The 1916 Rising in Ireland. A short story.
May 27th 2015.
I knew an ould man in Dublin.
Springtime in Ireland, as with almost everywhere I imagine, is announced by a high degree of fanfare in the natural world, a sort of rebirth as it were takes place right before your eyes. From the cold howling winds, the mud and the damp, the huddled fireplaces and hot black tea poured into shivering mugs, there comes new life and the promise of beauty, warmth and abundance. Generally it’s the birds who are first to announce Spring’s arrival, then comes a barely perceptible increase in the amount of daylight to be enjoyed, sticky buds on lurching chestnut trees, shamrock clusters in the lawn and finally to seal the deal as it were, the daffodils show up, in great multitudes, exploding with wild color bursts in all sorts of places in a mad race to stay ahead of the weeds and grasses slowly awakening from their long Winter slumber.
So it was in the Spring of 1966 below the heathery foothills of the Dublin mountains at a time when the infinite possibilities of life still lay far ahead for small boys in short pants and bulging anoraks. In our ranks, the subtle changing of seasons was always greeted with eager anticipation of what feasts and traditional celebrations would punctuate the days ahead and what sport and craic, as we say, the season might bring. St Patrick’s day for instance, would be a holiday, and even with its religious obligations and rainy parades it would still be a day off school and there would be a big ham dinner too. Not bad eh?. But only small potatoes compared to the Easter holiday with a whole entire week off school. Even with the gruesome regimen of religious obligations associated with the passion of Christ, all the delicious creamy chocolate of Easter eggs would far outweigh any of these minor miseries. Now this particular year, there was a rumor trickling down from the grown-up world that this coming Easter was to be something rather special. We would apparently be celebrating an event that took place some fifty years earlier in the very streets of our beloved city. In school, we had learned that Irish history was largely an account of humiliating defeats in battle, treachery, betrayal and tragedy, but worst of all a kind of abject misery that lingered around for hundreds of years. It was pure drudgery to slog your way through long tedious hours dedicated to this subject in the classroom. Worse was having had to memorize the dates of one terrible atrocity after another inflicted upon our unfortunate race. Why didn’t they ever fight back, we asked ourselves, unaware of course in our relatively comfortable lives of the debilitating powers of poverty and slavery.
But all that had changed on the streets of Dublin during the Easter week of 1916. Against overwhelming odds, a rebel army took the city’s streets and strongpoints, with little hope of a real victory and with even less hope of ever coming home to see their families again. There was but one punishment for rebellion in the Empire in those days. It was however a deal they seemed not just willing, but eager to make. A deal that promised them the golden opportunity to squeeze off a few rounds of live ammunition directly into the face of a cruel conqueror who had horribly misused generations of their flesh and blood. On surveying the violent destruction of his once sleepy city, the great poet William Butler Yeats wrote, in barely concealed admiration “ All’s changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born”
Now to a 9 year old fifty years is of course an eternity and this upcoming event reeked of cobwebs and mothballs from your grannies linen drawer. Still, an event of this kind could not be overlooked for its potential to be exploited for all manners of juvenile frivolity. There would clearly be many opportunities where the adult world would be distracted from the misbehavior and carry on of youngsters in the midst of parades, ceremonies and speeches by dignitaries and such. This was just going to be great. The Irish people of course, having a natural flair for theatrics and drama would of course, outdo themselves in every respect for a commemoration of this nature and in the weeks prior to the Easter, camera crews and actors in costume could be seen in the city streets while bleachers and banners and statues were rushed to completion everywhere in the final days of busy preparation. The national broadcasting company, RTE, had plans to air not just a single program, but a series of nightly broadcasts, where the events of each day would be played out in mock news bulletins. It was to be as though the rebellion was actually happening over again, only this time with familiar looking reporters and cameras, on the scene…live..! The excitement at every level was palpable and even though the outcome of the rising would predictably be a crushing defeat for the rebels by an overwhelming Imperial force, we would urge our brave lads along every last flippin’ inch of the way. This was just going to be incredible. Night after night we were glued to our tellies and during the day we would run through the woods like wild animals brandishing sticks and shouting “up the rebels”. There were rides in cars and busses, parades and visits from relatives, a total disruption of everything ordinary and as long as the rebels still held the city we were free. They lasted a week.
On the last night of the broadcasts we watched the heart breaking scene as the boys finally came out of the rubble under a flag of truce to surrender. Just a week before, these warriors had been mere boys practicing in the woods with wooden guns. But here they were now stepping through the smoke and carnage of a massive bombardment. These were no longer boys, oh no, in fact one could hardly say they were actually men either, for on their scarred and blackened faces they wore a frightening look, a look that changed everything. It was a look of cold detachment that spoke volumes about what they had seen and what they had done and it was clear to all who saw those grim faces, that there was a statement in those emboldened eyes and it said loudly and it said with contempt, it said, “yes, we have drank from the cup of Liberty, do with us what you will, but know that we shall never bow to you again.” They were Gods!
Monday, oh boy, Monday was a huge crash, a total bust. Nothing could be found where it should be, not socks or shoes, schoolbags, sweaters, lunches or homework and to make it entirely worse the bus to school was being driven like a funeral procession at about five miles per hour. Now the driver, if asked, might have given some intricate story about the vagaries of the internal combustion engine, but I suspect that he, as with all of us on that ride had simply overindulged over the course of the extraordinary holiday and we were now having trouble getting our own engines firing so to speak. At any rate, the situation was deteriorating badly and it seemed inevitable that I would be late for school, well beyond any reasonable excuse that is. Now third class in our particular Christian Brothers school meant you had Bruyers and Bruyers had a far reaching reputation as one who would straighten out the most wayward of boys in a heartbeat, with discipline and with a leather strap if necessary. This was a towering hulk of a man in a huge black cassock that swayed an inch above the floor with countless buttons from his close shaven chin to the shiny toes of his black leather shoes. Many years later in a movie theater in Los Angeles, I would watch Darth Vader first appear onscreen and emerge from his Imperial shuttle to inspect the new death star. I was immediately frozen on the spot, by a flashback of this huge authoritive man. Let me put it this way, Bruyers was definitely not a man to be trifled with. Finally we reach the bus stop at Parnell Square. I hop from the still moving tailboard for extra thrust and hit the ground running, knees bright red from the cold. I am dashing up to the intersection when I see him. It’s the doddery old crossing guard, our shaky and watery eyed lollipop man, scanning the traffic like a hawk and holding back the bustling pedestrians like he had all the time in the world. Listen old man, I say to myself, sorry about your Parkinson’s and all but I’ve got no time for this polite civil nonsense, not today and I fly out between two parked cars and make a mad dash across the busy street. After some dodging and twisting, I’m on the other side. Behind me is the squealing of rubber tires and a voice yelling..”I’ll get you, ye little shite ye..!” Quickly through the door and past the statue of the Virgin and oops, oh no, there he is. It’s Bruyers, busily chatting with some tradesman or other in the hallway. Don’t look around, oh please don’t look around. I see my chance. I shuffle stealthily past the two conversing men, two steps, four, six now eight, Oh my God in heaven let me do this, I’m at the door, almost, whoop, I’m in..! Lord almighty, I did it. Boy that was harrowing. So I am now finally in a room of some thirty odd juveniles raving about the brilliant week they just had and smushing leftover Easter egg chocolate all over their faces. I am safe and ready, delighted even, to resume the normal daily ritual of schoolboy life again.
The morning is fabulously boring as usual and absolutely nothing unexpected happens, that is until I hear a knock on the door at about ten a.m. I consider my seat to be the best in the class, as being nearest the door I get to do the honors. So I amble up to the huge ancient Victorian wooden door and crack it. Bollix no.! Just when I thought I was safe, it’s him, there he is, the vindictive old joxer of a lollipop man has come all the way up here to betray me to Bruyers. That’s it, I’m dead meat. Quickly I scurry through the door pulling it shut behind me before anyone can see the diminutive visitor. I immediately launch into my last possible defense. A pathetic plea for mercy spews from my trembling lips, but I can hardly hear my own words. He is speaking too and there is an awkward verbal tangle, a confusion. I think he is shaking his fist at me but then I see a small box in his shaking hand, he wants me to look, calm down he says. Finally, in silence, I slowly open the box, it is heavy and there lying on a bed of the softest cotton wool is a huge shimmering golden medallion. On its surface is clearly embossed the classical façade of Dublin’s GPO. The headquarters of the 1916 rebellion. There are flames spurting from all the windows and high above the fluted columns of the portico flies the proud flag of the rebel insurrection. The flag of a new nation struggling to take its very first steps into the modern world. My nation.
It was as though a huge cold bucket of pure shame had been emptied over me. Good Lord in heaven, he had been there, the man was in that burning building. He had tasted those very flames. He was one of them. I could feel his fiery eyes drilling into the back of my head and in my mind I could hear his voice saying, “what do ye think of that now, ye little prick” So, with my face covered in a sorry mixture of snots and tears, I slowly turned to him to face my judgement, but what I saw was not at all what I expected, it was a face without a shred of contempt or malice. There was a warm dreamy glow about his long hawkish face and a wild shock of pure white hair rose dreamily above his furrowed brow. There was not a hint of judgement or wrath in his demeanor; in fact he seemed to float effortlessly over the old worn terrazzo floor, content and easy as it were, in a place that years later I would come to know myself simply as the moral high ground. There was no menace, no harm of any kind in this gentle old warrior. I’m sure he had wanted to kick my little Dublin street urchin arse earlier but now he just stood there smiling at me. We had a moment and then he politely asked if we should go inside and see if the brother would let us show the other boys his medal. Though clearly unworthy, I was quick to accept the reprieve and with huge pride I announced him to the classroom. This was not just a lollipop man, this was a hero, not like in the cinema or on TV, this was our very own hero, a hero of the Irish nation and mornings at the crosswalk on Parnell St. would never ever be the same again.
Many Easters have come and gone since that day and still I conjure up the image of that old man’s face, the tired watery eyes and the shock of snow white hair. I think of him when I am shrinking under the sheer burden of life and in those times when I have offered up my liberty, or my pride for a haven of safety or security. I think of him when my strength fails me. My connection to religion has certainly waned since those days, but when I do pray, it is always for the same thing, I pray for courage and I suppose that is what he has come to symbolize for me. Yet I think sometimes of how he might be judged today. With our modern enlightened thinking, we would surely say “look, this man was a violent extremist, a gunman, a terrorist with no regard for the loss of innocent life or damage to property” fighting for what was simply his pet cause. How is he is any better than a radical jihadist fighting to preserve the purity of Islamic life against the spread of Western values. We might ask, would independence not have come eventually to Ireland without all this violence and destruction. Is it not also true, that since that Easter morning so many millions of brave souls the world over have fallen in valiant combat for lofty ideals, the countless heroes of long forgotten campaigns, or barely remembered causes. Martin Luther King once said that violence can only beget more violence and we see this over and over in conflict after conflict. Yes, yes, it’s all entirely true, so why then does this feisty old lollipop man tear away the shroud of pure reason, this knowing better, and stir my heart so profoundly. I have not taken up my pen to worship acts of violence, nor to validate the use of the gun or sing its praises in any way. In fact I can barely bring myself to think of this man in the height of his violent struggle, it is too painful to imagine that gentle soul there in the horror of those roaring flames, surrounded by his comrades, some fallen and others still clenching their burning weapons as bombs, bullets, bricks and glass burst all around them. I have to stop myself, for fear of being sucked into this cycle of rage and madness that tears the world apart to this day. I cannot allow myself to wear the cold eyes of those who believe in the awful inevitability of endless wars. No, I can only think of him as I saw him then, bravely marching his little band of schoolboys into the oncoming traffic. I can hear the squeal of brakes as lumbering vehicles come to a reluctant halt. I am shuffling past the great white folds of his raincoat in total safety, as he thrusts his sign high into the air to cry STOP.! And with his hawkish gaze, daring those snorting juggernauts to come just one inch closer, because it was in his nature to protect others, it’s just what he did. It’s what he always did and I suspect it’s what he did on that bright Easter morning all those years ago when he lifted up his gun and walked out into the streets of Dublin to meet his squadron. It’s what he did when he turned his bright young face towards the bloody muzzle flash of machine guns, to the furious roar of cannon and when he spat in the face of the greatest military force in the world, when he summoned all of his courage and drove his dagger into the heart of a cruel and intolerant empire that had trod upon his people for generations. It’s just what that old man did, that’s who he was and for that I can only remember him with extraordinary fondness and love.