It’s always hard to tell stories that are centered around centenaries for few of your listeners were participants in the events; but many have received-memories from their families that may or may not accord with the story you are telling. If that centenary is touched by politics and revolution and civil war, then the problem for the storyteller multiplies.
My work in schools in 2016 coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Dublin, an event that challenged the British empire while it was at war with Germany and which many saw as an act of treachery, while others saw it as an act of valour.
For background: negotiations had been going on in Westminster for Home Rule for Ireland but were suspended on the outbreak of war. A minority of people — mostly living in the north-east corner of the island — wanted no truck with an Irish parliament but wished to stay with Westminster and saw themselves as loyalists. Many of them went to fight in the Great War, as did many more Irishmen, believing that victory over the German aggressor would mean a degree of self-government for Ireland when the war was ended.
An armed rebellion in Dublin on Easter Monday by three armed groups, the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army and the all-women Cumann na mBan lasted for less than a week. The insurrectionists surrendered in failure when some 1,500 rebels with rifles as their main weapon were defeated by a force of some 30,000 trained soldiers complete with machine-guns and artillery. If it had been left at that it would have faded away; but martial law had been declared in a time of war and the leaders were tried before a military court and sentenced to death by firing squad. The seven signatories to the proclamation of independence were shot, in small groups over several days, in a prison yard.
Fifteen people in total, all men, were executed at dawn in a prison yard, before public disquiet grew to outrage at the continuing loss of life; and the remaining sentences were commuted to prison terms. Most of the combatants were young men. They were taken away to Frongoch in Wales for incarceration. The women fighters were for the most part imprisoned in Dublin for a short time and released, the mistaken wisdom of the day being they were no further threat to anyone..
Such enforced close detention saw the would-be revolutionaries exchanging stories and experiences and knowledge that was to be used in a guerrilla war for independence that began in 1918 and led on to a treaty that partitioned Ireland into a 26-county Free State and 6 counties in Northern Ireland which remained in the United Kingdom. Some fighters refused to accept this new disposition and a civil war ensued, until 1923, when those who accepted the new order were victorious.
Such twists and turns of revolution inevitably left bitter foes of former comrades and opposing stories of what really happened.
The rising brought physical force republicanism back to the forefront of Irish politics, which for nearly 50 years had been dominated by constitutional nationalism.
The legacy of those times remain to this day in some families; as they do in other conflict areas around the world. It is knowledge of such emotions that I try to recognise in my work with Tellers without Borders in Ireland where we tell story without qualification to people in need who may hail from anywhere.
For myself, I had to consider how I was going to deliver a programme of 1916 commemoration storytelling to school children up to the age of twelve or thereabouts. Those whose families carried history and a particular view of events into their present-day lives would be mixed with children for whom these matters were as of a land far far away and long long ago such was the relevance to their everyday lives.
For my telling of story I decided on a frame story of a boy aged eleven years of age who lived in a tenement in the heart of Dublin and who on Easter Monday was on school holiday, as was everyone else. As it happened, that Easter week was warm and sunny. Like all other street kids he was bare-footed as he went about his days. His pals and he were playing football on the teeming streets with a ball made of paper and string when another boy arrived up the street to say there was fighting and shooting going on in the centre of the city. This boy was sucking a lollipop he could never afford to buy. It was looter’s booty. That one of the first shops attacked by looters was a sweetshop selling expensive wares is an historic fact. As a sideline piece of news he announced people were looting other shops for the necessities of life.
So, after some discussion, the footballers decided to go and see if they could find a real football on the side of the street, as it were. Using that device, I was able to tell the main happenings of the Rising and life in a city 100 years ago as seen through the eyes of a non-combatant child. The first task was to get my listeners to imagine a world without smart phones, social media, online games or anything else. I said basically anything that you plug in or charge did not exist. To which one response from a ten-year-old listener was “I don’t know how they survived.”
Nor do I, for many poor people were living one family to a room in three-storey over basement buildings that were built in more prosperous times in Dublin for the well-to-do and their large families and servants. The 1800 Act of Union saw the Irish parliament and its followers decamp to London. The houses left behind changed hands many times until they were reduced to a source of revenue to landlords as tenements. Wishing to maximise revenue these landlords crammed as many tenants into their properties as possible. It was not unusual for 100 people to live in one house. Add in terraces of such buildings and it can clearly be seen why my boy-hero and his ilk were turfed out onto the streets to “go and play”.
The boy survived the week’s fighting and shooting and bombing with nothing more than a scar on his forehead from a passing exploding firework and a stay in a hospital to regain consciousness and have his own blood washed off him by hospital staff to see if he was dead or simply unconscious after having been picked up off the street.
Other children were not as fortunate. Some 50 children died that week ranging in age from a baby in a pram to several teenagers, hit by flying bullets. It is not supposed that anyone on either side meant to kill children, but such close quarters between combatants and populations meant there was bound to be unintended casualties.
These deaths I included in my storytelling in classrooms, sometimes as reported deaths, other times as people known to my boy. Such build-up of detail, of young lives lived in an early 20th century European city in the midst of rebellion and mayhem where food quickly ran out inside the cordons thrown up by the combatants and where people found shelter and plunder alike where they could find it, resulted in a long frame story rather than a great many unrelated shorter stories on the same subject.
That I had also attended school in the city myself, many decades later, and was able to know what you could see from particular streetscape angles, helped lend verisimilitude. Such accumulation of personal knowledge of the geography of the city, remembered stories from my own forebears, my observations as a child of inexplicable animosity among neighbours of an older generation and research into areas I did not have first-hand knowledge of created about an hour-long presentation for modern children without as far as I could see offending many, if any, listening ears.
And when I was done, and asked for questions I was gratified across many classrooms and schools in different areas that they were questions of relevance to the story. By which I mean they were asked as if by children of the time who had just missed being there when the looted fireworks exploded in the middle of the city’s main street causing my boy hero to be taken to a nearby hospital where he woke up in a bed on his own for the first time in his life. He quickly decamped when he discovered that local policemen were coming to interview him about what he saw. Swaying along the streets through dizziness and loss of blood he held onto railings until he reached home where he was treated as a ghost by those who thought he had died, or, a hero, by those who admired his bandaged head.
These stories I told throughout the school system, watching my audience, and their adult teachers, all of the time for signs that I had transgressed and caused upset to my listeners. I saw none for I avoided making comment on the issues; but instead stayed with the story and the many stories I had rolled into the little hero’s journey. To be safe, and as I went through the year, I asked along the way if anyone had any knowledge of such happenings through family connection or story?
I thought perhaps to fine tune my telling against what I discovered. What I did not anticipate was that I would encounter modern day descendants of four of the seven executed signatories of the proclamation of independence that now hung upon the walls of the classrooms. As were the signatories of 100 years ago, these were all different people from different walks of life. Three were children, one an adult teacher.
I was telling story to the children of the people in my story. The most startling was a young girl who said she was related to a person on the list. I asked who and she told me who it was in a matter of fact way. He was her great-great-grandfather through her mother. I believed her, for when I looked closely at this girl during my telling I could see the bone structure of a well-known revolutionary there before me. Looking up at me as I told his story.
Sometimes, the leap between what was and what is can be eased through story. And when all was done and I asked her if she was happy with the telling of the story of 100 years ago she nodded and said she was going to re-tell the story to her mother than evening after dinner. I wondered how much her mother knew or had heard of their ancestor’s story. And I wondered if what I had told was in accord with that.
I had to quieten the storyteller within myself when the urge came to ask if I could talk to her mother and see what stories she remembered from family storytelling. That would have to be for another place and another time.
It would be another story.
Of then and now.
This article was originally published in Facts & Fiction February 2017 issue.