"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Listening to the Women

Adrian Paterson

At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916, by Lucy McDiarmid, Royal Irish Academy, 300 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1908996749

The Splendid Years: The Memoirs of an Abbey Actress and 1916 Rebel, by Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh with Edward Kenny, ed by David Kenny, New Island Books, 300 pp, €15.95, ISBN: 978-1848405097
The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution, by Fearghal McGarry, Gill & Macmillan, 384 pp, €29.99, ISBN: 978-0717168811
Patrick Pearse and the Theatre, ed by Eugene McNulty and Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, Four Courts Press, 204 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1846826184

After appearing in so many of Yeats’s poems, Maud Gonne had an accepted right to answer back. Her written response to “Easter, 1916” was negative: “No I don’t like your poem – it is not worthy of you and above all it is not worthy of its subject. … Sacrifice has never yet turned a heart to stone though it has immortalized many.” She interpreted the poem’s ambivalence as direct criticism of her kind of unwavering politics. And in a poem much concerned with voices there is one conspicuously portrayed in a less than complimentary way.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers,
When, young and beautiful
She rode to harriers?

Not of course Maud Gonne; that woman, that unnamed woman we know (it is a measure of the poem’s strategy of intimacy and exclusion that we are supposed to know) is Countess Constance Markievicz, née Gore-Booth, an old acquaintance of Yeats’s who had assumed a leadership role in the Irish rebellion of April 1916. Other actors in the drama are eventually namechecked, in the tumbling closing lines – “McDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse”. But she is not. It is noteworthy that she is part of the revolutionary story: women were not always thus included. But “that woman”, rather than “this man”. Employing the deictic pointing device “that” conspicuously distances her from her revolutionary confreres.

It is true that Constance Marckiewicz did not ultimately join the ranks of the executed. But this could have been, and was, done differently. Take Yeats’s friend George Russell, the artist and poet AE. His poem “Salutation” written “for those who took part in the 1916 Rebellion”, namechecks the leaders of the Rising: “Here’s to you Pearse”, and takes care to salute “the women of our race”, adding: “Here’s to you, Constance, in your prison cell”, referring to her by name – by first name, admittedly, which acknowledges her notoriety, if not entirely her formal dignity. Or take The Death of Fionavar, a short play by Eva Gore-Booth, dedicated “to the Memory of the Dead”:

Poets, Utopians, bravest of the brave,
Pearse and MacDonagh, Plunkett, Connolly,
Dreamers turned fighters but to find a grave,
Glad for the dream’s austerity to die.
And my own sister, through wild hours of pain,
Whilst murderous bombs were blotting out the stars,
Little did I thought to see you smile again
As I did yesterday, through prison bars.

As another of Yeats’s poems, “On a Political Prisoner”, acknowledges, the image of Marckiewicz in prison, for a time under sentence of death, was a potent one. His poem however contrasts her loneliness, feeding a gull from the window, with the freedom of a “sea-borne” bird, herself in youth, while the waves lament the difference: “cried out the hollows of the sea”.

But if “Easter, 1916” does not name Markievicz, it still chooses to characterise her in terms of voice: a change in tone from sweet to shrill. If this is supposed to suggest some kind of passage from innocence to experience, it is odd, as from youth to maturity the voice might be expected to fall. Instead this change in tone of voice is used to mark the radicalisation of Markievicz’s political engagement. No doubt it was used to question Gonne’s radicalisation also. A turn to action, and violent action at that, might have cause to modulate the voice in some way, bring it to a higher pitch, or even silence it altogether in favour of doing. But in growing “shrill” through argument, here the poem employs one of the most persistent and damaging of clichés about female vocalisation.

Persistent, because it resurfaced in the recent American presidential election campaign. Renewed attention came to a 2012 Anderson and Klofstad study which found, apparently, that voters of both sexes prefer lower tones: “male and female leaders with lower-pitched voices are generally preferred by both men and women”. It is a quirk of the analysis that the women in the study didn’t make quite so much distinction between men’s voices, but tended to follow men in their positive reactions towards lower voiced women. (“This bias could be a consequence of lower-pitched female voices being perceived as more competent, stronger, and more trustworthy,” say the authors.) Given the result of the election perhaps we have not evolved so very far. Still it is inexcusable, if not quite inexplicable, to find this bias (and, worse, an expectation the reader might share it) in Yeats’s carefully measured memorial poem.

Such attention to the voice – consider how the word “voice” is plaintively repeated, as if doing so might somehow turn back time – chimes with wider concerns about the rebellion the poem airs. The voice was Yeats’s particular obsession. But, revealingly, it was also that of many others in this revolutionary period, including most of those, both named and unnamed, that find their way into the poem. There are many reasons this ambivalent, questioning, much-criticised poem remains read, and frames, for good or ill, the events of 1916. But viewed as a barometer for revolutionary concerns, its concern with the voice is a crucial reason for its strange potency, and continuing contemporary valency.

We tend to think of oral culture, with its exemplars in traditional folklore and song, as somehow opposed to modernity. Notwithstanding Bob Dylan following Yeats to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, Yeats’s preoccupations with folklore and song have contrived to make him seem thoroughly anti-modern. This was a bone of contention with James Joyce when they met. Yet Joyce’s notebooks show him equally concerned with the voice. In an urban version of folklore collecting he notes down what people actually say, and how exactly they say it, allowing his novels to become not only notations of speech and thought but astonishing transcriptions and adaptations of song and music. In other words they pre-empt the insistence of theorist Walter J Ong that orality and modernity coexist. Yeats’s preoccupation with orality and song might not be so old-fashioned. Early in April 1916 it allowed him to make theatre new by borrowing from Japanese Noh. The month’s events in Dublin would inspire a sequel, an astonishing contemporary Noh play with musicians featuring a rebel on the run from the post office, The Dreaming of the Bones: “the best play I have written for years and I am afraid only too powerful politically”. Naturally, later on Yeats took to radio broadcasting like a submarine to water, and made twelve broadcasts, with more planned throughout the thirties. Modernity altered out of all recognition the way the voice could be employed and heard. It did nothing to diminish its importance.

It used to be debated whether or not the rebellion of 1916 was a defining act of modernity – even perhaps the century’s first – or the last gasp of a Romantic Ireland, said by Yeats himself just three years before to be “dead and gone”. Much depends on the framing: is the 1916 rebellion to be grouped with 1798, 1848, 1867, and the ringing declarations of its precursors in America or France – or with the opportunistic 1917 Russian Revolution(s) and all that followed in a bloody revolutionary century? It is only fair to add that other candidates for the honour of defining modernity have included German atrocities in Belgium, the fiasco of Gallipoli, vicious battles at Ypres, Verdun and the Somme, the killing of 1,179 civilians in the sinking of the Lusitania, and the Armenian massacre by the Turks, which gave birth to the phrase “crimes against humanity”. Patrick Pearse himself might have plumped for the Great War. In December 1915 he described “the last sixteen months” as “the most glorious in the history of Europe”, and declared that “when war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God”.

Technology, perhaps, tells us as much as teleology. 1916 was a rebellion conducted with bicycles, yachts, rifles, and an old creaking hand press against the machine guns and heavy artillery of the western front. Or, if we prefer, a revolution deploying street-fighting, submarines and radio broadcasts against the railways and rhetoric of a dying empire. Such truths are anything but self-evident. We can picture black and white film of soldiers going over the top in the battle of the Somme, or the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace, and nothing from the Rising. Yet such familiar footage was of course entirely reconstructed, and thanks to the researches of Veronica Johnston we know the Film Company of Ireland had just opened new offices in Henry Street when the rebellion blew them out. Helga, the fearsome gun-boat responsible, was in fact little more than a souped-up fishing patrol vessel, later toothlessly pressed into service as the Muirchú by the Free State without any weapons at all. What was meant as a point-to-point radio signal became only by accident a general short-wave broadcast, which few had the equipment to pick up, and nobody the frequency. And so on. But whatever our conclusions, asking probing questions about voice, about who was speaking and who was listening, turns out not to be so old-fashioned. It might even tell us as much about a revolution as about a lyric poem.

Photographs of Maud Gonne have sometimes disappointed readers of Yeats’s love poems: her eyes are compelling, her poise unquestionable, but stiffly upholstered and sans voice she can seem the stuff of prose not poetry. Yet this extraordinary voice survives. No recordings remain, sadly, of Gonne before a crowd; and as with so many old recordings the accent can be a mite offputting, its English-sounding inflections just about overcome by Irish rolled rrr’s. Still through the cracks of age we can hear her speaking verse with subtle inflections and astonishing control of modulation, well enough to imagine what Yeats found in it. And, after MacBride’s death, with Gonne wearing mourning as a fully fledged widow of 1916, the Bureau of Military History kept a tape of her voice’s record of her life, by her account too an extraordinary one.

Thanks to this technology, Gonne’s voice is just one of countless other voices available. Many can be found online, and many are women. An emphasis on widows more than female participants in the Bureau of Military History’s recorded testimonies betrays the prejudices of the time. Among these Kathleen Clarke, who was both, sounds perhaps the most contemporary. But maybe that is because she, sensibly, left compelling written records. Many didn’t get the chance. To try to hear anything more of these ordinary yet extraordinary voices we have to rely on older technologies, and research into written testimony. Thankfully this can be wonderfully lively, at least as it is presented in Lucy McDiarmid’s remarkable book, At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916. Placed adeptly in context, here as never before women’s voices from the period become (almost) audible.

McDiarmid’s meticulous research of potential sources, and keen eye in commentary for the precise social meaning of verbal inflections means that, as in Joyce’s novels, we get very close to the living drama of what only seem like inconsequential events. McDiarmid is concerned with gestures, improvisations, unlikely incidents, particular mediations of public and private space, above all with telling revolutionary moments, the kind of thing left out of official histories. The women who speak through her research are the most acute of observers, watching and recording social nuance from within. This has curious effects: as they remember it, the process of martyrdom in the leaders of the Rising began to occur even before they died. McDiarmid summarises this lyrically by playing on the figures of the children of Lir: “the men had begun to become swans; their limp arms were becoming outstretched wings”. As well as such flights the book contributes a valuable biographical appendix, and makes for a sensitive guide through accounts which deserve to be better known.

Observers maybe, these women are anything but passive listeners. “Sharp verbal exchanges” are an especial feature of the book. The unusual circumstances of the Rising gave many women the chance for the first time to “speak without inhibition”. Leslie Price, a young Cumann na mBan member sent to get a priest for the men dying in the GPO used pointed language to co-opt a reluctant cleric, admitting “it took a certain amount of courage to fight a priest”. The verb is interesting – of course they fought not physically, but verbally – but to an avowed revolutionary, it might come to much the same thing. Not that women weren’t involved in the fighting. They were, and there are detailed accounts here of women as active participants. But it is McDiarmid’s investigation of what she calls “small behaviours” which yields the most fascinating results. Many of these turn on tones of voice.

My favourite conjunction among many is that of Mary Spring Rice, instrumental in the gunrunning voyage of the Asgard, with Elsie Mahaffy, eldest daughter of the provost, islanded in Trinity College as the Easter Rebellion took place around her, taking tea with British generals. Contemporaries, social equals, one a revolutionary activist and one a staunch unionist, their manoeuvrings around male counterparts and their creation in confined spaces of domestic environments, the expected domain of women, are wonderfully sketched and contrasted. The subtle elisions and lacunae in both accounts are scrutinised to the level of manuscript deletions. Spring Rice, after many exciting but uncomfortable days at sea, understandably turns with some relief to a “glorious hot bath” – only later this human touch is perceived as unseemly, and replaced by a nationalist bromide “now our dream had come true”. From very different political perspectives both journals provide intimate and intelligent reflections on the place of women. Markievicz’s prominent role in the revolution as she marches by outside causes Mahaffy to recall her social debut, “then a lovely tall creature, full of spirits and go, much admired and made love to at Dublin Castle”. McDiarmid comments drily that “the great tragedy of 1916 from her point of view is the loss of such a tall person as Constance Markievicz to ranks of the Sinn Feiners”. In its own way Mahaffy’s is not so dissimilar to Yeats’s lament.

Class distinctions are ever-present. A passage from Kathleen Clarke’s memoir skewers two women of greater or lesser prominence in Yeats’s poem, Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz, imprisoned in Holloway, arguing over their social standing:

In the early days of our imprisonment, when we were out for exercise, Madame Markievicz and Madame MacBride walked up and down the exercise yard together, discussing their mutual friends and acquaintances, and disputing as to which of them had the highest social status. Madame Markievicz claimed that she was far above Madame MacBride; she belonged to the inner circle of the Vice-Regal Lodge set, while Madame MacB[ride] was only on the fringe of it. I sometimes listened to them, quite amused.

Like Kathleen Clarke, however, women need not listen passively:

When Madame M[arkiewicz] did talk to me in those early days, I sensed a certain amount of patronage in her tone and manner, and that I was not prepared to take from anybody. It appeared to worry her that such an insignificant little person as myself was put in prison with her.

Clarke’s response to such an attitude was signalled, of course, by her own tone of voice. If this does not appear like the revolution of the people, then it wasn’t, entirely, although there are many voices from diverse social classes and political convictions available here. But as events changed old certainties, even some of those who took part found it hard to adapt to the new reality. This is something Yeats’s poem, ironically, understands very well.

Although it seems silly, what Marckiewicz and Gonne were debating, and Clarke was hastening to correct, had enormous bearing on what kind of revolution this was. Was declaring “the right of the people to the ownership of Ireland” simply a statement of nationality or of a complete change in polity? What Women Said and Did in 1916, the book’s subtitle, represents a conscious echo of Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” phrase “whatever is done and said”. By inverting the phrase, even to make a rhyme, the poem puts doing before saying, just as the poem itself is afterword to an event. Indeed it is a poem troubled about the value of saying things at all. McDiarmid’s book demonstrates conclusively that what these women said is often as interesting as what they did. Inevitably from this perspective the revolution can seem to turn on voice, on tone of voice, and an awareness (or otherwise) of audience. For better or worse these things were at the heart of what happened. Not because it was simply a revolution of talkers: unlike Yeats, say, they arose and went and did things after all. No, rather because it was a revolution of speakers.

Why this was so is open to debate. The remarkable memoir of Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh, Abbey actress and 1916 participant, republished for the anniversary year with a new introduction by David Kelly, gives us one answer. In her words, Dublin was “theatre mad”. As she remembered it, “the most unexpected people in Dublin, poets, writers, artists, were interested in the theatre; everyone was ready to discuss a new play or the work of a player”. Certainly George Russell claimed to have conceived his mythic drama Deirdre “because everybody nowadays seems to be writing plays”. Also because a companion was needed to the twenty minutes of revolutionary propaganda that was Cathleen ní Houlihan.

Herself a player of considerable distinction, Nic Shuibhlaigh’s perspective was no doubt partial, but if she is to be believed, 1916 was born in rehearsal rooms. Any telling of this history must therefore be indebted to her picture of drama enthusiasts “in love with the voice”. Readers of her memoirs find her cast of cultural nationalist characters, theatre people and revolutionaries from JM Synge to Thomas MacDonagh, fastened beautifully by attention to their precise manner of saying things. As an actress, Nic Shuibhlaigh was professionally interested in the voice, its accents, its cadences, its capabilities. Her speciality was fine speaking, and she credits the Fay brothers, particularly Frank Fay, with introducing proper voice-training to Irish drama. Following one of several splits from the Abbey she herself became a teacher of elocution. The powerful personality of WB Yeats had much to do with these differences. Máire clearly respected him without ever liking him, although she was close to his family, particularly his father and sisters, and worked at their Dun Emer embroidery . Indeed his father, John Butler Yeats, painted the handsome portrait of her that adorns the book’s cover. Notably he mourned her split from the Abbey by remarking that Sara Allgood (who had her own “contralto voice, rich and full”) “will not cast spells of listening wonder as Maire can”.

Nic Shuibhlaigh was remembered in particular for her poise and speech in lead roles. These included the old woman in Cathleen ní Houlihan, to which her musical voice was well adapted. It was a part she inherited from Maud Gonne who, notoriously , created the central role. Her pose in the doorway created a memorable image: even more, for those who heard it, her spellbinding voice. As Yeats wrote to Gregory, then in Italy, she “played it magnificently and with a weird power” at its premiere in 1902. After all, she has to entice away a man about to be married, simply by force of words. Set in 1798, we know anyone that follows her is doomed to fail and die, and the play can be read as a shocking supernatural tragedy in which a jealous older woman steals young lovers. The playing of Cathleen ní Houlihan was deliberately static, and formalised. Yeats noted “the actors kept very quiet, often merely posing and speaking.” All the more was attention drawn to the words spoken by the old woman:

They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.

For this to seem possible, precisely how these words were articulated mattered, and from its first line (“What is that sound I hear?”) the play is strangely obsessed with sound. Yeats’s memoirs recall Gonne’s “mastery of popular feeling”, noting doubtfully “her oratory, by its emotional temper, was an appeal to herself and also to something uncontrollable”. So was the play. Much of the reason was the voices of these two women, first Gonne, and then Nic Shuibhlaigh, who played the part many times.

The storied effect of Cathleen ní Houlihan has been doubted. While Stephen McGwynn did ask if such plays should be staged “unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot” the direct line to revolution was long and winding. It still seems extraordinary that a short play of all things might have such purchase. So in response to Yeats’s “The Man & the Echo” and its anguished question: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”, it has become fashionable to quote lines from Paul Muldoon’s poem “7 Middagh Street”: “If Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed?”

It’s a cutting riposte, but it is less often noticed that the poem, set at the artist’s community in Brooklyn, New York, is cast in dialogue, and the person speaking here is “Wystan”, that is the poet WH Auden, in conversation with Louis MacNeice. What is at stake is the place of the arts in a troubled century. Muldoon’s ventriloquism allows him to voice Auden’s pivotal disavowal of political poetry. For this, and his continued exile in America in time of war, Auden was seen by many former supporters as culpable. All his impassioned leftist commitment and activism against the rising tide of fascism in plays and poems and in the Spanish Civil War has come to naught, defeated by that “low dishonest decade”, the 1930s, and its raging radios. Interestingly Auden chooses his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” to go even further, asserting that “poetry makes nothing happen”. In Muldoon’s poem, as in real life, MacNeice dissents, returning to London to write radio plays and features for the wartime BBC radio service. This then is a very twentieth-century argument, one in which Yeats had taken great part. If Yeats’s mea culpa does not convince some historians, while disavowing naked propaganda, and by the 1930s espousing a very different politics, for better or worse he retained some belief in the power of poetry to make things happen. So too, it must be said, did the leaders of 1916.

After the event, participants in the rising did recall Cathleen ní Houlihan as galvanising. Distinguished theatre scholar Nicholas Grene notes that “again and again the testimony was to the extraordinary kinetic impact of the play”, and it is hard to disagree. Perhaps the most powerful argument for the play’s pervasive influence is that this revolutionary generation in Ireland rarely questioned, as Yeats later did, whether poetry, plays, voices on page or stage, could or should be so powerful. No: rather they debated how best to utilise the effect.

Before a baying crowd after the Abbey’s production of The Playboy, Yeats successfully appealed for quiet as the author of Cathleen ní Houlihan. More Sligo than Dublin, his own voice was practised at speaking to crowds, but what he said was not quite accurate. In fact Lady Augusta Gregory had written a significant part of Cathleen ní Houlihan. It was hers at least as much as his, and in general the Abbey’s adoption of the “slower moving country dialect” known as “Kiltartanese”, appearing to great effect in the play, was her intervention. As Nic Shuibhlaigh remembers, Gregory’s own speaking voice possessed an offputting lisp. Nevertheless it was how the company heard Synge’s plays for the first time. 

Drama is collaborative by its nature. Theatres are dependent on the collective endeavour of a range of players, set designers, stage managers, producers, directors and so on, never mind architects, front of house, and of course a varied and critical audience. But again and again it is striking how much these early dramas are dependent on the voices of women, too often written out of the story. So revolutionary plays like The Memory of the Dead by Casimir Markievicz were really a collaboration, his wife, Constance, as the widowed Norah vital to every melodramatic speech. The line everyone remembers, “If there are men in Ireland ready to die for their country, there are just as many women” rings clear, although women’s role as mothers for the next generation of rebels is given more emphasis: “I swear that I will bring up your child to take your place, to live as you lived, to die as you died.” The play takes as its title a nationalist ballad. One of the first plays to do this was The Wearing of the Green by Alice Milligan, naming a ballad, it is worth noting, whose title features also in “Easter, 1916”: “Wherever green is worn”. Augusta Gregory’s The Rising of the Moon features a ballad singer in what is really secular version of Cathleen ní Houlihan. Interestingly all these titles frankly admit their provenance, co-opting the market value of ballads as inspirational propaganda.

Since Goldsmith and Boucicault, songs had long been part of Irish theatrical tradition. Not overly given to sentiment, JM Synge remembered the new national theatre audience singing songs in Irish in the interval between performances of Douglas Hyde’s Casadh an tSugáin (The Twisting of the Rope) and Yeats and George Moore’s Diarmuid and Grania as a glimpse of the “soul of a nation”. In Cathleen ní Houlihan, Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh judged that Gonne’s “beautiful voice was heard to advantage in the many snatches of folksongs with which her speeches were interspersed”, many of these collected and translated by Gregory. Stage directions make it clear Cathleen’s most prominent verses are meant to be sung, including those quoted above: “She goes out; her voice is heard outside singing.” This turns the rest of the cast, like us, into an audience. Songs worked because they were participatory, or presented the idea that they might be. By putting them on stage, so too, potentially, was the theatre, and so was the revolution. Just reading a play the effect is lost: it requires performance for song to take wing. During the Irish theatre obsession of the 1930s Korea’s Japanese colonial authorities made sure that while nationalist Irish plays might be published, they should not be performed (leading to a regrettable obsession with Dunsany). The transformative effect of such performances was grimly understood.

Which should remind us that Cathleen ní Houlihan was not sui generis but part of a larger movement in which women were prominent. Alice Milligan had pioneered the staging of pageants, magic lantern shows, and tableaux vivants. These “living pictures” posed characters in costume from scenes in Irish history described by an offstage narrator, often with music: Milligan’s sister was Charlotte Milligan Fox, author of Annals of the Irish Harpists. Maud Gonne’s famous gesture as Cathleen at the door of the house remembers this legacy, as does her song. The plays themselves were simple, portable, cheaply and easily played vehicles for national sentiment. The establishment of the Irish National Theatre, and its transformation into the Abbey was indebted to these theatricals:

I saw William Fay’s amateur company play Miss Milligan’s Red Hugh, a play in two scenes in the style of Walter Scott. … All the old rattle-traps acquired modernity, reality, spoken by those voices. I came away with my head on fire. I wanted to hear my own unfinished On Baile’s Strand, to hear Greek tragedy, spoken with a Dublin accent.

By this account such voices inspired the theatre, not the other way around. Transposed, Yeats’s phrase “Greek tragedy, spoken with a Dublin accent” almost describes what happened in 1916.

This accent was precisely the product of the many working class and lower middle class people essential to the new theatre. As Fergal McGarry’s book, The Abbey Rebels of 1916: A Lost Revolution demonstrates, treading the boards can seem almost a prerequisite for political action. By focusing on narratives like that of Nic Shuibhlaigh, McGarry does great service in showing how much wider a movement the Abbey was than its famous directors Yeats, Gregory, and Synge. He illustrates this with a display of rich individual narratives of Abbey actors and participants in 1916, as many women as men, some more familiar than others, but all studded with fine details and even finer illustrations. The book is by some way the heaviest under discussion, with a wealth of pictures and documents reproduced from the National Library of Ireland and the digitised Abbey Theatre archive at NUI Galway, so that far from the “revolution by the voice” I’ve been signalling for, it comes to seem more like a revolution in typescript and sepia. This superbly curated spread of visual culture demonstrates so well the Abbey’s broad reach and influence that at times it subtly pulls in different directions from some of the book’s arguments.

For McGarry, revolutionary sentiment was a “tradition more powerfully conveyed for most revolutionaries by the Abbey’s competitors”. About the effect of Cathleen ní Houlihan, for instance, he probably counts as a healthy sceptic. Certainly the Abbey’s revolution in theatre was by no means the same as a revolutionary theatre. Rather, the Abbey was a place where different versions of Irish nationalism collided. As McGarry notes, for significant periods it was at odds with the nationalisms of its constituents, never mind its audience. Some in the company, for instance, were reluctant to perform Augusta Gregory’s play The Rising of the Moon because it showed an Irish policeman setting free a rebel prisoner who “has aroused with some old songs the half forgotten patriotism of his youth”. According to Yeats, the actors felt it was unpatriotic to admit that a policeman was capable of patriotism. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World opened wider fissures not so much because of its allegedly indecorous treatment of Western life as its unvarnished depiction of the dangers and hypocrisies of celebrating violence – of violent talk, in fact, as its hero, increasingly eloquent about his crime, turns out not to be quite the murderer he claims.

McGarry records that most of the 1916 participants connected with the Abbey, honoured in 1966, had broken with the theatre before the Rising. This is true, although clashes of personalities and changes as the Abbey became professionalised often counted as much as political beliefs. And as McGarry’s evidence shows, although it started as a volunteer cooperative, as the National Theatre Society became consolidated as the Abbey it was a welcome provider of employment. So Ellen Bushell worked as a cashier in the box office, Barney Murphy as a stage hand. Both went on to be involved in 1916. Nic Shuibhlaigh was hardly unique in taking part in both theatre productions and in the rising. These were a surprisingly literate group of Dubliners too, sons and daughters of printers, dockworkers, midwives, themselves working as poplin weavers or despatch clerks like Sean Connolly.

History’s emphasis on the Abbey Theatre can occlude other theatrical ventures. The Theatre of Ireland, to which Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh graduated, the Independent Dramatic Company, run by Constance Gore-Booth and her husband, Casimir Markievicz, and the Irish Theatre Company, bankrolled by Edward Martyn and including Thomas MacDonagh among its alumni, are all detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces. It was not just Dublin that was “theatre mad”. Cork and Belfast boasted strong theatrical traditions that were reinvigorated by the era’s cultural nationalism: graduates of these ventures included Terence MacSwiney and Bulmer Hobson. Still, McGarry’s very focus on the Abbey can’t help but place it centre stage, and it was often tours by the Abbey Players that inspired new ventures, such as by the Cork playwright Lennox Robinson, who penned Patriots soon after. Here the Abbey sometimes shows its influence in reaction. It was against Yeats’s Samhain articles that MacSwiney wrote “The Propagandist Playwright”, calling frankly for art that fired not only imagination but agitation. Even then however he sided with Yeats in his appeal for a higher standard of acting, and it is clear he knew Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold, in which an outcast poet begins a hunger strike before the palace that threatens to bring a kingdom to its knees.

In this atmosphere theatre and real life start to overlap. Of the seven signatories of the proclamation three were playwrights, and one founded a theatre. Alumni of the Abbey were prominently involved. Helena Moloney and Sean Connolly of the Citizen Army were charged with occupying City Hall, and McGarry reminds us that Connolly’s abortive raid on Dublin Castle “bore more than a passing resemblance to a scene from the Robert Emmet plays in which he had often performed”. Yeats, of course, remembered his voice:

Who was the first man shot that day?
The player Connolly
Close to the City Hall he died
Carriage and voice had he

This was not simply the retrospective exaggeration of a ballad. Gregory too recorded her “admiration and affection” for Connolly, and he was not the only one committed to theatre and revolution. Yeats was told that “after firing began the usual audience turned up at the Abbey Theatre, also one of our actors, who explained that he had been given two hours leave of absence by his rebel captain to play his part”. Abbey actor Arthur Shields had hidden his gun under the Abbey stage, and being ordered to collect it on Easter Monday he took the occasion to return the typescript of a play, The Spancel of Death, in which he was due to play the next day. In one of the great ironies of 1916, the Easter week programme for the Abbey paired this never-performed eighteenth-century-set drama with another, the inevitable Cathleen ní Houlihan. A staged revolution was supplanted by the real thing taking place on the streets.

Connections between the theatre and the Rising run deep, and nobody in this line looms more prominently than Patrick Pearse. As a new collection of criticism makes clear, nobody was more dependent on the voice. Gathered by the accomplished editors of his Collected Plays, Eugene McNulty and Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, Patrick Pearse and the Theatre provides a varied and comprehensive account of Pearse’s obsession with the theatre, featuring many other characters in the play of his life: James Connolly, Bulmer Hobson, Constance Markievicz, and even Sean O’Casey. Although suitably academic in tone, it contains lucid discussions of Pearse’s own plays in two languages and productions with the students of St Enda’s. Astonishing, really, that surpassing even Cathleen ní Houlihan these plays openly advertised the coming revolution, and performed it live, with boys on stage cheerfully trained to hold guns as well as speak finely. Such complex masculinist posing which the revolutionary generation fostered perhaps deserves further exploration; Pearse’s own convoluted sexuality plays not much part in these narratives, for instance. Particularly arresting then is how closely Pearse was a disciple of Abbey acting and programming. While at times hostile to the Abbey, which created, he said, a devil in Synge, and had “spoilt a noble poet in Mr Yeats”, in a 1906 article for his Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis he holds up Abbey acting as a model. He goes so far as to recommend that actors in Irish-language plays should be prepared “first to study the art of the Irish traditional reciter … and secondly to pay an occasional visit to the Abbey Theatre. … The one puts the student in touch with Ireland while the other puts him in touch with the best contemporary ideals.” “We hope” he concludes, “we have shocked no one by mentioning the Abbey.”

The Playboy of the Western World intervened, and Pearse predictably joined the chorus denouncing its unpicking of violent talk. But there is evidence, strangely, that as Pearse’s nationalism intensified he grew if anything closer to the Abbey. Many of his plays were composed for site-specific performance in St Enda’s, but in 1913 An Rí (The King) was staged at the Abbey alongside Rabindranath Tagore’s play entitled (with proleptic irony) The Post Office as part of a charity performance for the school. Yeats’s later opinion of Pearse as part of a generation caught in the “vertigo of self-sacrifice” did not prevent such connections. At the same time a striking detail emerges from Nic Shuibhlaigh’s account. She became certain that in bearing and vocal quality Pearse was now consciously copying Yeats. Her private papers record that “Pearse was very much attracted to Yeats. Pearse gave a speech about acting. He based it on the Abbey acting and he tried, I thought, to imitate Yeats in gesture and voice.” Evidently she did not approve. 

It is easier in these circumstances to understand how the image of the poet-revolutionary was fostered. Thomas MacDonagh’s drama When the Dawn Has Come features an idealist rebel leader romanticised as a dreamy poet, causing puzzlement among the rank and file: “I came for orders not for soft speech.” He is defended by a fellow revolutionary, played by Abbey actress Sara Allgood: “he is a poet always, and changes in moods, and is at times hard to understand”. In the clichés of the time this is conspicuously feminising language – complicating a masculinist revolutionary tradition, something Yeats’s poem picks up, writing of MacDonagh: “So sensitive his nature seemed, / So daring and sweet his thought”. MacDonagh’s thought involved intricate theories about poetry’s use of song-verse and speech-verse which met Yeats’s hearty approval. But the blurrings of gender roles that make their way into “Easter, 1916” have not always become part of the received narrative.

Pearse’s speaking however has great importance in the wider story. His impassioned speeches at the graves of Wolfe Tone and O’Donovan Rossa are said by many to have lit an essential spark for radicalism. As Liam de Paor in his excellent analysis of the 1916 Easter Proclamation has shown, echoes of these orations and of old IRB oaths survive in the document.  It opens after all like a speech, with the bold equalising vocative “Irishmen and Irishwomen”, and then in a complicated act of ventriloquism the document proceeds to speak “in the name of God”, as a woman, the feminised nation, Ireland. On her own, naturally, she is quite difficult to hear, so it is on her behalf that a Provisional Government hastily assembled, via the signatories representing the same, seeks to proclaim (now virtually established) an Irish republic, for the benefit of the people, addressing them directly, whom she “summons”, and whose readiness “to sacrifice themselves for the common good” will prove the nation worthy of what is explicitly, with all its vocalised religious overtones, a “calling”.

If the document was framed in (sharply feminised) terms of oratory, Pearse’s public reading of the proclamation from outside the GPO on Monday of Easter week represents the ultimate in elocutionary procedure. Some have recorded that his actual performance was far from his best: no doubt nervous, he couldn’t be heard, and apparently stumbled over his words. His listeners were not overly impressed. Diarmuid Lynch acidly recorded that “the few cheers that greeted this epochal announcement furnished an index of the denationalised state of Ireland”. Pearse’s worst nightmare was a dream he had of speaking on stage before an audience, neither cheering nor booing in vituperation, but chillingly silent and indifferent. Maybe for a moment this seemed to be coming true. As Dublin had learnt at the theatre, the audience’s reaction could be as much part of the story as the play.

From this distance it is impossible to tell exactly what happened – but in some ways it hardly matters. Despite his diffidence Pearse knew well what could be accomplished by an act of theatre. His reading of the proclamation, in other words, represented the performance of performing: a speech act, in JL Austin’s terms. What mattered was that the proclamation should be read aloud in a particular place, less important being to how many people, or how effectively they heard it. Lest we think such things are frivolous it should be noted that readings of the proclamation had real-world military effects. Despite the severe inconvenience of organising a main troop mobilisation point at Tara, Pearse insisted he “wanted the proclamation of the republic read there”. Such a reading was felt to be historically essential.

And this was a proclamation made for reading aloud. It was printed imperfectly at Liberty Hall, famously jerkily in two halves, with sealing wax making up deficiencies in letters (just look at the ropey letters R, E, and C in Republic), on an old press that was for a time stored beneath the Abbey stage. Constance Markievicz grabbed an early copy and took it out onto Lower Abbey Street – along the road from the Abbey Theatre – and declaimed it to passers by, putting all her experience of melodramatic elocution to work. Ina Connolly recalled Pearse’s injunctions to group of women from Belfast crowding around in Liberty Hall:

He carried a roll of papers in his hand. We all encircled him with anxious excitement. At last he spoke: “You have the privilege of being the first women to read this Proclamation. Read it, study it, and try to remember what is written and then you will be able to tell the men of the north that you saw and read that which will be read at the GPO today at 12 o’clock, and will be posted all over the city.”

The proclamation is thereby transformed into a script for oral transmission: up to a point, Ireland is called into being by women. Having hidden copies under her pillow, Helena Moloney (another Abbey actress who had made her name in Cathleen ní Houlihan) was in charge of its distribution around the city. When it was put up, Abbey architect and diarist Joseph Holloway at first took its broad lettering for a handbill advertising a play.

Speaking from inside the GPO Pearse proved his worth as an actor. “The country is steadily rising, and a large band of Volunteers is marching from Dundalk to Dublin,” he announced to a “deafening outburst of cheering”, and went on: “Wexford has risen and a relief column to march on Dublin is being formed.” It seems unlikely Pearse could have believed this, yet one of the number, Dick Humphreys, noted that Pearse’s speech “put new vitality into the men which three days of uncertainty and suspense had rather dispersed”. His listeners were convinced, or at least wanted to be. In front of a receptive audience Pearse regained an actor’s poise. Yeats’s poem “Statues” wonders “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side / What stalked through the Post Office?” When (like Sean Connolly) Pearse was not acting the role of Emmet, he was playing Cuchulainn, and he determined to play a part he knew with conviction.

At times like these the GPO can seem an extension of theatrical space. Each person, whether soldier, runner, or nurse, played their allotted part against a grand stage set complete with Greek columns and Roman proscenium – and, as in classical theatre, much of the action, particularly the violence, happened offstage, reported by messengers. James Connolly’s spoken orders were taken down by Winnie Carney’s rattling typewriter as if composing an increasingly implausible dramatic script. Certainly those in charge in the GPO, Connolly and Pearse, were more experienced in directing plays than military manoeuvres. The importance of direction was if anything only emphasised by its breakdown: “nobody seemed to be in charge once we left the GPO; it was every man for himself”. Every woman too. Resisting theatrical comparisons becomes a hard task on encountering, in McDiarmid’s book, Aoife de Burca’s account of her party of wounded men and nurses evacuating the post office. Escaping through holes blasted in nearby buildings, they plunged through O’Connell Street’s waxworks as its celebrities and Irish heroes melted around them, only to end up (where else?) in the Coliseum Theatre. Sheltering backstage from the bombs raining around they were ordered to extinguish their candles – and the lights went out as if for a performance. This had an unexpected result, known to performers as corpsing:

I tried to make an Act of fervent Contrition, but the situation was bordering on the comical as well as tragedy, so I burst out laughing instead. Another girl did likewise, and soon we were all at it … I recollect wishing not to die so that I could relate it all some day.

This change of mood from the actual event curiously reverses that played out in Yeats’s poem, where through their death the rising’s leaders resign their part in the “casual comedy” to enter the tragic mode.

Understandably military historians pour cold water on such flights of fancy, and explain, patiently, the objectives and tactics – and blunders – of both sides in all of the different operations that took place around the city, and around the country. Theatre was not always how these events were experienced locally by participants and citizens, whether or not they were experienced  nationally or by a global audience, and this should not be forgotten. They point out the stretched communications and civilian casualties of modern city warfare, the cold calculations of ballistics, the brutality of house-to-house fighting. Yet even these things involve lines of sight, words being heard, stage-fright, and, yes, acting. Here again women took centre stage. An oft-voiced surprise that women should be participants at all was put to good use. As a group of women were dramatically caught in City Hall garrison (“I was suddenly told by a voice in the dark to put up my hands”) Helen Molony used an actress’s power to mislead the troops into thinking they were hostages rather than rebels. The surprise was sometimes on their own side. McDiarmid’s book extracts a wonderful vignette as Máire Nic Shuibhlaigh arrived unannounced at Jacob’s biscuit factory, to the following reaction from playwright and military commander Thomas MacDonagh: “My God … It’s Maire Walker! How did you get in? … We haven’t made any provision for girls here.” Like so many, she played the part successfully, quickly finding valuable work to do. These moments were emblematic of wider difficulties of communication. Nic Shuibhlaigh describes the terrible silence in the garrison – what was not said, or could not be said, wearing down the participants. Inevitably the gap was filled by speculation and confusion: “Rumour was one of the worst enemies the garrison had. It was the same elsewhere in the city.” The same was true outside Dublin. After several days of rumour and counter-rumour about the situation in Athenry, Augusta Gregory’s journals from Coole noted, almost enthusiastically, “I am beginning to find what a stimulant it is to conversation, getting all one’s news from word of mouth and none by letters or telegrams or newspapers.” The author of Spreading the News had found life imitating art, as Oscar Wilde said it would.

Quite seriously, for many then the Easter Rebellion marked a return to an age of pre-modernity, a renewed experience of dialogue, a re-immersion in oral culture. This was more than idle talk. The O’Rahilly’s cheerful singing of “all the national songs – he had a lovely voice” seemed a natural expression of feeling, his unaccustomed silence on the Thursday of Holy Week in retrospect signalling the gravity of what was to come. Emblematic in this story is the Friday night a week later under the sky outside the Rotunda, so long Dublin’s premier music venue, as in continuing resistance the captured rebels filled the open air with national songs. Combining songs and nationalism represents the classic operation of Romanticism with a big R, with real-world effects. As we’ve seen, these performances had theatrical precedents, and Pearse was not slow to respond. His historical play An Rí (The King) features a song competition in which the “music of the fighters makes drunk the hearts of young men”, while in Owen it is a ballad singer who brings the news of the 1867 rising. Pearse’s last play, performed posthumously in 1916, was called The Singer. Such stagings of song are what Sean O’Casey draws on in his own 1916 drama, The Plough and the Stars. Ironies multiply. The unfortunate Bessie dies with a nationalist ballad on her lips, and the play closes sardonically with British Tommies cheerily singing cockney ditties. Against this it is the voice of Patrick Pearse in full flow that comes from the wings, played against the stage’s brutal realities. 1916 veteran Arthur Shields, together with his brother Barry Fitzgerald, would play in dozens of celebrated Abbey performances, and in the screen adaptation by John Ford.

Despite their competing politics, and perhaps because of their obsession with the voice, there is no question these theatrical movements produced a significant impact on cultural and political life both before and after 1916. McGarry drily notes “Yeats’s success in writing himself into the narrative of an event in which he had played no part”. Given that “Easter 1916” and associated poems were not published until 1920 and The Dreaming of the Bones not performed until 1931, this can’t be accounted entirely up to him; and notwithstanding, McGarry’s book is peppered with quotations from Yeats’s pen. Somehow his work created voices that convince, and the intonations of “Easter 1916” stick in the mind whether or not you like or agree with the poem. As we’ve seen, the opening distances itself from the rebels precisely in terms of tone of voice. So “Polite meaningless words” from the poet are repeated, meaninglessly, and his “mocking tale or gibe” is thrown back at him by the rebels’ implacable sincerity. They are tragedians, while the rest play only comedy. This kind of tone was wrong, and the poem vocalises its own attempts to find another.

It would not be found in the full-throated admiration and endless promises of a love poem. Maud Gonne was not the only one who read a slight into “Easter 1916”’s doubts about the rebels’ “excess of love”. “Easter 1916” makes none of the claims of Cathleen ní Houlihan to affect events, nor does it repeat a national love story. On the one hand the poem has been read as inflammatory in not condemning violence, and on the other culpably ambivalent in not celebrating it; and more recently indeed for seeming to ascribe grammatically to the rebels a passive role: they too are “changed, changed utterly”. While insistent questions raise doubts about the outcome (“Was it needless death after all?”), the transformative effect of death is not doubted. Importantly, though, the poem is racked by its own doubts about how to respond. How, after such dramatic actions, can words be adequate?

The answer, if it comes at all, is not quite in content or form, but in tone. “Easter 1916” is at once orally driven and modernist in describing its own coming into being. In turn different tones of voice are considered and rejected as not being adequate to the situation. Casually or passionately spoken words come to seem inadequate – too quickly they grow “mocking” or “shrill” – but what is the alternative? The poem, notably, is accompanied by two ballads, “Sixteen Dead Men” and “The Rose Tree”, both of which have first lines disavowing the value of idle talk: “O but we talked at large before”, “O words are lightly spoken”. Action is what counts. At the same time these opening ballad-like apostrophes, these open-mouthed Os, advertise the sung nature of these poems. “Easter 1916” picks this up in the line “Yet I number him in the song”, remembering the song rhythms and the historical naming of ballad numbers. But if the poet is at work on something like a song, what of the rest of us? What is our response, our role? Says “Easter 1916”:

                                 Our part
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child

Yeats’s poem is clearly troubled by the presence of women in the revolution. On the other hand it does at least take them and their effect seriously. Finally it asks us to adopt, as a part, the voice and intonation of a mother. Perhaps such a tone is to suggest the forgiveness of wayward children; perhaps grief and affection; perhaps unconditional, undying love. This is not so much patronising as matronising. To “murmur” though is interesting: it suggests some kind of incantation, if not the open-mouthed song of the ballads. Those m sounds require the pressing of lips, producing something personal, intimate, barely heard. Our murmurs are patterned (“I write it out in verse”), and four of the revolutionary leaders are named, and by now we too are bound into the poem’s trimeter rhythm and we repeat them, “name upon name”, following the ritual naming methods of the ballad singer. Yet although carefully numbered in four stanzas of sixteen and twenty-four lines (the date 24-4-16 being Easter Monday, the start of the rising), this is no ballad. If it is a song it asks us to adopt the tones of a lullaby. If on the other hand it represents an act of theatre it recalls nothing more than those tableaux vivants by Alice Milligan. In such plays there is not much dialogue or action: instead historical figures (as those involved in the rising have become) are brought forth in a kind of pageant, alongside music, and presented with their names by an offstage narrator. This is close to what happens in the theatre of the poem. Only, notice they are not judged, either condemned or venerated, but named, simply, with rhymes giving a suggestion of cadence. What tone of voice we choose to name them is finally up to us.

Following the rebellion ballads appeared everywhere. Gregory recalled in June that “Yeats spoke against the executions, said England was stupid as usual and ought not, in her own interest, to have allowed them to make their own ballads.” The author of “Easter 1916” is then not making a ballad, but making the making of a ballad. But despite any quibbles over joint authorship, Augusta Gregory was the only one apart from Yeats authorised to read the poem aloud. This marked a decisive transfer of allegiance from Gonne. Having returned to the Abbey, Nic Shuibhlaigh was unavailable for a performance of Cathleen ní Houlihan. Opposite Arthur Shields, Gregory at last played the central character in her own play. It was a high moment in her life. One more woman’s voice spoke, on behalf of many, even now marginalised and forgotten, those lines “they shall be remembered for ever”.

Marking the anniversary of 1916, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was at pains to point out that “the integrity of these people’s performance in the week is not to be questioned”. To say “these people” in this slightly detached way shadows Yeats’s poem with its distancing deictics “this” and “that”, but his mention of “performance”, reminds us, as the poem does, of theatre’s presence. That 1916 can be classed as a performance does not mean this mode of theatre was not sincere or not effective, or that it was not incredibly dangerous. But even as it was happening the event was being transformed from memory into myth, from action into reaction, and its reverberations echo in both the official commemorations and these fascinating books exploring its contexts. Such echoes can go off-key: so the actress and revolutionary Helena Molony, together with Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult, spent the Second World War continuing the struggle, as they saw it, by sheltering Nazi spies in Dublin. If this gestures dishonourably towards what McGarry calls the “ideological incoherence of Irish republicanism”, it also suggests the continuing power of an idea so effectively voiced into action.

Yeats, when it came to it, did not give Gonne shelter. Just as his young wife George was about to give birth, his old lover and sparring partner arrived on the run from the authorities at the doorstep of the Dublin house they rented from her, and demanded to be let in. With his own small act of independence, Yeats turned her away. So his poems after “Easter, 1916” pursue an independent line through the years of the Troubles, while never quite forgetting Gonne’s powerful presence. He kept his eternally pledged faith to her in a different way. Her messy divorce proceedings had deeply affected him, and brought out an unlikely proto-feminism: “the trouble with these men” he writes, meaning the narrow Catholic morality of MacBride’s nationalist supporters, “is that in their eyes a woman has no rights”. The 1916 proclamation proposed something different, but it is hard to say the new nation honoured this pledge, whatever “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse” might have wanted. In a notable intervention in the Senate in 1925 Yeats spoke passionately in favour of the right to divorce, soon to be outlawed, at the same time (which is more often remembered) publicly “coming out” as a Protestant. His stated reasons were twofold: a principled defence of minority rights, and a warning about partition. Denying couples the right to sunder a connection contracted orally might, he said, lose the North to Ireland forever. The rights he was defending were associated with the Protestant minority but, of course, represented the rights of “all Irishmen and women”. And once gone they were lost for seventy years. A moving Irish Times series in 2015 commemorating the coming of 1995 divorce legalisation made no mention of Yeats’s efforts, though it coincided with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

So Yeats may have been wrong about many things, but he seems to me right, in “Easter, 1916” and elsewhere, in one central diagnosis. Voices are central to the project of revolution, just as they are afterwards, and not only as a metaphor. Those historians who pay closest attention to the power, the weight, the onus of words, tend, on balance, to agree. As attention turns to other anniversaries and the possibility of new borders being drawn across the island of Ireland, potentially the voices of “these people” from 1916 are drowned out. But one thing these books do so well is to remind us how much individual voices matter. If 1916 was staged, no one could say it went quite according to script. Successive generations of audience members have found that receiving passively the play of politics, casual comedy or not, is not enough. There is work for us to do, and each of us must make our voices heard.

1/12/2017

Adrian Paterson is lecturer in English at NUI Galway and the curator of Yeats & the West.

Categories