Turtle Bunbury

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THE ABBEY REBELS OF 1916

The Abbey Theatre has long claimed to be the cradle of the Irish revolution and an excellent book by Belfast-based historian Fearghal McGarry explores this connection. ‘The Abbey Rebels of 1916 – A Lost Revolution’ follows the lives of seven Abbey actors and staff who were involved in the Easter Rising.

SEAN CONNOLLY

Born in Sandymount, Dublin, in 1882 the handsome, sharp-dressed Seán Connolly was the first rebel to die in the Rising. He grew up in the docklands, one of 16 children, and was educated by the Christian Brothers. He joined the Gaelic League and became a well-known actor, working at the Abbey from 1913, often performing alongside Helena Molony and Arthur Shields. A teetotal, non-smoking, ardent Catholic, he signed up to the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) but refused, on religious grounds, to join the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood. He participated in the collection of the German guns from Howth in July 1914 and, when Prime Minister Asquith came to the Mansion House that September, Connolly marched the ICA to Dawson Street where they belted out a rousing rendition of ‘A Nation Once Again’.

Playing to the well-to-do at the Abbey was one thing but Connolly preferred performing at Liberty Hall where workers could enjoy the show. With the war underway, the Liberty Hall plays were unceasingly nationalist, often set against the backdrop of previous rebellions. His final performance at the Abbey was in ‘Cathleen ni Holuihan’, the play written by Lady Gregory and WB Yeats that had done so much to stir up the nationalist spirit in Ireland. Fittingly he played the role of Michael Gillane, who sacrifices his life for Cathleen ni Houlihan, an elderly woman who represents an independent Irish state.

A few days before the Rising, he sliced part of his thumb off while making sandwiches for the ICA in Liberty Hall. That did not stop him racing around to Seán Mac Diaramda’s safe house in Mountjoy Square on the morning of Easter Saturday with the glum news that a cargo ship carrying 20,000 German guns had been intercepted in Kerry and that Sir Roger Casement had been captured.

On Easter Monday, Captain Seán Connolly led a unit of about 30 ICA men and women out from Liberty Hall to attack Dublin Castle, the centre of British administration in Ireland. Before he left, James Connolly approached him and said: ‘Good luck, Seán. We won’t meet again.’

A solitary unarmed policeman blocked their entrance to the castle. Connolly shot him and so died Constable James O’Brien, a 48-year-old father of two from Glin, Co. Limerick.

Connolly’s unit, which included Helena Molony, had just occupied the Upper Castle Yard when fresh orders came in to capture City Hall. And so they retreated, not realising that they could quite easily have taken the entire castle as most of its garrison were watching the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse at the time. They duly took possession of both City Hall and the offices of the Dublin Daily Express. Connolly posted members of his garrison onto the roof to command the surrounding approaches but, shortly after two o'clock, a British sniper shot him while he was on the City Hall roof. He died that afternoon in great pain in the arms of Helena Molony.

 

HELENA MOLONY

Born in a laneway off Henry Street, Dublin, in 1883 Helena Molony was described by a senior official in Dublin Castle as ‘the most dangerous woman in Ireland.’ A grocer’s daughter, orphaned as a child, she was first ‘electrified’, as she put it, when she heard Maud Gonne give a talk at the Custom House. Before long she was among the most committed radical republicans, serving as secretary of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), the country’s foremost women’s nationalist organization. She also assisted with the foundation of Fianna Eireann and was allegedly a lover of co-founder Bulmer Hobson although the feminist Rosamond Jacob later wrote ‘she prefers women’. (Hobson would later play an important role in founding the Gate Theatre.)

In 1911 the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking Dubliner became the first female political prisoner of her generation when sent to Mountjoy for smashing a portrait of George V during his royal visit.

Her theatrical career had commenced as early as 1903. She joined the Abbey from 1912 and excelled but her politics often set her at odds with the Abbey’s manager. She also became close to James Connolly during the Strike and Lock Out. Stricken with alcoholism and depression, she spent much of 1914 and 1915 convalescing with Maud Gonne in Paris.

On her return she became general secretary of the Irish Woman Workers’ Union and also headed up a unit of women in the Citizen Army. Together with Rosie Hackett, she oversaw the manufacture of ammunition cartridges and military equipment at Liberty Hall in the weeks before the Rising. The night before it broke out she slept with copies of the Proclamation of Independence hidden under her pillow.

Having actively serving with the garrison that occupied City Hall, she was imprisoned afterwards but released at the end of the year. She went on to become the second woman president of the Irish Trade Union Congress and died in 1967, six months after attending a ceremony at the Abbey, alongside the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, to mark the Abbey’s contribution to the Rising.

ARTHUR ‘BOSS’ SHIELDS

Arthur ‘Boss’ Shields, one of the greatest actors of his generation, was one of the few Protestants to serve with the GPO garrison during the Rising. His father, Adolphus Shields, was a prominent Dublin socialist intellectual and pacifist who is credited with inviting James Connolly to Ireland. Arthur’s mother, Fanny Ungerland, was a well-to-do German who had abandoned her home in Hamburg in protest at the unequal treatment of women.

Arthur, their seventh child, was born on North Great George’s Street, Dublin, in 1896. In 1913, he began taking evening acting classes at the Abbey while working with Maunsel & Co. publishing company. He made his debut that December as Major Butterfield in ‘The Lord Mayor’ by Edward McNulty, playing alongside Seán Connolly.

In August 1914, just days before the outbreak of the war, he witnessed the moment when some soldiers from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers opened fire on a crowd at Bachelor’s Walk, leaving four dead. Outraged, he joined the Irish Volunteers and was given a rifle, which he hid under the Abbey floorboards.

When the Rising erupted, Arthur cycled straight to the Abbey to get his rifle. He reported to Liberty Hall, where James Connolly greeted him saying, ‘if you’re as good a man as your father, you’ll be all right’. He spent the remainder of the week in and around the GPO and was with the last batch of rebels to surrendered on Moore Street.

Shields fetched up at the Frongoch internment camp in Wales. At a subsequent enquiry, the presiding magistrate recognised him as an actor he had seen in the Abbey, ordered him released and told him ‘to go home, stick to theatre and forget about this revolutionary nonsense’.

He returned to the Abbey, rising to become its most influential star, and later moved to Hollywood where, along with his brother Will (aka ‘Barry Fitzgerald’), he enjoyed a successful acting career and befriended John Wayne, Henry Fonda and James Cagney.

He also co-starred in John Ford’s 1941 drama ‘How Green Was My Valley’ where his fellow actors included John Loder, who had ironically served as aide-de-camp to the British General Lowe (his father) during the Rising, and Sara Allgood, who won an Oscar for her role as Loder’s mother. Sara Allgood was an early member of Inghinide na hÉireann.

OTHER PLAYERS

Four other Abbey hands were intimately involved with the Rising.

Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, the theatre’s first leading lady, served in Jacob’s Factory and went on to found the Irish National Theatre Society.

The poet and dramatist Peadar Kearney, who was also at Jacob’s, started as a stage-hand and bit part actor in the Abbey. He was also an IRB centre although his greatest legacy was to write ‘The Soldier’s Song’, subsequently adopted as the Irish national anthem.

Ellen Bushell, the Abbey’s longest-serving usher, was on the committee for Fianna Eireann and a close friend of Con Colbert, the Fianna leader who was subsequently executed.

Barney Murphy, the most elusive of the seven, was both the Abbey’s carpenter and prompter. He was also a piper with the St Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band and spent the weeks before the Rising delivering messages to key players such as Ned Daly and Tom Clarke.

Tom MacDonagh, Constance Markiewicz and the Pearse brothers all trod the Abbey’s boards as actors while Willie Pearse was involved in staging an acclaimed Irish-language version of the Passion of Christ at the Abbey.

The playwright Seán O’Casey, a past secretary of the ICA, was briefly interned as a possible rebel during the Rising and knew many of those involved so well that he would immortalise them a decade later in ‘The Plough and the Stars’, an Abbey classic, the final acts of which were set against the backdrop of the Rising.

McGarry’s book sheds much new light on the importance of theatre within the revolutionary movement, and to the Rising which itself can be viewed as a theatrical event. As he also points out, most of the aforementioned rebels had actually distanced themselves from the Abbey by the time of the Rising because its management were ‘elitist, reformist [and] Ascendancy’. Perhaps not surprisingly, MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett, two of the Proclamation signatories, were actually on a committee that briefly planned to establish a new theatre on Hardwicke Street to rival the Abbey.

Fearghal McGarry, ‘The Abbey Rebels of 1916 – A Lost Revolution’ (Gill and Macmillan, 2016).


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