I thought I had a handle on most things Irish. I thought I knew my writers, my poets, my rebels – the main players at any rate. I thought I knew enough to at least recognise a name, even if the biography that I could put with it was a tad thin. But was I wrong. So wrong.
At the 1916 commemoration here in Budapest (yes, Ireland, other countries commemorated it, too), I sat through an enjoyable 70-minute documentary, 1916: the Irish Rebellion. It was broadcast around the world, live from the National Concert Hall in Dublin. An initiative of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame in collaboration with RTÉ, it was narrated by the lovely Liam Neeson and was a great refresher of what happened 100 years ago.
While I’m still not convinced of the influence 1916 had on the rest of the world, it did teach me things I didn’t know, or had forgotten. And it introduced me to one Michael Joseph O’Rahilly, known to all and sundry as The O’Rahilly. While others afterwards were commenting on the historical worthiness of the film, I was asking: Who’s yer man? The O’Rahilly? Why did I never hear of him before?
Some weeks later, I was in Dublin doing a 1916 walking tour. Under the able guidance of a young History graduate from Kilkenny, we walked and talked our way through the Dublin of Easter 1916.
He was a breath of fresh air. It was obvious from the get go that he loved his history and had an enviable ability to make it interesting. Rather than recounting dates and giving potted biographies of the players, he told us a story of men who believed, who had a vision. And he told it to us as if he was talking about lads he knew and knew well.
Talking about how the boys kept badgering Germany to give them guns, he said: Sure we wrecked the Germans heads.
Telling us how Britain saw WWI as something to divert their attention from the Irish, he said: The British Prime Minister and the King of England were freaking out over Ireland.
Commenting on the various skills that the rebels brought to the table, most of them being intellectuals and artists, he said of Pearse: He couldn’t shoot, but he was great for the half-time team talk to gee up the men.
Illustrating how the general public in Dublin had no clue what was going on, with British soldiers firing up O’Connell St and our lads firing down, he said: On Easter Monday, people went down to the bridge [O’Connell Bridge] for a gawk and a gossip.
Explaining how revolutionary the Proclamation is in terms of how it puts the rights of men and women on an equal footing, he old us that: James Connolly was all into girl power.
He’d close his eyes as he told us stories as if he was remembering being there himself. Never, ever, ever before has history taken on a life of its own in my company. The lad’s a genius.
And we got some interesting tidbits. I didn’t know that one-third of the British Army in WWI was Irish born. Or that the The Irish Republican Brotherhood was viewed as a nursing home for old Fenians. I knew things were bad in the city but hadn’t realised that the child mortality rate in Dublin was worse than in Calcutta with 6/10 children dead before they turned 10. Or that in 1916, there was worse poverty in the city than in Cairo. I’ve often wondered why we have Gaelic football but never knew that it was because soccer wasn’t tough enough for the Irish and this was our answer.
I never knew that the world’s first broadcast came from the Irish School of Wireless Telegraphy on O’Connell St: Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising. Before he was executed, Thomas McDonagh apparently offered his executioners cigarettes saying ‘it’s a dirty job lads, but someone’s got to do it.’ Arthur Shields, brother of film star Barry Fitzgerald, who fought alongside Pearse went on to play Pearse in the 1936 John Ford film The Plough and the Stars. I bet that was far from his imaginings back then. And to think that I’d never noticed the bullet holes in Daniel O’Connell!
I never knew either that in 1900, Dublin had the biggest red light district in Europe, all cleaned up 20 years later by the Legion of Mary. And I didn’t know that what is now Bank of Ireland College Green was the first purpose-built parliament in Europe and has no windows on the outer walls because the clever architect put all the windows in the roof to avoid the window tax. And as for the GPO – the remodelling took 8 years. It had the first lift in Dublin when it reopened in March 1916. And a month later, the inside was completely burned out. Such luck.
But probably my favourite story of the lot was of a Swede and a Finn, soldiers on a week’s R&R in Dublin, who ended up as snipers on the roof of Trinity College. They spoke no English but by the end of the week, he said, they could say the rosary in Irish. Classic.
And he, too, spoke of The O’Rahilly. And his famous charge up Moore Street in an attempt to distract the British and give the lads in the GPO a chance to escape. His was probably the most famous quotation from the Rising: Well, I’ve helped to wind up the clock – I might as well hear it strike. Of all that was done in the course of those six days, his glorious madness was what stood out for me. He wrote to his wife as he lay dying in Sackville Lane, which would later be renamed O’Rahilly Parade (how come I didn’t know that!). There was a plaque erected on the site in 1937 and a new one put up in 2005 – this one featuring a copy of the note he wrote as he lay dying, etched on the wall.
This was the end of our tour. The tears that came could have been from the biting cold, but I think it was from the emotion of it all. I’d never fully appreciated 1916 or the sacrifices made or the vision those boys had. To think that the whole country was against them but yet they soldiered on, convinced that this would change the minds of the Irish people and make them sit up and strike back in some form or fashion. How right they were.
If you’re in Dublin this year, do yourself a favour and book yourself a place. 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. Leaves at 11.30 am from the International Bar on Wicklow Street Monday to Saturday and on Sunday at 1pm. €13 per adult. It’s worth twice the money and more.