by ehistoryadmin on April 13, 2017

Rising rings out in the night air

Liam Kenny

This column had thought it had had seen it all in terms of interpretation of the Easter Rising. Every creative impulse in the make-up of the Irish was unleashed over the past Easter weekend as the story of P.H. Pearse and comrades was portrayed in the most diverse and imaginative ways. The word “re-imagine” might have appeared as a component of a slick tag-line devised by a branding consultant for the centenary package. However it turned out to be a true and, if anything, an understated description of the kinds of spectacularly novel portrayals of the 1916 Rising over Easter weekend.

Among the outstanding examples of such re-imagining was one which ranged across the town of Maynooth on the evening of Easter Monday when local author Martina Reilly and a cast of actors from the Maynooth’s An Nuadha drama group staged a high tempo dramatic recreation of the story (entitled “Conquered not we were”) of the fifteen men who marched from the old Geraldine town on the night of Easter Monday 1916. Her concept was essentially a play but one not confined to the rectangle of a theatre stage but rather a dynamic theatrical itinerary which ranged over two miles from the gate of Maynooth College to the porticos of Carton House. Hundreds of people – including children gleeful at being allowed run free – broke into a canter in pursuit of the actors formed up in their company of fifteen as they set off at a quick march through the town and at a scorching pace down Carton avenue. Their itinerary was punctuated by pauses and dramatic interventions which highlighted parts of the original story while giving the audience time to catch its breath. So at one stage a woman emerges from the side street pleading with a Volunteer not to join the fight. Pausing on the way the squad of actors mimed clearing the obstacles on their way to Dublin such as jumping from walls beside the railway and snatching sleep in Glasnevin cemetery.

Although popular recollection of the episode stops when the Maynooth unit under the commandant of Boer War veteran Tom Byrne reached the GPO in fact it was there that their mission began. Although weary from their long and tense trek avoiding the British cordon they were sent even deeper into the cauldron of combat. The Irish Citizen Army unit which had occupied City Hall on Easter Monday were having a torrid time. Their officer commanding Sean Connolly (who had Straffan roots) had been shot dead and the rebellion headquarters at the GPO had decided to send the Maynooth men to take up position in Parliament Street to divert the British pressure from the beleaguered City Hall garrison. Over the next 24 hours the Maynooth men were embroiled in intense urban warfare as waves of soldiers attempted to dislodge them from the newspaper offices they had occupied. This Parliament street phase of their operation was portrayed by the Nuadha players using the portico of Carton as a representation of the GPO and of the Parliament Street bastion. Startling sound effects rang out over the darkening north Kildare landscape as the battle on stage intensified.

Eventually the Maynooth contingent was forced to withdraw back towards the GPO. Most were subsequently among the Volunteers that surrendered in Moore Street – others escaped to be rounded up later by the British in their post-Rising trawl of suspected militants.

The entire story with its complex strands when the Maynooth company found themselves going in different directions as the Rising came to a fiery conclusion were portrayed with dizzying energy by playwright and cast.

Such was the impact of this triumph of theatre in the night air that this column was sent back to the original sources and compelled to take up the story as told by one of the participants, Patrick Colgan, who dictated his memoir with a soldiers’ eye for detail – his post Rising military career saw him reach Major rank in the young army of the Irish Free State.

Colgan recalled the following squad of Irish Volunteers had mustered in Maynooth on Easter Sunday: Domhnall Ua Buachalla, the driving force of the Volunteers in the village; Liam Ó Raogain,Seán Graves, Joseph Ledwith, Mathew Maguire, John Maguire, Timothy Tyrell, Thomas Mangan, Patrick Kirwan, Oliver Ryan, Captain Tom Byrne, Lieut.O’Kelly, Thomas Harris (later Kildare T.D.), Patrick Weafer and himself, Patrick Colgan. After a drama of an ecclesiastical kind when the College President, Monsignor Hogan, first refused to give the rebel contingent his blessing, but then relented, the squad left the college by the back gate leading to the bank of the Royal Canal.

Colgan was instructed to move ahead of the main party to scout the bridges over the railway and ensure that there were no sentries. Joining him in the advance sweep was his close friend, Thomas Mangan. Their armament comprised of a point 22 revolver and a shotgun. Hardly enough to combat an army equipped with war-fighting weaponry but sufficient to give the fright of a lifetime to two locals minding their own business on the bridge at Leixlip rail station. As Colgan recalled with some frankness: “full of my own importance, I ordered them to move, letting them see I was an armed man; I had my little point 22 revolver.” Curiously this note of bravado in the face of a weaker party is repeated later on in the story when he tells of a Maynooth volunteer producing a weapon when the hapless toll-keeper on the Halpenny Bridge demanded the toll. Hardly the stuff of rebellion against a greater power. However even the most epic of endeavours is peppered with the trivial. And in a sense this combination of the mostly sublime but occasionally mundane is what makes the web and weave of the Easter Rising story. With the perceptive imagination of a playwright, the receptive interpretations of actors, and the attentive participation of an audience the story was brought to life in Maynooth on the night of Easter Monday 2016.

Leinster Leader 5 April 2016, Looking Back,  Series no: 479.

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