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Jane Kelly’s book review: Poetry, forbidden passions and the politics of violence


The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, by Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ruth Dudley Edwards is no friend of Irish republicanism. At a recent debate about the Easter Rising of April 24, 1916, up against her caustic remarks the Irish ambassador looked as if he was chewing a wasp. Yet this book describes in fascinated, and for us fascinating, detail the lives of the seven men who led the Rising, now sometimes termed ‘the rebellion’. Sentimentality is anathema to Edwards but she has produced a delightful roller-coaster of Irish whimsy, repressed sex, back-biting, romantic nationalism, poetry and deadly politics.

Edwards’s group biography brings out the sheer unlikeliness, from a modern perspective, that at the heart of these seven terrorists were three poets, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett. Encouraged and often funded by W B Yeats, they scraped a living by teaching Irish and publishing small, failing literary magazines. In one of the acute glimpses she provides of the whole picture, Dudley Edwards shows the Modernist James Joyce sneering at their verse, calling it ‘weary and foolish’, despising their insistence on the Irish tongue.

Patrick Pearse is her pièce de résistance. It’s easy to laugh at Pearse; in fact it’s become fashionable. Bob Geldof had a pop at him in his recent TV documentary about the Rising, but whatever his failings he led a movement, perhaps unique in history, where poetry really did change history.

Despite her trenchant, no-nonsense style, Dudley Edwards does understand the romantic soul, and writes well about its complexities. She can see what people such as historian Desmond Ryan saw in Pearse: ‘In his dashing moods [he] struck you as quite insane, but . . . it was pleasanter to go mad [with him] than all the solid sensible folk in the world.’

Courageously she goes for his most difficult side, the reality underlying all Pearse’s adoration of Irish mythical heroes. Her biography of him published in 1975 was condemned in Ireland because she dared to tackle his homoerotic worship of young boys.

Educational reforms of 1907 removed all restrictions on bilingual teaching. With the help of MacDonagh he set up St Enda’s school in Dublin, named after a fifth century King of Ulster, where teachers would be a ‘wise and tolerant friend rather than a man of terror’, and children could be ‘constantly reminded of the fact that they are a separate race from England, that it is a badge of slavery for a race to use the language of any other in preference to its own’.

Through life at St Enda’s, which would have given Ofsted a few headaches, Dudley Edwards explores the growing split between the Anglo-Irish heritage of Yeats and the Young Irish/Gaelic Leaguers who wanted the main language to be Irish. She patronises them rather the way we might the gluten-free Guardianistas of today, and with rather harsh glee points out that ‘dialect wars were a feature of the Gaelic League, with speakers of Munster Irish the most venomous warriors’.

They hated men such as Eamonn Ceannt and Pearse who spent their holidays in the West, avidly trying to pick up the authentic Connacht strain. The ethos of the school was taken from what Pearse saw of rural life in the West, seen as essentially ‘pure’, and he wanted the children to be a mixture of the Irish King Cuchulainn and the young Jesus, but it also had a progressive element in its child-centred approach. Dudley Edwards writes that it ‘buzzed with excitement, enthusiasm, hope and achievement’.

There was of course what we now see as a very dark side. Pearse was fascinated by Wagner’s use of Norse mythology to link masculinity, national identity and cultural regeneration. There were tensions which could not be admitted: ‘Pearse used to kiss the young boys,’ wrote one ex-pupil in the 1940s. ‘He tried to kiss me but I wouldn’t have it.’

He once claimed in a lecture that the ‘horror of comely nakedness was a British imperial invention’, but even MacDonagh and Plunkett had to say something when he published a poem extolling a child’s soft red mouth and how he longed to kiss it. When they explained how people might take it, Pearse was mortified. Dudley Edwards is subtle in her attempt to find the truth, carefully avoiding anachronism. ‘Those were innocent times,’ she writes, ‘and Pearse was an innocent man.’

He, Mac Diarmada, Ceannt and Plunkett all had severe mother problems. Plunkett’s was perhaps the worst, a cruel domestic tyrant who kept her children short of food and clothing and killed their pets. As Plunkett had severe TB her behaviour nearly killed him. He had the best background of the conspirators: his father was director of what is now the National Museum of Ireland, a lifelong friend of Oscar Wilde. Dudley Edwards takes us into that late Victorian household of privilege based on property, where children were starved physically and emotionally.

Perhaps maternal deprivation explains how these men became subsumed by what Yeats called ‘the vertigo of self-sacrifice’. In each case Dudley Edwards carefully charts their gradual move from passive poetry to the politics of violence and the deliberate embracing of death. Sean Mac Diarmada, a polio victim, could never quite fix on which spelling of his name would give the Gaelic authenticity he craved. All these highly individuated men craved a cause that would take their whole devotion; all wanted to live out a myth and in that they were a total success.

Alongside these gay, fey, literary creatures were the more flinty types you might expect to lead a bloody insurrection: James Connolly, born into dire poverty in Scotland who rejected Church and nationalism in favour of Marx, and Tom Clarke, born on the Isle of Wight, the son of a British soldier, who plotted the overthrow of the British Empire from his tiny tobacconist’s on what is now Parnell Street. Clarke’s life story could have been written by Conrad. The author accuses him of ‘Miltonic hate’ and being ‘the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web’.

Dudley Edwards skilfully links the shifting lives of these men. ‘The Connolly family moved to Dublin. At this time, Tom Clarke was about to enter his thirteenth year in jail, Pearse was founding the National Literary Society, MacDonagh was training for the priesthood, Ceannt was studying hard for his school exams, Mac Diarmada was struggling to become an apprentice teacher and Plunkett was making the best of yet another governess.’

Her writing captures the strange texture of the past, showing how our grandparents thought and behaved; the issues, some long dead, which stirred them into courage and fanaticism. Her deep understanding of the period is obvious as she glides back and forth in time, from the Victorian era of Home Rule to Bobby Sands. She knows her subject so well that she sometimes makes little digs as if she knows the people personally, complaining for instance that Clarke went on with his revolutionary Fenianism even though Redmond, the great parliamentary Home Ruler, had been kind enough to visit him in prison. She expects her subjects to behave well or she can turn very peevish with them.

She likes some of the Seven better than others. In her school-mistressy way she calls the unhappily named Eamonn Ceannt, once plain Mr Kent, ‘the least memorable’ of the Proclamation signatories, but ‘reliable and competent’ as if he was doing the money for the local Boy Scouts. She accuses him of having ‘dull leisure pursuits’. Well, we can’t all be Wolf Tone. He is easy to mock with his temperance beliefs, ‘do not drown the shamrock’, and passion for playing the Irish pipes even unasked on railway platforms. She scoffs at his ‘constipated’ style of writing pamphlets. But her chapter on his life gives us a glimpse of how pleasant life was becoming for lower-middle-class, educated Dubliners at the time: toying with socialist ideas, founding small papers, going to new plays, exploring Irish poetry afresh. She takes us to their hearths and into their many clubs.

You can see how Dudley Edwards must often annoy Irish Catholic readers. Her bias is sometimes painful: ‘The RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] during the 1880s became reluctantly became politicised, for the Land League had exacerbated grain strife.’ Being dirt-poor is no excuse in her book. But this work is so vivid and fair that at its tragic conclusion the reader is left with something like real mourning for the men described so closely. It is also highly entertaining. Her footnotes are a joy. Who knew that ‘the dear brown white-backed cow’ was another name for Ireland? We learn that Plunkett founded the Irish Esperanto Society, and although she loathes them, Edwards seems to know all the Fenian, IRB and IRA ballads since the 1880s and who wrote them.

She has produced an intimate work of love and hate, much of it her own, as if the Seven were her family members gathered around her own tea table, and doesn’t she give everyone concerned a wigging.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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