To Speak Of Easter Week: 1916 From A Personal Perspective
A new book published by Mercier Press examines the human legacy of the Eater Rising through interviews with 25 relatives of those who fought during 1916. To Speak of Easter Week by Dr Helene O’Keeffe tells the story of the most decisive week in modern Irish history in a way that has never been done before. Taking from the hundreds of recordings that have been compiled by her parents Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore, based in Tralee, Dr O’Keeffe shines a light on the memories that the fighters of the Rising.
The book includes interviews with James Connolly’s great-grandson, Éamonn Ceannt’s grandniece, Michael Mallin’s son, Joseph Plunkett’s nephews, and Thomas MacDonagh’s granddaughter. Through these interviews Dr O’Keeffe brings us on a journey that goes beyond the history book version of the events of Easter Week and takes us through the emotional memory of those most deeply affected.
Dr Helene O’Keeffe is a Cork-based historian who teaches History and English in St Angela’s College Cork. She has given a number of presentations on the subject of oral history and memory at national conferences, and she is currently collaborating on a number of 1016 centenary projects.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Irish Life and Lore project and how this book came about?
Maurice and Jane O’Keeffe established Irish Life and Lore in the early 1990s for the purpose of compiling and cataloguing audio recordings on oral history. In 2012, Maurice received sponsorship from the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht to compile a collection of oral history interviews with the descendants of the participants in the 1916 Rising. Committed to collecting as many stories connected to the Rising as possible, from as many different perspectives as possible, he traversed the country to meet with and interview the custodians of memory. They generously shared their family stories and the initial collection, on which To Speak of Easter Week is based, comprised 111 oral history interviews.
In 2014, Maurice received further funding from the Dublin and Kildare County Libraries and the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht to conduct a further 127 interviews and the final collection of 238 recordings represents a tremendously valuable archive of inherited memory. The 1916 Collection, and the thousands of other recordings catalogued and archived by Irish Life and Lore, can be accessed though libraries around Ireland and also though www.irishlifeandlore.com
The daughter of a writer and an oral historian, I was instilled with an early appreciation of history and language and my personal fascination with the concept of ‘memory’ was forged in childhood. Oral history became both the source and subject of my PhD thesis in 2009 and three years later I was afforded access to the rich storehouse of family memory that was Irish Life and Lore’s 1916 Oral History Collection. It offered an opportunity to construct a collective re-telling of Easter Week from the perspective of the subsequent generations.
The Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht saw enough potential in my proposal to fund the research process and Mercier Press agreed to publish the findings. The result is To Speak of Easter Week, which offers, I hope, a representative cross section of experience, and will in some small way inspire a new generation to engage with our nation’s complex history at a more human level.
Was the goal of the book primarily to learn something new about the Rising as factual history or was it to learn about how it has affected the personal history of the families involved?
An oral history interview will always have the potential to lead the researcher down unexpected avenues of enquiry, which can often result in the discovery of new material or fresh perspectives. However, in terms of factual historical reliability, oral testimony should be approached with caution and in conjunction with documentary source material.
For the purposes of this book, the real value of the oral history collection lay less in its potential for yielding an unvarnished truth about the revolutionary period, and more in its revelations about the different ways in which families have attempted to assimilate and make sense of their shared history.
The diversity of experience recorded in the oral history collection also offered an opportunity to explore how memories of the revolutionary period were transferred from one generation to the next and the motives for remembering and forgetting Easter Week.
Could you talk us through who your father interviewed as part of the project? Was it difficult to get people to talk about the subject?
The people recorded were the sons, daughters, grandchildren and other close relatives of those involved in 1916, both from the rank and file and of officer rank. While recordings were made primarily with relatives of the Irish revolutionaries, descendants of British military personnel and of Dublin based families of British origin were also recorded.
Most of the interviewees were very willing to share what they knew about their relative’s experience. I think that this was partly because of Maurice’s twenty years of experience as an oral historian and his straightforward and sympathetic interviewing style. In fact, many of the interviewees testified to being surprised and at how the interview process triggered the sudden recollection of a long forgotten experience or family anecdote.
Certainly, some of the interviewees were in possession of more information than others and gender and generational differences were significant in terms of how these revolutionary men and women were remembered. But, almost universally, the interviewees were anxious to put on record the roles of their ancestors in this seminal moment in Irish history.
The story of Easter Week, as told by the descendants of the participants 100 years later, will be fundamentally different. The revolutionary generation came of age in a romantic, noble, chivalrous and militant world, and they were convinced of the moral imperative of fighting for Ireland’s freedom from Britain. It is difficult, even for those who share a name and an affinity with the participants in the Rising, to understand those complex and often competing influences, which impelled them to forge a path to revolution.
The influence of time and subsequent experience will always inform the recollection of an event, and for the second generation, who grew up in a different context, the added impetus to protect an ancestor’s historical reputation, to celebrate or to justify their role in rebellion, will inform how the event is recorded. The third generation are even more distantly removed from the revolutionary period, and their understanding is influenced as much by subsequent history and public memorialisation as by an ancestor’s account of the past. Ultimately, oral history will always expose the delicate relationship between truth, memory and history.
How does a historian deal with the ways in which subjective memory colours an oral history?
I think that the most important thing is that the historian engages with that subjectivity and explores the reasons for a particular perspective on the past. Likewise, inaccuracies, omissions and imaginative recreation do not invalidate the oral history source. Rather, discovering discrepancies alerts the researcher to look for the underlying reasons for the inaccuracies, which in turn might offer a deeper understanding of processes of memory. In the words of Thomas Ashe’s niece, Eileen Quinn, ‘three people painting the same landscape will produce three different pictures,’ but each picture offers an individual perspective on that particular landscape.
What were the biggest surprises you discovered upon listening to these recordings?
Generally, I found the immediacy with which many of the interviewees were able to relate inherited stories very surprising. Despite the passage of time and the generational distance, many of the interviewees were able to provide, in vivid detail, a personal or inherited memory. This suggested, perhaps, the potency of the legacy of rebellion.
Your father Maurice O’Keeffe didn’t just interview those on the rebel side of the conflict; he also spoke with a relative of Sgt John Touhy, an RIC sergeant during the Battle of Ashbourne, as well as others. How did their testimonies differ from those of the relatives of the rebels?
Maurice’s personal remit was to collect as broad a cross section of experience as possible. He interviewed, for example, the descendants of the signatories of the Proclamation as well as the daughter of Captain Henry De Courcy Wheeler who, accompanied by Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, took the surrender of several of the leaders of the Rising in Dublin. The collection includes testimonies from the relatives of the men who occupied the Mendicity Institution under Sean Heuston and from the nephew of Private Francis Brennan of the 10th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers who was shot dead on Usher’s Quay on Easter Monday.
Inevitably, considering their families’ alternate roles in the conflict, the interviewees offered different conclusions on the events of Easter Week. Thomas Ashe’s niece, for example, considered the events at Ashbourne ‘one of the successes of the Easter Rising’. On the other hand, the grandnephew of Sgt John Touhy, an RIC sergeant who was stationed at the Barracks in Ashbourne in 1916, told Maurice that the Touhy family considered no chance to defend themselves. He does not consider that the RIC men were ‘on the other side,’ rather they were Irishmen who were caught up in a crisis that was not of their making.
Is there a lesson to be taken from these interviews that could be applied to the Ireland we live in today?
In terms of families generally, I think that recording memories and experiences before they vanish from living memory is deeply important. So many of the interviewees expressed regret at the passing of a parent and the realisation that they know only part of the story.
The older generation who lived though the Emergency and the Economic War have valuable first hand experiences of the early decades of the Free State and can offer insights into our social, cultural and political history, which will be lost to future generations if unrecorded.
What is the main difference between this kind of telling of history and that of a traditional history book approach?
I hope that To Speak of Easter Week offers something new and unique to the wealth of material about 1916 already on the market. The oral history sources provided rich, nuanced and personal material and served to humanise and contextualise the participants in rebellion.
The recollections of the interviewees resonate with many Irish families and, as such, offer a more accessible entry point into the complex revolutionary period. Furthermore, the story does not end with the surrender. The book follows these families through two or three generations and traces the emotional inheritance as well as the political consequences of 1916 Rising into the twenty-first century.