June 2016        

Books

A vivid picture of 1916

Jenny Farrell

■ Liam O’Flaherty, Insurrection (1950).

“It was noon on Easter Monday 1916 in the city of Dublin” is the opening sentence of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel of Easter 1916, Insurrection. Although it was written more than thirty years later, O’Flaherty gives the reader a sense of eye-witnessing five days of the Rising, largely from the viewpoint of a Conamara man, Bartley Madden. Madden, who has returned to Dublin from working in an English war factory, is sucked into events of which he has no prior knowledge.
     In the opening pages of the book O’Flaherty draws a vivid picture of Dublin at the time. O’Connell Street is the melting-pot for insurgents marching to the GPO, English recruiting officers, impoverished slum-dwellers, and former soldiers of the imperial army, as well as country folk arriving for a day out at the Fairyhouse races. From this motley crowd O’Flaherty weaves a tale, in which they all have a role to play.
     The main character, however, is Madden, and the people he associates with during the Rising, which he is drawn into, despite initial reluctance. What captivates the anti-war Madden is his unexpected identification with the aim of the Rising. This happens when the leaders of the Rising emerge from the GPO and Patrick Pearse reads out the Proclamation. O’Flaherty quotes directly from this, as Pearse reads, and intersperses it with the effect the words have on Madden. Pearse reads out: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be sovereign and indefeasible.” And Madden translates this into the feelings associated with home: “He heard his mother’s crooning voice and felt the cool touch of her hand on his sick forehead, while the roar of the distant sea came through the moonlit window of his room . . . He heard the creaking of ropes through their blocks and the great rustle of unfurling canvas as the hookers hoisted sail going down Kilkerrin Bay.”
     This deep association of what Madden calls the Idea with childhood and his home, native people and nature, recurs throughout the novel. This convinces Madden of the rightness of what he engages with.
     O’Flaherty chooses to give the reader largely the viewpoint and experience of the working-class man and woman. It is Mrs Colgan, charwoman and tenement-dweller, who takes Madden to the Rising. She is unwavering in her determination and efforts to support the rebels. Like Madden, her motivation is mainly an emotional understanding of the Rising as an opportunity to fight the oppressor. She also wishes to protect her sixteen-year-old son, whose involvement stems from meetings at Liberty Hall. She is informed on by her neighbours but reacts with surprise rather than hatred.
     Leaders with a more analytical understanding of the situation appear only on the fringes. They are not what this novel is about; rather, it expresses the experience of the ordinary, multifaceted Dublin population in the final days of April 1916. They are viewed with humour, compassion, and realism. Much space is given to the looting revellers and the rebels following the races at Fairyhouse as they prepare for grenade attacks as well as the deadly earnest of shelling and dying.
     O’Flaherty had volunteered as a soldier in the very imperial army he depicts as the enemy on the streets of Dublin. He had been shell-shocked and traumatised in a way that affected him for the rest of his long life. He never again could bear loud noise. Yet this novel is full of the horrendous noise of rapid fire, grenade attacks, and shelling, which serve as a constant aural backdrop.
     However, O’Flaherty also often refers to a sense of “rapture” and “ecstasy” felt by Madden as he engages in killing. A mix of factors goes into this, including past RIC violence against him, but another one is the sheer power of uncontrollable emotional intensity. It is one of the strange qualities of this novel that Yeats’s line “A terrible beauty is born” finds a home in it.
     O’Flaherty writes graphically about the horrors of war in his anti-war novel Return of the Brute (1929), where the reader is exposed to the realities of the imperialist military and its destruction of people’s humanity. In Insurrection, published after the Second World War, he portrays the possibility of fighting for a justified cause, a war of liberation. He distinguishes clearly between the insurgents and the imperial army, on whose side there are also Irishmen. There is no ambiguity in O’Flaherty’s depiction of the Rising having a just reason, where military action and killing are legitimate. The insurgents we meet close up look out for each other, deepen in their humanity.
     As surrender becomes increasingly likely, Kinsella, Madden’s commanding officer, comments: “We must hang on desperately to the last moment; because every moment that we resist in arms makes certain that our sacrifice will bear fruit in making our comrades in the provinces and our whole people begin to fight. Even if we are crushed and lose our lives, our Rising will still be victorious, if we set an example of courage to the people of Ireland; an example that will make them take up arms and fight for their freedom.”
     Insurrection is O’Flaherty’s last novel, after which he concentrated on short stories. Most of his novels were written in the 1920s and 30s, and many explore crucial moments in Irish history. After half a century of bloody violence and war in Europe, O’Flaherty makes a statement about the difference between imperialist and anti-imperialist war and creates a monument for the ordinary people who understood the difference.

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