As Ireland celebrates the centenary of 1916 and we are exposed to revisionist readings of the event and its meaning in Irish history I am reminded of working on my first School Project. My Dad who took a lot of interest in my education chose the topic – the Easter Rising of 1916 – after all the country was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary. The year was 1966 and I was 11 years old.
My Dad loved attention to the details of any story and was always most careful about writing things down. Committed then to the information gathering part of the project he brought home pamphlets, and booklets about the Easter Rising, the Proclamation, the Signatories and their lives. I remember being disappointed that the photographs were all so old, often poor quality and inevitably black and white.
My mother, probably the better writer, before she sacrificed her gift to manage a house and children which she did with increasing chaos as we grew up, was more interested in the fact that many of the leading figures of the Rising were writers, poets and visionaries. As a young woman she’d even met some relative of Thomas Mc Donagh, when she won an essay competition on Radio Éireann – her topic the Easter Rising.
While my father was reading the pamphlets my mother would recite poems like Pearse’s The Mother or Yeats’ Easter 1916 and I was drawn by the words into a kind of dreaming that only poetry can evoke and would wonder for ages about what exactly a “bloody protest for a glorious thing” really was and could any mother really have wanted her two sons to go out and die? Even if they were to be called blessed for generations to come? And what was this “terrible beauty” that had been born?
I loved looking at the photographs though and trying to imagine Ireland in the early nineteen hundreds. I liked the story my mother told about Pearse being vain or having some kind of turn in his eye and always wanting to be photographed sideways with only his good eye visible. But that never stopped him dreaming about Ireland being free from English Rule.
My father read the Proclamation as if it was a holy book while I laboriously wrote down sentences that were a summary of what he had read. In the background my mother saying the lament for Thomas McDonagh … “He shall not hear the bittern cry in the wild sky where he is lain” and me feeling this great sadness and wondering what a bittern was. And my father asking me did I understand the importance of the “Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State” before I was allowed to write it down. But all I could hear was the dark cow lowing in the moor and the grief cry over and over in my mother’s recitation. And if Ireland was a dark cow still lowing in a meadow what was all this sacrifice really about?
On Telefís Éireann there was a new Irish drama bringing to life the events of 1916 and I remember the battle scenes in O’Connell Street and the headquarters in the GPO seeming so realistic. A young actor was so convincing playing Pádraig Pearse that he merged in my mind with the side profile, the poet and the signatory.
I was disappointed that the final presentation of my project had so much writing on it – for who would take the time to read it (other than my teacher) and bigger more colourful photographs might have drawn my classmates over to marvel at my work. But the information was all there as distilled by my Dad. He made sure I could name all the signatories to the Proclamation which I can to this day. And that I would appreciate their great sacrifice.
“But …(my mother’s recitation interrupted) /Was it needless death after all?… /And what if excess of love/ Bewildered them till they died?”
One night when we were working on my project my father said that when the hundredth anniversary of 1916 came about that he would probably not be around to see it but I most likely would. I should remember this time, he said, the fiftieth anniversary celebrations and my first school project on the Easter Rising. I knew he was speaking about a time when he would be dead and I alive in an Ireland without him.
It was impossible to imagine.
When he died in 1995 my grief cry was that of an eleven year old who had lost her Dad forever.