Tuesday 28 January 2020

A 'Poets' Rising' that was deeply intolerant of great Irish literature


Sean O'Casey in 1927
Sean O'Casey in 1927
Francis Ledwidge

For an insurrection that entered the public imagination as 'The Poets' Rising' - or as an uprising deeply linked with poetry - it is surprising how little literature has been inspired by Easter 1916.

There is one great, and neglected, novel - Insurrection - by Liam O'Flaherty: a writer too much a maverick to be embraced by the conservative newly-declared Republic when it was published in 1950.

There was one truly great poem written in its aftermath. Easter 1916, by WB Yeats, is a courageous response to an 'utterly changed' world. But the sense of Yeats having the courage to speak out is dampened by the realisation that he waited four years to publish his poem.

Yeats' more immediate response to the Rising was to use Major John MacBride's execution as a chance to unsuccessfully propose marriage to MacBride's wife, Maud Gonne, and, more bizarrely, to her 21-year-old daughter - 30 years his junior.


The one great play that encapsulates the chaos in Dublin during the Rising is The Plough and the Stars by Sean O'Casey - a courageous and honest work which provoked carefully orchestrated riots when premiered it in 1926.

Ironically there was little public interest in the tenth anniversary of the Rising, with newspapers preoccupied with a general strike in Britain. But the stark realism in O'Casey's portrayal of Dublin was sufficient to make the Rising front page news again, partly thanks to Republican activist and campaigner against free speech, Frank Ryan.

The farcical scenes during the fourth performance of the play display the contradictions at the heart of the Rising. If anyone expected that a Rising led by poets would create a climate where good writing was welcomed, then it became clear to people like Samuel Beckett (who sat in the balcony on opening night) that the Ireland spawned by these poets had no room for literature that refused to spout standard pieties.

When Ryan assembled a group of women associated with Rising in the Abbey on that fourth night of O'Casey's play, they came prepared to be offended before a word was spoken on stage.

O'Casey had refused to give them the high mysticism of Yeats' early play, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Instead he showed the reality of a tenement population who, by and large, were more preoccupied with everyday survival than with the ideals that these women felt their menfolk had died for.


In some ways the Abbey riot was more an extension of the Civil War than a critical response to a literary work. Ten years on, people were rewriting history to stake out new roles for themselves.

On stage, the actor Barry Fitzgerald - whose brother, 'Boss' Shields, fought with incredible courage in the Rising - engaged in hand to hand combat with protesters while playing Fluther Good.

By 1966 four decades had passed since those riots, but government policy when planning the 50th anniversary celebration of the 'Poets' Rising' was clear: the two great works inspired by the Rising - Yeats' poem and O'Casey's play - were banned from any official commemoration.

Many of the survivors undoubtedly approved, because of a strange contradiction within the Rising - while a certain style of poetry was central to it, so too was a deep intolerance of literature that was too realistic or which refused to toe the party line.

That said, in his final days Pearse produced a fine poem, The Wayfarer, who was innovative in Ireland for using unadorned free verse and which remains moving.

It seems unlikely that Plunkett would ever have developed an original voice like Pearse, but perhaps the most promising of the three poets was Thomas MacDonagh.

MacDonagh's poetry is largely forgotten, except for a fine translation of the Irish poem, An Bonnán Buí. In a strange irony his name lives on in poetry because of a poem written by an Irishman in a British uniform.

Francis Ledwidge was due to be court martialled for his behaviour after the Rising when he visited his native Slane.

He called to his family bearing his latest poem, written in memory of his friend Thomas MacDonagh. It begins:

He shall not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky, where he is lain…

Lament for Thomas MacDonagh is one the great poems inspired by 1916, written by a doomed man trapped in the same uniform as the soldiers who had just executed his friend.

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