Over the last few years interest in the roles that women played throughout Irish history has finally picked up. We now know that there were far more women who took part in the Easter Rising than previously thought. Estimates have put their numbers anywhere from seventy-seven to several hundred and many are finally getting the recognition that they have deserved for so long. Sorcha MacMahon was one of those women and without her, the 1916 uprising may have been very different indeed.
Piaras Béaslaí may have been born in England, but that didn’t stop him from being profoundly Irish. His Irish Catholic parents emigrated to Liverpool before Piaras was born but he grew up with a strong love for his heritage. By the time he was a teenager he was fluent in Irish and obsessed with Ireland’s struggle for independence. He wrote fiery newspaper articles and rebellious poetry that highlighted the Irish Republican cause and eventually led him into the Gaelic League and the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. He developed close friendships and worked side by side with many prominent revolutionaries like Ned Daly, Thomas Ashe, and Michael Collins, just to name a few.
Thomas Ashe was a teacher, a piper, an Irish language enthusiast, a soldier, a devout man of faith and one of the pioneers of the modern Republican Hunger Strike. His life began 130 years ago, on this day in 1885.
It has been said that tourists – and mostly American tourists – are the only reason that Kilmainham Gaol is still open because most Irish couldn’t be bothered with it these days. My new friend who is now happily married here in the U.S. agrees with the travel books that say things like that because he and his generation seem to be sick to death of the glorious dead mentality and couldn’t care less about the history and the Troubles that have haunted the country since even before the Rising of 1916. In fact, he was shocked that we were still asked questions about our religion and last names on our travels to Ireland at the end of last year, both in the Republic and the North because he thought those kinds of things were finished.
However, when I did tour Kilmainham Gaol, I was in a group mostly made up of Irish people and all seemed just as profoundly affected by it as I was. Perhaps it was because of the off season which meant my group was thankfully smaller when we went through the infamous prison, or perhaps it was an anomaly altogether but I was glad for it. It made for a decidedly more intimate and more personal experience.
As someone who has been a long term student of Irish history, I have been looking forward to the centennial celebration for years and years. At first, I thought I’d have to watch it from afar – and I still may yet have to do that, but the goal is to spend about a month wandering through the whole of the Emerald Isle before culminating in Dublin for the 100 year commemoration of the Easter Rising. I have been devouring any information I can find on the planned celebrations for years and have found it all woefully lacking. I still can’t even get an answer about whether it is going to be planned for Easter, which is incredibly early in 2016, or if it will wait until April 24th.
I started paying attention to what the people in charge were and were not saying. Modern politicians seem to be more concerned with whether or not the British royalty will show up than they are about planning something awesome for their own people. Given that they owe their positions to the rebellious men and women of 1916 (also before and since) you would think that they’d be getting ready to honor them.
When I visited Kilmainham Gaol in December, it was a bit like a pilgrimage for me. I knew that I would be walking through the notorious place I had been reading about for 20 years and that my Irish history knowledge would only be improved by going…but I didn’t really want to. I knew it’d be hard for me as I am a sensitive girl and I left my traveling companions elsewhere in order to do it alone. I was highly emotional, particularly when I visited “Last Words“, the exhibit on the top floor of the prison.
As I left the gaol, I really needed to collect myself. My makeup was runny from tears I had barely held back in the exhibit and my head was full of things I wanted to remember and write down. Most of all, I wanted a cigarette. I crossed the street to have one and to not fall apart in front of a major tourist attraction and found myself surrounded by humanoid, creepy bronze statues whose chests were full of bullet holes. In the split second it took me to put two and two together, I realized 2 things. These were the creepiest statues I had ever seen and I had come to the wrong place to collect myself, as it made me even more emotional and teary.
I don’t know if I like Rowan Gillespie or not. On one hand I believe he’s a genius. On the other, his work hits me in a visceral way that makes me uncomfortable. This is Proclamation, another place I had to add to the Atlas Obscura. It’s getting quite full of Irish places these days….