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The City As Hero

Gerard Smyth

Fallen, by Lia Mills, Penguin, 288 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1844883059

“… the story of the Rising … has all the elements of great fiction: characters larger than life, a strong plot, romance, betrayal, hopeless odds, the surprise twist at the end that changes everything.”

So writes novelist Lia Mills in a fine essay on the Easter Rebellion in the latest edition of The Stinging Fly. Mills artfully binds all those component parts into the superb piece of storytelling she presents in her 1916 novel, Fallen, chosen as this year’s One City One Book for both Dublin and Belfast.

If there is a “larger than life” character in the pages of Fallen it is city itself; Mills’s opening dedication, announcing that this book is “For the city” is an appropriate one given the way in which Dublin and its landmarks become a geography of the heart: references to Tom Kettle bringing his students into St Stephen’s Green, the spire of Findlater’s Church threatening to “pierce the blue of the sky”, the novel’s main  protagonist, Katie Crilly, tramping local streets as she navigates her way through the vividly evoked city in turmoil, as well as the atmosphere of refuge and contentment she discovers in the Percy Place home of her two unconventional friends, Dote and May.

Early in the novel Mills has Katie “listening to a white-bearded antiquarian describe the distinguishing features of the house we lived in – and thousand of houses like it that characterised the centre of Dublin”. In these pages there is – to borrow a phrase from Thomas Flanagan – a Joycean  reverence for street names: Earlsfort Terrace, Gardiner Street, North Great George’s Street, Beresford Place, Parnell Street, Rutland Square, Great Brunswick Street, Percy Place, and of course Sackville Street.  Mills knows that the events of Easter week 1916 are their story too. They don’t merely put in an appearance as cameos, as a setting for the action or a backdrop for the characters: they provide the very marrow of the story.

There is scrupulous care in the author’s use of clear and uncluttered language, an easy flow to the episodic passages; her Edwardian Dublin does not require elaborate description, but there is a deeply affectionate and evocative sense of place in the way that Mills maps out a city that has suddenly awakened to this moment of history. And here, the melding of history and imagination is what seizes the attention of the reader. Mills looks to her subjects not from an epic perspective but through the intimate scenes that she creates for her characters.

There is, and this is to the novel’s advantage, little in the way of direct eye-witness account of the action taking place; as her characters traverse the city they seek to avoid the frontiers of battle and bombardment, moving along the margins or keeping vigil at windows and doors It’s a device in the structure of the novel that presents a truer picture of what Katie calls the “queerest atmosphere” that has overtaken the city. We mostly encounter the drama, as well as the sentiments of the citizenry, through the dialogue and conversations that animate those domestic scenes – and it’s all effectively conveyed in these accounts. Mills knows the power of one person talking to another.

The main architects of insurrection don’t appear here, nor are they directly pertinent to the story ( in one episode we are left waiting for the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who fails to turn up ); the imagery does not resort to the highly charged drama of a city in the throes of destruction, at least  until close to the end of the book when  the stark horror of one of the bloodiest battles of the week – on Mount Street –  intrudes on life in the Percy Place sanctuary – and here the scope of Mills’s writing is tested in scenes that strip bare the reality of battle and the devastation left in its wake.

There is a powerful depiction of Dublin – a pulverised city “breathing sulphur”, its river “a canvass of wavering, hot colours” – on the fourth day of Easter week when Katie volunteers to accompany the injured to the city’s hospitals. On these journeys she notices a bewildered city, one where “hundreds of people ... emerged from a dense reddish fog, carrying bundles and bags and babies”. When she realises she’s in a place where all the mothers “didn’t yet know they’d never see their boys again”, she could be thinking of Dublin or the Western Front.

The author’s meticulous research into topography and much else – down to such details as the new fashion of wearing the wristwatch, the type of wound bandages in use – sharpens the authentic note.

Through its assorted characters the novel embodies the conflicting emotions, sentiments and contradictions of a city that in the first years of the new century was in a state of cultural and political flux and transition. Mills positions her view of the rebellion – and that cultural flux – from an upper middle class perspective. Katie is a child born into the newly-risen Catholic middle class; the family home is in the Georgian grandeur of Rutland Square (now Parnell Square); her mother is a class-conscious woman with no time for the rising suffrage movement, resisting the changing social and political mores of the day and seeing no need for her sex to advance to further education.  

This is not the Dublin of Plunkett’s Strumpet City or O’Casey’s Plough, yet there are intimations of the divide between wealth and poverty and of middle class indifference to the grim realities of life in the slums.  Early in her novel Mills describes the Dublin of the time as a place that “aspires to be a city, but has the habits of a village” – an apt description that might still apply today and one which, in a way, sums up the city’s abiding charm.

Mills’s focus is on individual lives and while the immediate perils come from the conflict just beyond the hall doors of Dublin, the war to which thousands of Irishmen had marched in British uniform is solidly at the heart of this novel – the black armband is a prominent emblem on the streets. Mills stays particular and local in how she reaches out to the great war on the European front; it might be in an elsewhere place, a long long way from Rutland Square, but it is an unmistakable presence in the lives of her characters and in the wider life of the city. Katie Crilly seems fully aware that she is living through a complex moment of history – one that will bring irreversible consequences. When her mother asks about the leaders in the GPO ‑ “Who are these people? What do they want?” ‑ she is voicing a question that was on the lips of so many of the bystanders.

The ghost who haunts this story is Katie’s twin, Liam. The grief and bitterness that sweeps in on the household in Rutland Square when he is killed in action on the Western Front mirrors the experience of so many Dublin families at the time – and through Katie’s persistent attempts to understand and make sense of his death, an interrogation of war becomes a kind of sub-subject in the novel, layering a new depth into the narrative.  

The convention by which the war is dramatised through the thoughts and reports he sends in his letters (in one of them he describes it as “the adventure of our time, our generation”) – along with the disclosures by the crippled Hubie Wilson, home with his wounds, proves a compelling way of dropping the nightmare of the trenches into the narrative.

It has taken generations to shake of the national amnesia that allowed the role and sacrifice of so many Irishmen in the Great War to remain unacknowledged; fifty years ago when the nation marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising that amnesia was both pervasive and perverse: those who served found themselves consigned to a place in history where “honour turns away in shame” as poet Franics Ledwidge put it in his poem “Soliloquy”. Fifty years ago those Irishmen had to endure a forced estrangement from national commemoration. Like the women who played a role in the Dublin rebellion, they were airbrushed from memory. All that is changed of course, but too late for the generation of 1914-1918.

Fallen is not just a book “for the city” as the dedication states, but a welcome further memorial – a work of restoration – that recognises the fate of those who for so long were forgotten because of the choice they made. Mills has given us an anti-heroine worthy of a place among the remarkable real-life generation of women who made their own contribution to the week in Irish history that this novel so powerfully portrays.

There is a moment in the novel when Katie promises to return later to a particular house “when things are back to normal”.  But after the events so well blended in this novel – insurrection and world war – “normal” was never again going to be the same.

1/3/2016

Gerard Smyth’s eighth collection of poetry, A Song of Elsewhere (Dedalus Press), was published last year. He was co-editor, with Pat Boran, of If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song (Dedalus Press), which was Dublin’s One City One Book in 2014.

 

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