Ireland’s Easter Rising Reconsidered

Easter Rising

The dying Cú Chulainn, photo: wikimedia

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans staged an armed insurrection aimed at achieving independence from Britain and establishing a separate Irish Republic. At the same time, many Irish citizens were fighting in World War I.

For that anniversary, two Boston College professors—novelist and philosopher Richard Kearney and artist Sheila Gallagher—created a performance in images, music, and words to expand the perception of those events. Called “Twinsome Minds: Recovering 1916 in Images and Stories,” they presented it last week at Princeton University, their 16th performance, I believe.

What did I think? I liked all the pieces—images, music, words—but was the whole more than the sum of the parts? Did the underlying conceit work? The idea for “Twinsome Minds” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. “Irish imagination is at its best, said Joyce, when moving between two ‘twinsome’ minds—that is, when it has ‘two thinks at a time’ opening onto a third,” Kearney said. In that it was partially successful.

I most liked the stories, and found the images alternately beautiful and distracting. Clipping headlines wanted to be read. Abstract images wanted to be interpreted. Art made on-the-spot wanted to draw attention to technique. Many of Gallagher’s images featured a raven, which sits of the shoulder of the dying Cú Chulainn, in the memorial to the Easter Rising.

The double meaning of twinning was that, as in any civil war brothers, cousins, friends, schoolmates, neighbors for various reasons found themselves on opposite sides. While some thought rebellion was the only way to achieve an independent Ireland, others though enlisting in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and fighting for the British in France better supported that goal. While 500 lives were lost in the six days of the Rising (more than half of them civilians), 3,500 Irishmen were killed in the battle of the Somme in one day.

Gallagher showed photos of Ireland’s men and women on opposite sides in this conflict. Poet Francis Ledwidge from County Meath, who died in France, suggested the depth of the divide—and perhaps a sprinkle of contempt—between partisans on the two sides: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

You can see the whole thing (75 minutes) on YouTube and see for yourself.

***A Pattern of Lies

Canterbury, church wall

Canterbury (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

By Charles Todd – In Book 7 in the Bess Crawford mystery series, Bess works as a World War I field hospital nurse in France (1918), where the terrible surroundings are well imagined and effectively described. On leave and waiting for a train in Canterbury, Bess encounters a past patient, Major Mark Ashton, who invites her to stay the night with his family, as a train to London is not likely before morning. Mark’s mother had come to France to help care for him, and Bess is happy to renew her acquaintance.

Mark tells her about the loss of the family business—a gunpowder mill—which blew up two years previously. A fire ensued, and more than a hundred workers lost their lives. At first, sabotage was suspected, but eventually the explosion—which created a shortfall in vital British armament production—was ruled an accident. Rather than rebuild on the site, the government relocated production to Scotland. The village economy was devastated by the loss of both men and their jobs. Resentments run high.

Recently, a spate of vicious rumors has circulated, accusing Mark’s father of causing the catastrophe. Allegedly, he was at odds with the government over the running of the mill and its possible disposition after the war. The father dismisses these rumors as something no thinking person would take seriously. Unfortunately, evidence of the increasingly uneasy relationship between residents of the Ashton manor and the fictional village of Cranbourne is not hard to come by, with minor, but escalating acts of vandalism and anonymous threatening letters.

Where these problems started—and, more ominously, where they will end up—is increasingly uncertain. Mark hopes that Bess’s arrival will help his parents take their minds off their current troubles, which local police seem loathe to investigate. But during her visit, the unthinkable happens: Mark’s father, Philip Ashton, is arrested on a charge of murder. In the ensuing weeks, the only people he’s allowed to see are his legal representatives. However, with their client facing possible conviction and death, they seem oddly unmotivated.

Bess spends much of her time on duty in France, but several short trips to England, accompanying patients who need more care than can be offered in the field, allow her to stay in touch with the Ashton family. She uses her contacts in the battlefield grapevine to find out about a witness to the tragedy, relying on an Australian sergeant—who has a quite obvious crush on our Bess—as her eyes and ears. She also has resources closer to home: her father, the “Colonel Sahib,” who had retired from the military but was called back for “special duty,” and his former Regimental Sergeant-Major. Both of them are apparently connected with military intelligence, and willing to look into matters for Bess and provide what information they can. Bess becomes more than an interested bystander when her investigations incite an attempt on her own life.

The thoroughness with which an amateur sleuth and an outsider can inject herself into the events of a plot is always a bit tricky to handle plausibly. Todd stretches logic thin in a few instances, but Bess’s interventions mostly work well. While the book has many strengths, in the end, the motivation behind all the trouble seemed to me rather weak.

A Pattern of Lies will especially appeal to fans of the recent television mini-series about British nurses in France in World War I, The Crimson Field. Charles Todd is a mother and son writing team based in Delaware and North Carolina. One wonders how such a team works, though, in their case, with numerous books behind them, the results are seamless and speak for themselves.

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