When the Abbey Theatre unveiled its commemorative programme for 2016, entitled Waking the Nation, its male-dominated nature provoked such a backlash that the beleaguered directors surely fantasied about unearthing a previously hidden typescript by a woman playwright.
The place to search would have been under the Abbey’s main stage. In 1916 the secretive space beneath the boards the actors trod on was a cornucopia of hidden treasure.
The printing press on which the Proclamation was printed was supposedly hidden there and it most certainly concealed a rifle belonging to Arthur ‘Boss’ Shields – a 20-year-old Abbey actor.
Shields only returned to Dublin on Easter Sunday 1916 from an Abbey tour abroad, aware that an insurrection was planned.
He was bitterly disappointed to find only a few confused fellow volunteers from his company had assembled as arranged in Fairview on Easter Monday.
For an actor though, the show always goes on. Amid the bewildering counter orders Shields sought permission to briefly leave his fellow volunteers and go into the Abbey.
If the insurrection did not go on, then the Abbey’s Bank Holiday matinee would. Shields intended to appear in one or the other.
But when he reached the Abbey, the GPO was already occupied by the rebels. He lingered in the theatre long enough to retrieve his hidden rifle before crossing O’Connell Street to report to James Connolly.
Shields’ week, which could have begun with a matinee, led him into the heaviest fighting in the GPO and Moore Lane.
Just before the surrender he was among seven volunteers chosen for a suicide mission – a diversionary charge to distract the British machine guns by running at them.
Thankfully this suicidal charge never occurred. Shields was there when Pearse surrendered to General Lowe, who was accompanied by his own son, John (Lowe) Loder – a junior British Army officer.
In later life John Loder and ‘Boss’ Shields enjoyed successful careers as Hollywood actors. I didn’t know if their paths crossed but I suspect that they might have agreed that no film set was more dramatic than Pearse’s surrender at Moore Lane.
The Abbey matinee did not happen on Easter Monday – the management cancelled it as soon as they heard the first shots fired in the greater piece of theatre occurring nearby.
But appropriately the shelved production was of Yeats’ incendiary play, Kathleen Ni Houlihan.
In a late poem Yeats posed a rhetorical question when asking: “Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” Yeats was partly showboating here, sharing Patrick Pearse’s tendency to want to place himself at the centre of things.
Tom Clarke’s widow, Kathleen, noted that “Sean MacDermott was always complaining to Tom that Pearse was not satisfied with getting honours he may have earned but wanted to grab what was due to others”.
Yeats’ rhetorical question displays a touch of this. Yet his play was sufficiently influential for Pearse, during his court martial, to mention its impact on him, and for Countess Markievicz, during her testimony, to call it “a sort of gospel”.
While this and some other Abbey plays captured the zeitgeist of the time, they had little impact on more practical leaders like Tom Clarke, Eamon Ceannt and Sean MacDiarmada, who were rooted in their physical force tradition.
But Yeats’ play caused a link in the public mind between the Rising and the Abbey.
This link saw the Abbey become the first national theatre to receive a state subsidy, shortly after independence.
It was solidified in 1966 when Sean Lemass unveiled a plaque at the Abbey to ‘Boss’ Shields and six other 1916 veterans who had worked there.
Over time their stories were forgotten but now a book by the historian Fearghal McGarry, The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution (Gill & Macmillan), reclaims these overlooked figures.
They range from actors like Maire Mic Shuibhlaigh – the Abbey’s first leading lady – to the usherette Ellen Bushell.
Also present is the actor Sean Connolly, whose last performance in the Abbey was in Kathleen Ni Houlihan, and who was the first rebel to die. When Connolly was shot (by a sniper) on the roof of City Hall, he was comforted by another Abbey stalwart, Helena Molony.
The Abbey rebels also included Bernard Murphy, a stage carpenter, and Peadar Kearney, who worked backstage, and whose Soldier’s Song became more influential than any Yeats’ play.
Three of the seven are female and their experiences during the Rising presaged what was to come for women.
Thomas MacDonagh only reluctantly allowed Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh to join his garrison in Jacob’s factory, sourly informing this sophisticated 33-year-old woman that: “We haven’t made any provisions for girls here.”
Ellen Bushell similarly struggled to gain entry to a garrison and had to carry dispatches and food between outposts.
But McGarry’s fascinating account of the Abbey’s direct and indirect involvement with the Rising highlights these seven ordinary Dubliners.
They moved from being actors, prompters, carpenters and usherettes in imaginary plays about a risen Ireland to playing dangerous roles in the most realistic, deadly piece of theatre that Dublin had even seen.