Fantasy and the Easter Rising

Ireland is perpetually reminded these days that it is exactly 100 years since the Easter Rising of 1916, when a small force of revolutionary militia, combining romantic nationalists and hardline socialists, seized control of various strong points of central Dublin and held them for five days before surrendering to British forces diverted from the war then raging in Europe.

The events touched many people, some in unexpected ways. Nevil Shute, the classic stiff-upper-lip British writer of solid yet moving engineering stories, best known in sf circles for the twice-filmed 1957 post-apocalyptic On The Beach, a novel of a dying Australia, was a 17-year-old in Dublin in 1916 whose father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, was the official head of the General Post Office which became the headquarters of the short-lived Provisional Government during Easter Week. His mother wrote a moving account of The Sinn Féin Rebellion As I Saw It. Nevil , too young to fight, was pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer; by his mother’s account, he had a thrilling time (much to his parents’ dismay), but I wonder how much this early experience of combat influenced his later writing which often seems to circle around the themes of conflict and pointless death.

Lord Dunsany (full name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) had been publishing fiction for over a decade by 1916, and remains one of the most prolific fantasy writers of all time. Like most chaps of his class, he had joined the British forces (specifically the Inniskilling Fusliers) and was on leave at home during Easter 1916. When news of the rebellion came to Dunsany Castle, he rushed into Dublin, and in literally his first combat experience was immediately injured in the face by a ricochet, taken prisoner and hospitalized for the rest of the week. An inch of difference would have cut short his writing career, and his influence on later writers such as Lovecraft and Tolkien.

As luck would have it, another fantasy writer witnessed the incident in which Lord Dunsany was wounded. James Stephens, who had published the lyrical The Crock of Gold in 1912 and was now Registrar of the National Gallery of Ireland, was on his way to work (not allowing himself to be deterred from turning up at the office by armed insurrection) when he found his path blocked. He records, in his vivid The Insurrection in Dublin,

As I came to this point shots were fired at a motor car which had not stopped on being challenged. Bystanders said it was Sir Horace Plunkett's car, and that he had been shot. Later we found that Sir Horace was not hurt, but that his nephew who drove the car had been severely wounded.

Stephens is a bit disingenuous here (though perhaps he had to be careful about identifying living individuals too close to the time of events). He knew “Sir Horace Plunkett’s nephew” (ie Lord Dunsany) very well.

Edited to add: As points out in comments, I had the wrong nephew. The circumstances reported by Stephens don't match those reported by Dunsany. I had spotted this at the time of writing, but thought it more likely that Dunsany was embellishing his account than that Sir Horace Plunkett might have had two different nephews who were injured in separate incidents in the Rising. However it's pretty clear to me now that the latter is indeed the case, and the incident witnessed by Stephens involved the otherwise not very famous Thomas Ponsonby of Kilcooley.

Dunsany had been a frequent contributor to and occasional funder of The Irish Review, a monthly literary magazine founded by Stephens and others in 1913.One of the others was Thomas MacDonagh, who took on the editorship of The Irish Review, which later passed to Joseph PlunkettPadraig Pearse was also a contributor. MacDonagh, Plunkett and Pearse wrote mostly poetry and polemic, but also some fiction which shaded the boundaries between folkways and mythology. They were also three of the seven signatories to the Easter Proclamation, and were among the fifteen leaders executed by firing squad after the Rising failed. They are the most obvious examples of writers of genre interest whose careers were fatally interrupted by Easter 1916.

I’ve been considering the direct impact of the Rising on fantasy (and, thanks to Nevil Shute, science fiction) here. But really this is the wrong way round. Just after the 50th anniversary of the Rising, William Irwin Thompson published his classic account The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916, arguing that the whole affair is much better understood as a literary statement than a serious military initiative. Rather than the grizzled ex-combatants who were available, the planning of the campaign was entrusted to the very literary Plunkett and the leadership of the action to the equally literary Pearse. It was sheer fantasy to believe that a few hundred revolutionaries could carry out a successful independence revolt. The Rising was a deadly and realistic expression of the same sentiments that drove the Irish Literary Revival, and drew its roots both from romantic myth and the latest technology (the German guns which failed to arrive).

And in the medium term, though not the short term, it had the desired result. Although the Rising lacked popular support in 1916, the rapid execution by British forces of the revolutionaries, and London's failure to then address outstanding grievances in Ireland, rapidly tipped the political situation irreversibly against continued British rule for most of the island. Sinn Fein, the revolutionary political party which was generally (and quite incorrectly) credited with masterminding the Rising, won the vast majority of Irish seats in the 1918 general election, and went on to force the creation of the independent Irish Free State in 1922, covering 26 of Ireland's 32 counties. Sometimes fantasy, especially political fantasy, can turn out to be effective.