Estibalitz Ezkerra is a PhD candidate in Comparative & World Literature. She is currently writing her dissertation on insurgency, the body, and memory in Irish and Basque fiction.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Éirí Amach na Cásca or the Easter Rising—an event whose celebrations I’ve been following with great interest due to the nature of my work, which focuses in part on the representation of insurgency in Irish fiction, but also as a Basque who was brought up with a keen sense of the importance of the Irish struggle for independence in the context of nation formation in Europe and elsewhere. In contrast to the 50th anniversary when all the celebrations focused on “the men of 1916,” this time the interest has shifted to the voices often unheard, disregarded, or forgotten by the official records. As a result of this shift, new publications are coming out on subjects ranging from women’s involvement in the rebellion to the experiences of the relatives of the rebels and of the English soldiers deployed in Ireland at that time.
Although not new, Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry (1999) is a novel I enjoyed reading the first time and like rereading from time to time precisely because it tells the story of Easter 1916 from a quite uncommon perspective—that of an orphan who grew up in the slums of Dublin. Through his acquaintance with the socialist leader James Connolly, Henry Smart, the main character of the story, learns that the cause of his misfortunes is not natural nor, as his mother believed, the consequence of having been named after a deceased brother who turned into a star in the sky the day he passed away. It is rather the product of the inequality perpetuated by class. Driven by the dream of a classless society where no child will die of starvation in the streets, as was the case of his younger brother Victor, Henry joins the Irish Citizen Army and plays an active role in the 1916 rebellion. There is no sense of heroism in Henry’s account of the events. It is rather a rough account through which the readers get a sense of the conflicting interests of the participants. After Connolly’s execution, Henry realizes that his socialist dreams won’t be fulfilled any time soon and the nationalist character of the struggle in the following years corroborates it.
A Star Called Henry was written eight decades after the rebellion, at a time when there was a substantial increase of risk of poverty experienced in households headed by women in the Republic (see Callan et al. Poverty in the 1990s), and scandals such as the abuse suffered by children between the 1930s and the 1970s in the state childcare system were exposed by the media. The novel can be read then as a reflection on the promises listed on Forógra na Poblachta or the Proclamation of the Republic of 1916 that went unfulfilled after independence and for which the Irish state must be held accountable. Similar is the strategy of At Swim Two Boys (2001), although in this case the focus is on gay rights. The protagonists of O’Neill’s novel are two boys who fall in love and decide to join the rebels to fight for a free country where they will be able to love freely each other.
Although not exactly an Easter 1916 novel, Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know (2012) points at the same direction as the two previous examples in the sense that it reads current events in the light of Ireland’s past history. In this case, however, the 1916 rebellion and the events that followed didn’t bring absolute independence as the Republic continues to be hunted by its colonial past. In a passage of the novel a group of politicians and influential businessmen, encouraged by the success obtained with their real estate enterprises in Ireland, decide to take over England’s market next, then Great Britain’s, then Europe’s, and finally the world’s. This vivid example of “colonization in reverse” is one of the many instances where Kilroy’s novel, a satirical take on Ireland’s real-estate development boom amid the Celtic Tiger, alludes to Irish anxiety to overcome and remediate, in this case through capitalism, the psychological trauma caused by its past yet ever present identity as England’s former colony and as Europe’s other. Yet as the protagonist of the novel, Tristam St. Lawrence, says, the cure may be worse than the ailment—in his view, by embracing aggressive capitalism the Republic has achieved what the English couldn’t: complete colonization.
These days I’ve been reading a lot about why Easter 1916 holds such an iconic position in Irish history and memory when it didn’t actually bring the end of British rule, although it certainly set the process of independence (Forógra na Poblachta issued by the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army was invoked in the Declaration of Independence in 1919). I think A Star Called Henry and At Swim Two Boys give us one possible answer: it was a year full of possibilities and potential, a promise of a better country for the Irish. However, not everybody agrees on that. In revisionist circles, the main argument is that the rebellion was insignificant in terms of the number of people involved since it didn’t have the support of the majority of the Irish who regarded the rebels as “criminals”—in some revisionist accounts the authors go as far as to call them “terrorists.” The violence displayed during the rebellion is now cause of discomfort for some as the West has become less accepting of the use of violence as a political means on Western soil. Wars are still fought, but they happen elsewhere and for the sake of democracy, or so are we told.
Easter 1916, however, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Keith Jeffery’s recent book, Easter 1916: A Global History (2015) reads the rebellion in relation to no less violent events happening in Europe and in the colonies as World War I progressed to shed some light on the circumstances that made the rising possible. If anything, Easter 1916 reveals the violence at the heart of the birth of the nation, a characteristic all Western nations share, and the trouble of decolonization. But then, as Ernest Renan famously said, forgetting is equally important to the creation of the nation for in the erasure of the foundational violence from the collective memory depends its success.
Recently a group of high school kids were asked in a debate contest if the memory of Easter 1916 should be put to rest and no longer celebrated in the Republic. A similar proposal is put forward in Edna O’Brien’s A House of Splendid Isolation (1994) as an antidote to the modern “troubles” in the North. In the novel, published the same year the Provisional IRA and the Loyalist paramilitary announced a complete cessation of military operations, the North has become a foreign country for the good citizens of the Republic, where history lives in folk tales and songs. The Fenian of 1916, as Josie tells IRA activist McGreevy, are all dead and their cause long gone. McGreevy disagrees and responds to the old lady in whose house he’s sought refuge that the South has forgotten the North.
There is no single memory of Easter 1916—it’s at least double. For the South, 1916 was the beginning of the end of British rule and the creation of the Irish State. Yet for the North that same date represents an unfulfilled promise since five years after the rebellion Ireland was partitioned with six counties of the north remaining under British rule. As it happens, 2016 is also the 35th anniversary of the hunger strike that took place in Maze prison to protest against Margaret Thatcher’s decision to suspend “special category” for Republican political prisoners. As a consequence of the hunger strike ten Republican prisoners died.