Marina Neary’s Dublin-based novel takes the extraordinary, real-life figure of feminist; stage actress, Trade Unionist and Irish republican revolutionary Helena Molony and turns her life into a page turner set as a series of dramatic vignettes and events. The whole thing is set during Ireland’s Cultural Renaissance and Gaelic Revival and the extraordinary Revolutionary period. Malony was a central participant in much of this.
The novel takes its title of course, from the famous oration by Patrick Pearse at the graveside of O’Donavan Rossa, familiar to all Irish people, most especially those words.. “…the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead, and while (she holds these dead) … ..Ireland unfree, shall never be at peace..”
In contrast to Pearse, instantly recognizable, almost always in that distinctive profile, (as if modeling for a Roman coin) Molony is exactly the sort of figure my generation of Irish people, even those fascinated by history, had either forgot or (lets be honest) simply never heard of. That was until recently, with our current orgy of Easter 1916 centenary Commemoration. This has led in turn to a resurgence of interest, enquiry and reassessment, not least a belated reassessment of the key role played by women in 1916. In this sense Neary’s book is very timely. It does due homage to a vivid, extraordinary and multi-faceted character who deserves to be far better known, at home and abroad.
For those reading far overseas or very new to Irish history, “the Rising” as it’s always known, was when a group of around 2000 men, women and young people staged an armed insurrection in Dublin, taking over the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell St (then Sackville St) and several other key buildings. They solemnly declared an Republic and then held out, against far larger and better armed British forces for a week, Easter week of 1916. In the end, the constant shelling, teir buldmng on fire, and some overdue but still sincere regard for the deaths of civilians caught in the cross fire, forced them into surrender.
Although the Rising was a military disaster, doomed from the outset, with the 14 of the leaders promptly executed in the aftermath (far too promptly and hastily, it transpired) it would be nonetheless a political triumph in the end. The British paid a heavy price for shooting the men. They eventually lost Ireland. The deaths of the martyrs (as they were soon regarded) reignited a demand for Independence, fulfilled (more or less anyway, in 80% of Ireland) incredibly, just over 5 years later, after a guerilla war fought, right across Ireland, on a very different basis to “the Rising” itself.
The Rising is thus the iconic moment of Irish history, justly regarded as being the foundation event of our state.
Yet for all this vaunted status, most of us only knew the names of just the seven executed signatories to the Proclamation and a few other executed leaders, (the doomed but distinguished figure of Roger Casement being one obvious example). Some of survivors of course also became household names, names like Constance Markievicz, Eamon de valera or Sean Lemass trip easily enough off the tongue. (Lemass was just a young man in 1916, but much later became Taoiseach in the 1960s (Prime minister of Ireland). Eamon de Valera, who commanded a battalion in 1916 and narrowly escaped execution, went on to found Fianna Fail, Ireland’s largest political party. He was Taoiseach several times then Ireland’s president, and overall, unquestionably, the dominant figure of 20th century Irish politics. Compared to figures like these, let alone those long-dead, executed icons like Patrick Pearse or James Connolly, few had ever heard of Helena Molony.
Yet the neglect was unjustified. It was also typical of how women’s contribution generally to the Revolutionary period was underplayed or ignored for decades. Again, this has been something addressed only recently in this current period of commemoration.
Molony was central to the era. As a republican separatist and feminist, she joined then (from 1903) helped run Maud Gonne’s Inghindhe nEireann, (the Daughters of Ireland) movement. She soon edited its monthly newspaper Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland). Her contributors there included Katherine Tynan, Susan Mitchel and Eva Gore-Booth as well as male writers like AE, and Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, not to mention my new hero, James Stephens. Pearse, Roger Casement and Thomas McDonough, all who’d later be the Rising’s key leaders, contributed articles to Malony’s paper. From 1903 onwards she knew half the Revolutionary elite, working and collaborating directly with many. Bulmer Hobson, who had co- founded the Dungannon clubs with Dennis McCullough, revitalizing the IRB, was a particularly close friend of hers, as this novel explores.
Molony helped found Constance Markievicz’s na Fianna scouts, the cadet wing of the Irish Volunteers. Indeed the movement was founded at Malony’s home, on Candem Street . Many of these young cadets went on to fight in 1916.
Molony own military exploits, if one can call them that, were as a member of the Irish Citizens’ Army (the ICA) the socialist wing of militant republicanism. She had long been a key recruiter for the Irish Citizens Army, in all probability it was Malony who brought Markievicz and Dr. Kathleen Lynn into the ICA. In Easter 1916 Malony was part of the ICA detachment (including Lynn) occupying City Hall, when the their attempt to take the castle itself next door was botched.
Kathleen Lynn, republican, socialist, doctor, revolutionary, and comrade of Helena Malony, here being led away as prisoner from City Hall after their part in the insurrection. By David Rooney, from Portraits and Lives
In addition to all her other extraordinary activity, Helena was a leading actress on the Dublin stage. She worked initially with Casimir’s and Constance Markievicz’s New Theatre group, then with the Abbey (today Ireland’s National Theatre) There she appeared in debuts of new plays by Lady Gregory, Lennox Robinson and others. She later trod the boards in the first production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to be staged in Ireland.
As if all this was not enough, she was centrally active to the fledgling Irish Labour movement alongside James Connolly and Jim Larkin. In one renowned incident , on 31st of August 1913, during the Great Lock Out, Maolony used her theatrical know-how to disguise and smuggle Jim Larkin into the Imperial Hotel on O’Connell St This hotel stood almost opposite the General Post office. Here Larkin gave one of his inspiring and inflammatory speeches from a balcony.
Jim Larkin at the Imperial Hotel, by artist David Rooney, (from the book Portraits and Lives, created by the OPW and the Royal Irish Academy).
The Imperial was owned by Larkin’s and Irish Labour’s sworn enemy, business magnate William Martin Murphy. When the crowd got too vocal, the Dublin Metropolitan Police charged the strikers assembled below Larkin’s balcony. They killed two strikers, injuring dozens more, an event that became known as Bloody Sunday. (For overseas readers, potentially confused by the plethora of “Bloody Sundays” in Irish history, there are others, (notably in 1920 and 1972)
Molony was and remained a committed, stalwart of a socialist union movement, maintaining her Marxist style socialism until her death in 1967. (This unfashionable position, to put it mildly, may be one reason for her neglect) During the pre-Rising period, she was secretary of the Women’s branch of the Union at Liberty Hall. In the 1910s she was also, crucially, secretary to James Connolly at Liberty Hall. This was the first building to be shelled by the British gunboat Helga, even before the GPO. It was the HQ of Connolly’s Union and of the Irish Citizens Army. It was the venue for the printing of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Malony’s position at the heart of both advanced nationalism generally and at Liberty Hall in particular meant she was in the thick of events up to and including Easter week 1916. It was she who would often have admitted Joseph Mary Plunkett, Thomas McDonough and Patrick Pearse to late night meetings with Connolly at Liberty Hall, meetings that turned out to be so fateful, for them and- ultimately- for Ireland.
Neary’s novel dwells on Malony’s relationship with fellow ICA officer and actor Sean Connolly, the man often reckoned to have fired the first shot of the Easter Rising. Although its recently been disputed and reassessed, Sean Connolly, (no relation to James Connolly) is traditionally reputed have fired the first shot and killed the first victim of the Rising, the Irish Catholic DMP officer O’Brien, who was guarding the gates of Dublin Castle. Despite the ICA guns, he refused to let them pass, and paid the price. For their part, the ICA were no great friends or admirers of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. After the events of the Great Lockout, many saw them as thuggish stooges of capitalism.
Sean Conolly, by David Rooney, from “Portraits and Lives”.
Later Sean Connolly himself was gunned down while on the roof of City Hall by a sniper from Dublin castle. He died in Helena Molony’s arms. Martina Neary’s book posits that Malony and Sean Connolly were more than simply comrades or just good friends.
It’s this fascinating, hitherto neglected woman that Marina Neary places at the centre of her novel. The chapters are like short, with action and development coming in bursts, short and energetic. Indeed they can sometimes read almost like diary entries in some respects, in their brevity and breathless pace, as the author takes us through scrapes and escapes, through meetings, rallies, arrests, through romantic trysts, political intrigues and more.
One episode I savoured takes place at a musical concert held in the well-appointed home of Eoin McNeil and his wife in Herbert Park, part of Dublin’s leafy Ballsbridge.
Eoin McNeil, by David Rooney, Portraits and Lives.
McNeil was Professor of Early and Medieval Irish history at University College Dublin. He was also founder and first president of the Irish Volunteer movement. Almost immediately the relatively moderate Irish Volunteer movement, initially founded to protect Home Rule, was infiltrated by the more extreme IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians) a secret oath- based society committed to the revolution and physical force tradition. McNeil was later outflanked without his knowledge, then later gradually brought around to the idea of an armed insurrection.
Yet he still didn’t want to approve or authorize a rebellion he thought had absolutely no chance of success. So he was half tricked or goaded into approving a rebellion, by a forgery, or rather an altered document known as the “Castle document” which purportedly “showed” the British authorities were imminently planning to seize the Volunteers’ arms. The Military council s=also showed McNeil that they had additional and superior arms on the way, on rout that very moment from Germany. On this basis O’Neill was prepared to give his reluctant backing . But when Roger Casement was arrested and the German ship Aud was intercepted by the British navy off the coast of Kerry, and the Germans were chased around the coast until the captain was finally forced to scuttle his ship and send the arms to the bottom of the sea, it left the Volunteers hopelessly underequipped for the week ahead. It was at this point that O’Neil again withdrew his blessing and issued his famous countermanding order, cancelling all ”Parades and Marches” (by now Volunteer code for rebellion)
The countermanding order ensured both that over half the Volunteers would not report for duty on Easter Sunday, and that the Rising would now mostly be confined to Dublin. But still frantic to press ahead the secret IRB military council – including Connolly, Plunkett, McDonough and Pearse, as well as the mastermind Tom Clarke and his assistant McDiarminda- sent out messages and couriers (countermanding the countermand, so to speak) The Rising was back on just one day late, albeit with vastly reduced numbers.
When Bulmer Hobson learnt the Revolution was going ahead, he also tried to stop it. He was lured to a fake meeting and held at gunpoint until the Revolution was underway.
Bulmer Hobson held Captive. By David Rooney, Portraits and Lives.
Everything related above is famous Irish history, familiar to generations of Irish school children and their parents. Yet even the famous figures of 1916 can seem like old dead, characters, seen in black and White. Neary has given herself the daunting task of turning such events- or that selection of them themed around Malony’s multiple roles- into narrative fiction. This is highly ambitious, yet in many ways she is largely successful.
In doing so, Neary has provided us with a more human way to experience these seismic events and extraordinary people. I’m personally somewhat addicted to history, enjoying no others types of book or discussion (or conference/lecture or documentary) more Not everyone however takes the same satisfaction sitting in Pearce St City Library or perusing the Bureau of Miliatry History online resources. For some people, a novel like this could well represent the best and most engaging way to get a sense of those bizarre, almost surreal events of Spring in 1916 Dublin, and the remarkable people who drove them. Neary does a good job turning these legendary figures into plausible characters, with all the weaknesses, blind-spots, vanity, humanity, humour and the passions (political, personal and sexual,) of real flesh and blood people.
Let me give you an example. It is set in Eoin McNeils’ comfortable home, at that musical soireé in Herbert Park. It is here Neary sets the meeting between Molony and Sean Conolly. A scene on a terrace, the night air fragrant with the scent of flowers. It sounds hackneyed. But I think it works. Where else would one go at such a soiree, for breath of fresh air? Does it sound fanciful or “chic-lit”? But consider, the “characters” of 1916 were real flesh and blood men and women, with hopes, fears, hidden crushes, requited passions and thwarted frustrations. That is the whole point of a novel’s dramatization of history, respecting history, yet imaginatively engaging with the past.
Conversely, in other places the novel can sometimes feel like a history lesson. The physical description of City Hall, formerly the Royal Exchange, is a case in point. This is the large 18th century building where both Malony and Sean Conolly fought, and where he died in her arms, shot down by a British sniper atop Dublin Castle. Yet the description of the old City Hall– rich in Corinthian columns and so forth- sounds as though its been adapted from an architectural history textbook or website. (I know the tone of such texts, writing many myself) Every novelists needs to research the physical fabric of the work’s setting. Sometimes the research shines through a little too clearly. In any case, lapses such as these are hardly the most egregious. There are worse literary pitfalls. A more serious issue, for the book, and serious challenge for the writer (any writer tackling the period) is the sheer volume of characters, bodies and places.
This is perhaps inevitable. The Irish Revolutionary period possessed a byzantine cast of characters, plus an endless array of publications, organizations and societies. As noted above, Helena Malony was involved in many of them. With Neary determined to give all them clarity, context and their due place, in both Ireland’s and Malony’s story, there is perhaps an occasional danger of overload. For a purely Irish audience, an author might risk assuming the reader already knows the outlines of Irish History, about the IRB, say, the Lockout, or GPO (or indeed City Hall) But with Neary writing for an American and international audience she’s obliged to provide far more description, context and exposition. Yet in general such history is well handled. More importantly, once the history context is disposed of, most scenes are enjoyably handled, with great energy and panache. This author is good with history, but feels most sure footed dealing with her compelling heroine, and with the human heart.
The poverty of tenement life is well drawn for example, early on, the scrapping and insecurity, the lack of space and privacy,. So too is the appalling hypocrisy and double standards surrounding women and their sexuality at the time. There is a rape scene in the novel, distinguished not by any special cruelty, but by the cloying, mindless stupidity, meanness of spirit and thick-skulled misogyny of its simian perpetrators.
Another episode is set in a back street abortion clinic. All this realism, is highly laudable and historically apt. It puts the novel on a highly credible footing. many of Dublin’s citizens were was desperately poor. Prostitutio n as rife. The so-called Monto a inner city district just off O’Connel Street, was Europe’s biggest Red Light District at the time. It was just the other side of O’Connel Street from where Molony grew up, and indeed from the GPO, briefly to become headquarters to the Easter Rising leaders and their short lived Republic.
Neary also capture well the many positives of the era, not least its galaxy of highly talented, sometimes brilliant, characters, passionate: politically, socially and culturally engaged.
Choice episodes capture some of the frison of that heady era. Helena is delighted for example, to be arrested. Her arrest is for throwing a stone at a portrait of the King. One early scene features a celi, (Irish dance evening) where the comely Inghindhe nEireann host a deputation of young protestant nationalists from (somewhat surreally) Ulster, led by Bulmer Hobson.
Greatly enjoyable in general is the way famous people appear, side of stage so to speak. In this novel, much like Tom Stoppard’s play on Hamlet- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead– legendary figures like Pearse, Connolly, Eoin McNeill, Maud Gonne or WB Yeats cross the stage only fleetingly or as required. One scene, set at an office at the Abbey theatre, see Yeats pushing his glasses up his nose, as he ponders firing Helena from the Abbey for (he feels) her excessively revolutionary activities.
So it is in Marina’s Neary’s book, that the normally iconic become peripheral, while those often lost to the shadows of history regain their rightful place..
The book is not yet currently available in Ireland, but if readers here wish to buy and devour a copy straightaway, it’s available on this link. Or, you could read the previous novel in the series first, which the author recently described it as the precursor and prequel to the one reviewed above. The link to that first book is here.
For other aspiring historical novel writers, you may wish to read an article by the author, describing the writing-process and research behind her works. This is from the website Women and History, and can be seen here.
all images in this review, including this one above of Helena Malony outside the Abbey theatre, are by David Rooney, and are taken with full acknowledgement the book Portraits and Lives, created by the OPW and Royal Irish Academy and illustrated by David Rooney.