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5 January 2016 Edition

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Behind the scenes at the Abbey Theatre, 1916

BOOK REVIEW

The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution

By Dr Fearghal McGarry. Gill & Macmillan

THE TENSIONS between the radical, often socialist, nationalist and the intrinsically conservative ethos espoused by the Abbey Theatre’s ruling triumvirate of W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J. M. Synge take centrestage in a fascinating study during the truly dramatic events of the 1916 Rising and the prelude to revolution.

The focus of Abbey Rebels by Dr Fearghal McGarry, Reader in Irish History at Queen’s University Belfast, is on the lives of seven characters from widely differing backgrounds, all of whom  participated in the Rising and are named on a commemorative plaque in the Abbey:

Seán Connolly, the first rebel to be killed during Easter Week;

Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, the Abbey’s first leading lady, who left the Abbey due to conflicts over her radicalism;

Helena Moloney, a radical socialist, republican, Citizen Army volunteer, feminist and trade unionist (she was one of the few women to fire a shot during the Rising);

Ellen Bushell was one of the unsung heroes who undertook numerous essential tasks during the Rising and subsequently during the Tan War and Civil War;

Arthur Shields was a Protestant socialist who became a Hollywood film star, the brother of Barry Fitzgerald of The Quiet Man fame;

Barney Murphy was a member of Na Fianna Éireann, who automatically joined the Irish Volunteers upon their formation;

Peadar Kearney, Fenian, Gaelic Leaguer and author of the National Anthem, who broke with the Abbey to fight in the rebellion.

The lives and experiences of these seven are analysed in detail in three separate sections. Firstly, the period prior to 1916 which examines their backgrounds and the influences which contributed to their subsequent involvement in the Easter Rising; secondly, their activities during Easter 1916; and, finally, their activities  after the Rising in a state which fell far short of the egalitarian ideals for which they had fought.

The motivational forces that informed their radicalisation is especially interesting. Fearghal McGarry eschews the conventional narrative of a cultural Gaelic revival inspiring an impressionable and receptive generation to take up arms, and instead contends that the radicalisation was the result of many disparate but overlapping organisations and movements which provided the motivational impetus for Easter Week. 

The Abbey Theatre was just one small segment of the giant Venn Diagram that revitalised nationalist sentiment. It was really a symptom of the resurgence and not its instigator. The perception of the Abbey as a crucible of revolution seems to owe more to Yeats’s self aggrandisement and over-inflated opinion of himself as a catalyst for rebellion than it does to any real inspirational contribution to nationalist sentiment.

The final section of the book examines how far short of the ideals of 1916, the subsequent state fell. Each of the seven was effectively betrayed by an administration that not only failed to live up to the aspirations of the Proclamation but in many areas consciously subverted it, hence the sub-title “A Lost Revolution”.

This is a fascinating book, drawing on many previously unpublished sources. It is lavishly produced and crammed with contemporary photographs. By concentrating on mostly unknown participants (the obvious exception being Peadar Kearney), Fearghal McGarry has presented a highly accessible work providing a fresh viewpoint on a much-analysed topic.

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