Tonight’s dramatisation of the 1916 Rising by Hacklers drama group gives the vantage point of those who, through happenstance, became eye-witnesses to the defining conflict of modern Ireland.
The voices heard in ‘1916: What the People Saw’ are those of non-combatants, simply people of differing age groups and social classes, living and/or trapped, in various Dublin city centre streets as their surrounds are pummelled by British forces, in quelling the turmoil sparked by the rebels. Taken together, the accounts offer a panoramic view of the mayhem.
Asked by Cavan County Council to perform a piece for the centenary commemorations, Hacklers director Damien O’Brien’s thoughts turned to Mick O’Farrell’s 2013 book ‘1916: What the People Saw’ in which the author delved into archives to uncover fascinating civilian accounts in letters, journal entries.
“They mostly had a view of the city where most of the battles were taking place,” explains Damien. “For example there’s a woman who was living on Northumberland Road who witnessed the battle on Mount Street Bridge where a lot of the British military would have been killed by sniper fire. Another woman would have been writing from Clare Street looking over Merrion Square, so a lot of these would have been first hand accounts of action they saw from under their windows.”
From O’Farrell’s book, Damien selected 10 accounts which he thought might offer “balance” in perspectives, and when intertwined, offered a general sense of the Rising:
“People not knowing what’s going on in the streets; army out, obviously a lot of shooting, bombing, looting is one of the most prominent parts of it - they all witness looting and windows being smashed - sniper fire, bodies lying on the street - they all follow a pattern. So, we’ve interwoven all these stories to give it a bit of variety and dramatic content,” Damien explained.
As the rebels took up their positions in strategic buildings, in the opening days of the Rising, residents remained largely in the dark as to what was happening.
“They didn’t really know what was going on,” says Damien. “They were walking down the street as if everything was normal, even when the sniper firing started and the British military were out, they were still walking to the shops to get food. Food was a big issue for civilians, getting supplies in and the anxiety and fears around that.”
The conflict, however, soon intensified.
“There were so many British troops on the ground, they were walking down their streets and taking over their houses, and lying in their front gardens keeping their eye on the buildings where the sniper fire was coming from. Generally you had the two different sides, in certain areas, more upper class areas, the pro-British would have been bringing out tea and sandwiches to the British soldiers, it’s interesting. The others would be shutting up their doors and windows and having nothing to do with them.”
Damien finds it “fascinating” how the political outlook of the eye-witnesses inevitably inform their accounts to differing degrees.
“It’s never explicit,” says Damien, “they are not written from that point of view. Maybe one or two are quite direct on which side they’re on.
“As these accounts are unfolding, some of the characters, at the beginning, would have been saying it was a terrible thing - ‘What are they doing?’ and ‘They’re destroying the centre of Dublin City’ etc. But by the end of their accounts of the Rising, when the leaders are executed, their attitude changes from being hard on them and thinking of the foolishness of it, to admiring and praising them. Within just weeks, everything’s changed. As Yeats says: ‘changed utterly’.”
Amongst the characters we meet is a Margaret Mitchel, who seems acutely aware of the significance of the event.
“She knows as she’s keeping her diary and writes about it that it is way bigger than anything she has witnessed before and is going to have a significant impact on the future of politics in Ireland - and this is just a lay person observing this from a window from their house.”
Light relief comes in the writing of an elderly man, recalling his perspective as a six-year-old boy.
“The battle from the Great War over in Europe is actually now on his doorstep,” says Damien.
The “most horrific” portion of the play is a letter written by a Henry Dumbleton informing a woman that her young daughter, was shot dead by the military in his home on April 27, 1916.
Mr Dumbleton offers some soothing words, “we looked upon the dear girl as one of our own... It may be of some little consolation to you to know that she was shot by accident and in my house, also that she passed away peacefully and without knowing pain.”
While Damien has edited the 10 eye-witness accounts, he vows that “the words are not changed” to ensure authenticity. This format, however, poses its own problems in transferring it to the stage.
“It is a difficult piece to dramatise because the outcome is known,” accepts Damien. “It kind of does have an arc; it does get quite dramatic, there is a tension that builds up. And the acting is very strong, they will get across how these people felt.”
‘1916: What the People Saw’ is on in Johnston Central Library’s main section, tonight, Wednesday, March 23, 8pm. Admission is free.