Insight: Study of Scots role in Easter Rising controversy
A CENTENARY study that focuses on Scotland’s role in the bloody rebellion that prefigured Irish independence is bound to cause controversy, writes Euan McColm
THE book’s title will raise both eyebrows and hackles, say its editors. And few would argue with that prediction.
Scotland And The Easter Rising, published later this month, tells a range of stories that reveal the connections between Scotland and the six-day armed insurrection that energised the Irish republican movement in April 1916. And the duo behind it – Glasgow University Professor of English Literature Willy Maley and doctoral candidate Kirsty Lusk – are prepared for controversy.
The book, marking the centenary of the Easter Rising, brings together writers, journalists and academics to reflect on the part played by Scotland in the rebellion and its many legacies.
That may have been a defining moment in Irish history, laying the foundations of the nation, but editors Maley and Lusk argue that it was also a key moment in Scotland’s history.
Central to the book is the story of James Connolly, born in the Cowgate area of Edinburgh to Irish immigrant parents, who was Commandant General of the Republican forces during Easter Week 1916 and was a signatory to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. When the Rising eventually failed Connolly, who was seriously injured in the fighting, was rounded up with others and executed by a British firing squad.
Margaret Skinnider, a schoolteacher and suffragette, born in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, is another republican sympathiser who features heavily in the book. She served as a scout, despatch rider, sniper and raider in the Rising.
Skinnider was the only female combatant injured in action during the battle and wrote about the importance of the Rising for the suffragist and socialist movements.
“There has been very little proper acknowledgement of James Connolly’s Scottishness, neither has much been written about the life of Margaret Skinnider and so many others like her who hailed from Scotland and felt the need to join the Rising,” said Maley.
“This book is the first time so many of Scotland’s finest writers and journalists and Irish studies experts have come together to reflect in, hopefully, a balanced way on the Rising, and that is why I think it is a pioneering book.”
The work will also stand as a memorial to the great Scottish writer and journalist, Ian Bell, who died in December. The most powerful piece contained within it is Bell’s examination of the life and legacy of Connolly. Bell was Connolly’s great-nephew and his deeply personal essay makes the case that the revolutionary leader is unfairly ignored in Scotland.
Remembering attending, as a child, the unveiling of a plaque marking Connolly’s Edinburgh birthplace, Bell wrote: “We were in the Cowgate for the sake of someone famous to whom, it turned out, some of us were related. His name and dates were on the plaque they had unveiled. His profile was on the neat bronze and green enamel lapel badge the trades council handed out for a souvenir. That was one part of the puzzle: since when did we know famous people?
“Memory’s footnote says we didn’t really know this James Connolly. Or rather, we had come to know something of him, as a family, just a handful of years before the gentleman from the embassy and the colleague from the Irish Congress of Trades Unions – I couldn’t have said which was which – appeared in the Cowgate’s dank canyon to commemorate the centenary of the birth.”
Bell continued: “What did we know? That Connolly was famous, chiefly, for getting himself killed. His reasons were as obscure as the rhetoric on a summer Saturday was prolix. It would not have eased a 12-year-old’s puzzlement much to hear that most people in the city of Edinburgh, and in Scotland, shared his ignorance. The great man had suffered the usual fate: he was famous elsewhere.”
While Bell looks at one of the most high profile figures involved in the Easter Rising, co-editor Lusk looks at the rarely recognised role of women. She tells the story of Skinnider, a 23-year-old Scottish teacher, who became convinced of the need for Irish independence during childhood holidays.
Skinnider hid bomb detonators beneath her hat as she travelled by ferry to Dublin in 1915 and once there became involved in preparations for the Rising.
Lusk notes: “Skinnider had joined a rifle club in Glasgow, one of many set up, ironically, to train women in case they were required to defend Britain, and she proved herself a better shot than any of the boys when taken to a local shooting gallery.
“[Skinnider] took a spot in the rafters of the Royal College of Surgeons to fight as a sniper against the British soldiers placed at the Shelbourne Hotel. ‘More than once I saw the man I aimed at fall,’ she recounts.”
The book, which will be a launched at the Celtic Connections festival on 15 January by Luath Press, sprang from a conversation between Lusk and Maley. Having graduated from Glasgow University, Lusk went to Dublin to do a masters and was surprised at how few people in Ireland were aware of Connolly’s Scottish roots.
Maley said: “We’re both fascinated by Irish-Scottish connections – before and beyond the Easter Rising, and in literature as well as politics. We felt official versions of Anglo-Irish history tended to airbrush Scotland out of the picture. We wanted to set the record straight but we also wanted to take a long view and a broad view of events.
“We have 28 contributors in the collection and that’s a lot of views and voices, including some terrific creative writers, academics and journalists. We were as eager to ponder the progress of independence in both Ireland and Scotland as to simply commemorate the past. That’s why so many of our contributors reflect on where we are now.”
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bell’s piece on Connolly had a profound effect on Maley, who said: “There are many fine pieces in this collection. Ian Bell’s piece stands out for different reasons. It made me cry when I read it and I cried again when I re-read it after our great loss. It also made me very angry.
“Here was a relative of Connolly, one of our greatest writers, a journalist of the utmost integrity, speaking of silence and secrecy. Why does the word ‘controversial’ attach itself so readily, so lazily, to any discussion of Ireland? The real ‘c’ word is censorship. Scotland’s Irish connections have been too often depicted through sensationalism and sectarianism and it’s bloody time we grew up and came to terms with a complex relationship that harbours hope as well as heartache.”
Beyond Bell’s writing, Maley singles out an essay by the novelist James Kelman on the intellectual culture from which Connolly emerged, and pieces on women who fought for Irish independence by Lusk, Maria Dick, and Alison O’Malley-Younger as highlights.
The Irish nationalism of 1916 and the Scottish nationalism of 2016 find their expression in very different ways but Maley sees the similarities.
“I think,” he said, “there were always different strands at work within the independence movement and that while the circumstances of 1916 – a world war and imperialist slaughter on a grand scale – have changed, many of the progressive aspects of that historical moment, from republicanism to women’s rights, are still being fought for, but with rhetoric rather than rifles.
“I believe that the Easter Rising still has important lessons to teach us, not least in the writings of James Connolly, who, together with John Maclean, is the most important radical Scottish – and Irish – thinker of the 20th century.
“Ian Bell was right to ask why Connolly was absent from debates leading up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.”
The book is dedicated to Bell who, as well as providing a brilliant essay, was a source of encouragement to Maley and Lusk.
Maley said: “Ian believed in the book and in spite of his own negative experiences he too felt that the time had finally come for a full airing of the story – or stories – of the Easter Rising in Scotland.
“Other anniversaries had been only quietly marked. In 1966 we knew too little. In 1986 a bold effort was made to mark the 70th anniversary, but with the inevitable bad press and sectarian sniping. In 1991 we were in the wake of The Troubles. The centenary, Ian hoped, would see a coming of age.
“I hope this is a moment when the media as well as the public can debate and discuss an important event in our shared histories without fear or fuss.”