The 1916 Carnival

I had not been in Dublin city for some time before a visit last week. While walking down Moore Street I witnessed a 1916 tour in operation en route to a visit to Chapters, which is Dublin’s best bookshop for both inexpensive and rare history books. I picked up one last week that I recalled reading but not actually owning, namely The Insurrection in Dublin by James Stephens, which I have discovered this morning is actually available for free online, both in a scanned and text format.

James Joyce considered Stephens (an adopted name, since he was an orphan) to be Ireland’s finest writer, which is more than can be said for Joyce and is a perspective that I am inclined to share if only because whenever I read Stephens I feel an ever-growing sense of suppressed laughter arising within because it seems self-evident that there was no greater writer in instinctively expressing typical Irish temperaments than he. He is as genial a soul as G.K. Chesterton but without the same obsession with moral paradoxes. Stephens’ account of the rebellion, written as it was happening and published immediately afterwards, has that same gift of language as his masterpiece of Leprechaun nonsense, The Crock of Gold (1912), and it is a pity that he did not remain in Dublin after 1916 to chronicle his sense of life in Ireland more often. The BBC effectively “nabbed him”. A google search indicates that Stephens’ text was translated into different languages at the time of the 1916 centenary, which is nice to see although one might wonder how his characteristic indifference to conventional grammar could be effectively translated.

Crossing the Liffey I came across a free exhibition on the Irish revolution (“Ballots to Bullets”) that struck me as being particularly well done, but, it seems, it will be closing at the end of this month. Thanks to the Bureau of Military History, there have been memoirs galore of those years released in recent years, so many in fact that it is very hard to keep track of them all. In general, the statements by ordinary volunteers of those days attest to localism being paramount in shaping people’s outlook, which perhaps betrayed the extent to which a centrally directed purpose in revolutionary situations usually remained obscure. Commercial newspapers of the day (several of which remain in existence) can now be seen in the digital Irish Newspaper Archive if one has a subscription (which I have not) and one can tell from exhibitions like the current one how that resource has played a large part in allowing many a obscure or forgotten event to be “rediscovered”. For whatever reason, however, rebel journals of the day have not actually been digitised, perhaps because they were invariably cheaply produced and were also very short-lived with no practical antecedents. My little attempt to digitise an extract is not exactly blinding in its professionalism either.

“Ballots to Bullets” suggests that the existence of Dáil Eireann was “largely symbolic” before 1923, which reflects how little historians have focused on the essence of the Irish revolution which was the attempt to set up the infrastructure of an independent state (which was actively resisted by the opposition) as much as it was to secure international recognition. An Irish foreign policy conference at the end of this month may have a few reflections on that point, although the short time allotted for speakers may mean that a subsequent journal based on the conference will be rather more comprehensive. Either way I should be making a very small and relatively silent contribution to that, although the “1916 carnival” that has re-entered my consciousness since re-reading Stephens’ text makes me reflect that—somehow and “someday”—I’ll have to “make a jab” at making sense of that whole era in a more comprehensive fashion than I have hitherto, my instinct telling me that the best way to do that would be with a re-conceptualisation of the history of the IRB that has been brewing in the back of my mind for some time but it may also be quite some time before that brew is sufficiently drawn to “let it rip”, so to speak. So many other “more important” tasks lie in the way “first”. But anyway, for now, all I can say is Dublin city evidently still remains as good a place as ever for exhibitions, talks and good book shops, down all those streets that I no longer know so well. If you haven’t done so before, you may be giving yourself a treat by looking up the writings of James Stephens.