1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion by Morgan Llywelyn. Tor Books, 1998.
This is my first March entry in the 2010 reading challenge Year of the Historical.
This is my second novel for the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.
The novel begins in 1914 with fifteen-year-old Ned Halloran from County Clare setting sail across the Atlantic. His sister Kathleen is about to be married and her fiance, a representative of the White Star Line, has bought second-class tickets for Ned and his parents onboard a great ocean liner. As the reader has likely guessed the Hallorans are passengers on the Titanic, and while Ned survives the disaster, his parents do not. Upon Ned’s return to Ireland the family’s Anglo-Irish landlord wants to do something for him in order to make up for what he went through, so Ned is offered the chance to go away to school in Dublin. There he becomes a student of Saint Enda’s, a secondary school for boys, and meets headmaster Pádraic Pearse. Inspired by Pearse’s teachings, Ned becomes a devoted nationalist and his life intertwines with those of prominent Irishmen and women who will play roles in the 1916 Rising, including James Connolly, Tom Clarke, and Countess Markievicz. As events unfold and the characters draw ever closer to the climactic rebellion, Ned grows from schoolboy to soldier and falls in love.
One look at the bibliography speaks volumes about both the amount of research Morgan Llywelyn has done and her dedication to historical accuracy. Events leading up to the rebellion and actions during it occurred largely as they do in her retelling and the only fictional aspects are the original characters that she has so carefully crafted. Llywelyn uses historical figures as major characters including Tom Clarke, who really did own a tobacco store around the corner from the General Post Office, and charismatic leader Pádraic Pearse.
As related in the novel, James Connolly’s ankle was shattered by a sniper shot during the Rising and he lay on a bed of wheels reading detective fiction. Unlike the other leaders of the Rising, Connolly was not held in Richmond Barracks or Kilmainham Gaol following his surrender but in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham across the street. Although unable to stand, Connolly had still been sentenced to execution by firing squad for his role in the Rebellion so he was carried to the prison courtyard by stretcher, tied to a chair, and shot on May 12, 1916.
Llywelyn also accurately documents the evacuation of women from the GPO during the Rising. All women except for two nurses and James Connolly’s secretary were evacuated from the premises before the surrender. Llywelyn adds to this number the fictional Síle Duffy. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell carried a red cross flag and acted as the go-between while terms of surrender were negotiated. At 3:45 PM on April 29th Pearse signed the document of unconditional surrender, stating:
“In order to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the members of the Provisional Government present at headquarters have agreed to an unconditional surrender, and the commandants of the various districts in the City and County will order their commands to lay down arms.”
1916 contains a tremendous amount of research, but what could be a dry account of the Easter Rising becomes a fascinating historical but also literary tale in Llywelyn’s capable hands. The familiar names of the Rising leaders are given personality and depth, but her fictional characters are every bit as engaging as the historical ones. Protagonist Ned Halloran has flaws but is someone the reader will root for, and although the fates of many of the main characters are already known to anyone familiar with the period, the lives of Llywelyn’s fictional characters are less predictable.
Obviously I appreciate the tremendous amounts of research that went into this novel, as evidenced by the lengthy bibliography and extensive footnotes, and I don’t think that the history detracts from a passionately told story. In fact the only criticisms I have to offer are that Precious, the orphaned child Ned rescues, never develops beyond the precocious child cliche, and that the storyline involving Ned’s sister Kathleen comes to an abrupt end, although it might be resolved in the next novel of the series. 1916 is the first novel of five in Llywelyn’s “Irish Century” series, which continues with 1921, 1949, 1972, and 1999, and I look forward to devouring the rest of the series and to reading more of her many historical novels.
Verdict: This is the ideal work for historical fiction for me. Passionate, interesting, and accurate, this look at Irish history will delight all. Highly recommended.