejudices, to speak for themselves. Only after the shame of a hostile world gazing at them is diminished can Molly’s sympathies for her son be allowed. Similarly, with the women in The Blackwater Light. Family secrets in Ireland are not for sharing outside – or indeed at times inside – the home. So, if he is a transitional figure, Tóibín is more than this for his texts speak to contexts which don’t entirely define them. The narrator in “The Pearl Fishers” walks back alone through a “grim city” as if he were in a story out of Joyce’s Dubliners, but then he notices that “Dublin, no matter what remained, was new with gay men in twos and threes or hungry ones alone on their way to the Front Lounge or GUBU or some new joint that I have yet to hear about”. Another story or adventure beckons.

In a stimulating essay with an ambitious sub-title, “Revolution, Art and Memory Practices”, Melania Terrazas focuses on Evelyn Conlon’s story “What Happens at Night” (2014). The story first appeared in Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art (2014), an anthology of pieces by some fifty writers to paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland. The range of responses varied, some treating it as a stepping-point for personal reminiscence, some to a simple description in words of the canvas in front of them, and some to something more unusual. A complex layering is what Conlon achieves in juxtaposing two paintings by Sarah Purser and Edwin Hayes: A Lady Holding a Doll’s Rattle (1885) and An Emigrant Ship. Dublin Bay. Sunset (1853). Conlon imagines the upper-class woman in Purser’s painting pursuing a conversation with one of the women in the ship about to set sail. Across the social divide and the passage of time, the woman also comments on her own position vis-a-vis the audience: “And you think I sit here alone, bound by my frame…. You don’t think of me talking and sleeping and dreaming”. Her far-away gaze is focused on the fate of women both as emigrants and existing in a utopian future. Nothing is made by Conlon or Terrazas of the dedication in small letters on the canvas or the identity of the sitter. And that is right because the (female) gaze has its eye trained on elsewhere, the Other, and, as Terrazas suggests, on the need to breach “class and religious divides”. The story and the painting resonate against each other in a particularly evocative way, and we are left reflecting anew on the mediating role of the artist in revolutionary Ireland.